Until fairly recently, I have to confess that my familiarity with Julia Child was pretty minimal. I vaguely recall seeing snippets of the French Chef on PBS (you can watch some of the episodes here), and when Dan Aykroyd lampooned Julia on Saturday Night Live, I sort of got it, but that was about the extent of my exposure. A few months ago, I read Julie and Julia, and in that book there are interludes where the author imagines scenes from Julia Child’s life. This prompted me to want to learn more, so I picked up My Life in France. The bulk of the book takes place from 1948-1954, during which time Julia lived in Paris and Marseilles and began the decade-long journey that would culminate in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Julia had lived overseas before, working for the government in such places as Ceylon (where she met Paul Child) and Kunming, but when she and her husband moved to France just after WWII, Julia experienced a feeling she’d never had before- the feeling of finding one’s spiritual home. She grew up in Pasadena, CA, but never felt she fit into the bland, conservative culture there. In France, Julia was able to truly blossom and find what would turn out to be her calling.
What struck me the most while reading this book was Julia’s endless reserves of energy and enthusiasm. Most people would have been content to just take a few cooking classes, enough to prepare them for cooking everyday meals at home and the occasional dinner party. Julia became a woman obsessed, determined to not only learn all aspects of classical French cuisine, but to share her knowledge with all of America. The sheer amount of man-hours that went into all of the recipe testing and writing for MtAoFC boggles the mind. Even with a co-author, the book took well over 10 years to complete, and certainly not for any lack of motivation or work ethic. But despite her dedication, she seemed to balance it all with a sense of humor and adventure. Her infectious joie de vivre permeates the book, making the reader feel as if they are a backseat passenger on Julia’s crazy joyride of a life.
Regardless of whether you even like to cook, Julia’s memoir is inspiring for all those who would dream of making a career out of your passion. It’s true that the 1950s was a different time, and having the luxury of unlimited free time and resources would be an uncommon situation in today’s world. However, not everyone in her position went on to write a bestselling cookbook and have their own TV show, so clearly Julia’s intrepid spirit and boundless ambition are to thank for her eventual success.
(Note: The discussion questions are intended to be a springboard for conversation and comments. However, if there are other aspects of the book that you would like to touch on, by all means do so!)
1. Julia’s first meal in France (Sole Meunière) was transformative. She recalls it in the book with great detail, calling it “the most exciting meal of my life”. Do you have any one meal that stands out in your memory like this? Was it simply because the food was exquisite, or is it tied to another experience that made it particularly special?
2. Nowadays, with the popularity of celebrity chefs such as Rachel Ray touting “30-minute meals”, is Julia Child obsolete? Do you think people care anymore about the art of cooking and making something truly oustanding, or are most people looking for the “quick fix”? Where do you fall on the spectrum, and why?
3. For several years, Julia spent enormous amounts of time and energy writing the cookbook that would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, despite having no assurances that the book would ever be published. Can you imagine undertaking such an enormous endeavor, not knowing if your efforts would ever bear fruit? Do you feel that this type of dedication is a vanishing quality in our society, or have you or someone you know ever undertaken a similar project not knowing whether there would be a payoff?
4. Julia describes her father and stepmother as being somewhat small-minded and not at all interested in “experiencing” France in the way she did. Her father’s conservative attitude was a constant source of chagrin for her, and she never felt close to him because of it. Do you feel she should have made more of an effort, or was she right to give up on him and keep her distance? Why do you think her father was threatened by Julia’s choice of husband and lifestyle?
5. The memoir covers several periods in Julia’s life, from the time she arrives in France to her later years at La Pitchoune. What was your favorite part of the book or of Julia’s story, and why?
There are many theories on what makes people happy, and just as many (if not more) self-help books. I should know; I worked in a bookstore, and had to shelve books with titles such as “Crappy to Happy” and ”Learning to Love Yourself”. But the only one of these theories that I ever thought actually made sense was outlined in a book called Flow. The premise is that we are at our happiest when pursuing an activity or goal that is neither too easy nor too difficult, but which offers us a challenge and a focus.
