Quills & Queues: Julia Child in France

The release of the movie "Julie & Julia," based on the culinary adventures of a blogger who tries every recipe in Julia Child's classic book "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," has caused well-deserved spikes in book sales of the cookbook and Child's memoir "My Life in France."

The movie — now playing at the Varsity Theatre in Ashland — draws from Child's memoir and the blogs of New Yorker Julie Powell, who compiled her musings into the book "Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen: How One Girl Risked Her Marriage, Her Job and Her Sanity to Master the Art of Living."

I confess I haven't read Powell's book, and I'm not likely to try it after sampling an excerpt from Chapter One at www.nytimes.com/2005/10/02/books/chapters/1002-1st-powell.html?_r=1.

One of the first scenes is set in a gynecologist's office as Powell muses about how she gave away her eggs to pay off a credit card debt years ago, pocketing thousands of dollars without ever seeming to wonder how her child is being treated by the strangers who are raising her or him. Powell does worry that, someday, somehow, she'll be hit up for child support.

A sentence about the gynecologist's speculum made me realize that the whole book probably has a bad case of TMI — "too much information" — in blogger's parlance.

Child's memoir "My Life in France," on the other hand, is a treat from start to finish. It's a fascinating account of a young Californian who goes with her husband to live in France and gradually discovers her life's calling.

The couple arrive in France as the country is recovering from World War II. In awe of the delicious food she samples in French restaurants, Child enrolls in the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school.

There are interesting details about the times, as when rolling electric blackouts in Paris cause the school to lose power. But rather than complain, the enterprising chef takes his students out to the French markets.

Child recalls, "As we dodged around freshly killed rabbits and pig trotters, or large men unpacking crates of glistening blue-black mussels and hearty women shouting about their wonderful champignons, I avidly jotted down notes about who carried what and where they were located, worried that I'd never be able to find them again in the raucous maze."

A woman obsessed, Child eventually teamed with two French women and spent years writing the encyclopedic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," only to have the final manuscript rejected by their publisher.

"It is a big, expensive cookbook of elaborate information and might well prove formidable to the American housewife. She might easily clip one of these recipes out of a magazine but be frightened by the book as a whole," the editor in chief at Houghton Mifflin wrote.

Child almost despaired of finding a publisher, thinking that perhaps the book had arrived too late. Prior to the war, women regularly made things from scratch, but after the war they were being sold on the glories of TV dinners and brownie mix from a box. It's no spoiler to say that Child eventually did find a publisher and she became famous for her books and television cooking shows.

But knowing the ending doesn't spoil this book. Instead, it makes it easier to enjoy Child's journey as she lives in various French cities, gathering traditional French recipes and testing, honing, re-testing and perfecting them with the scientific precision of a medical researcher.

Without this transplanted Californian, many of the recipes might have been lost to time as the French — though to a lesser extent than Americans — embraced convenience and speed. Instead, the recipes are recorded for you, me or a New York blogger to try out.

Tidings staff writer Vickie Aldous and Tidings correspondent Angela Howe-Decker alternate as author of the weekly column Quills & Queues.

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