Julie Powell probably never read Flow, but she innately understood that she needed a challenge to lift her out of the doldrums. Her job as a secretary was unsurprisingly unfulfilling, and she was angsty over the thought of her approaching 30th birthday. The challenge she undertook, for anyone unfamiliar with the book, was to cook every recipe in Julia Child‘s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 in a year, and to blog about the experience. As she made her way through “The Project”, she gained readers who cheered her on, and also gained a strange sort of strength which propelled her forward, even when she felt she wanted to throw in the tea-towel.
Julie & Julia came out a few years ago when I was still working at the bookstore, and I didn’t read it then, partly based on a co-worker’s review that it was “just OK”. However, when we decided to have a MtAoFC theme for a recent blogger event, I picked it up from the library out of curiosity. A fellow blogger had commented that she was turned off by the author’s voice, and although I didn’t feel the same, I could see what she meant- there are moments that verge on shrill, and when she describes certain hissy fits, you wonder how her saintly-sounding husband doesn’t crack and either lose his temper or walk out. But, as with most memoirs, I’d like to think there is some creative exaggeration going on (besides, I can relate; I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t occasionally had similar fits of frustration in the kitchen). Through most of the book, Powell displays a keen wit and sarcasm that outweigh the more neurotic scenes.
I found the book entertaining despite (and sometimes because of) the occasional hysteria over a failed crêpe or what-have-you, and I had massive amounts of respect- actually, awe- for someone who found the energy to shop for and cook a full meal several times a week after working all day and commuting from the outer boroughs. I also identified with someone who, although smart and capable, found herself dissatisfied with the fact that life is not all she thought it would be, and wonders how to save herself from dull oblivion. I don’t know that cooking would work for everyone, but it certainly worked for her, with the completely unexpected results of getting national attention and press, a book deal, and even a movie deal.
One thing I rather liked about Julie is that although she took on a cooking project, she didn’t seem particularly like a “foodie” (prior to the Project, she had never even eaten an egg!!), and I don’t think she ever considered her blog a “food blog”. I almost got the impression that the challenge could have been anything, like building a model replica of Westminster Abbey, or memorizing all the plays of Shakespeare. She does develop a reverence for Julia Child, though, and the passages in the book where she imagines Julia’s life are the most well-written. I actually got a little teary-eyed when reading how, at the end of the Project, someone tells her that Julia Child has heard of what she is doing and has a negative opinion of her; it must have been heartbreaking.
In the end, regardless of the elder Julia’s opinion, Julie Powell has the last laugh. She was able to quit her job as a secretary, and is now a full-fledged freelance writer (check out her post-Project blog here). It just goes to show that the most important catalyst for change is movement; you never know when a project intended to save your sanity could end up opening up a world of unexpected possibility.
This past Sunday I finally got the chance to meet some of my fellow MLFB’ers (that’s Michigan Lady Food Bloggers to the rest of you) at a get-together at Rena‘s lovely Ann Arbor home. I can’t quite recall how our theme was chosen, but it was decided that we would all bring a recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. I. Now, this may come as a shock to some of you who have ever seen my cookbook shelves, but I actually don’t own any Julia Child cookbooks. I guess I always thought of MtAoFC as démodé and somewhat irrelevant to the modern kitchen. Still, I got a copy from the library and flipped through, settling on the recipe for Mousse de Foies de Volailles as my contribution. As I read through, some of the recipes did seem obtuse, but others were definitely appealing. Most of all, I was pleasantly surprised and amused by the voice in which the book is written. I also read Julie & Julia over the weekend and will do a book review of that soon, but for now, suffice it to say that it probably aided my appreciation for MtAoFC.
I wasn’t able to find fresh chicken livers at the grocery store, so I wound up using frozen, but the taste of the finished product was still good. Since cognac was not in the budget, I substituted brandy, which worked just fine. I had some quatre-épices (a French spice blend of pepper, clove, nutmeg and ginger, typically used to season pâtés), so I substituted that for the seasonings the recipe called for.
The pâté came together just as easily as the conversation among the group that day (aided, I might add, by a lovely selection of French wines, chosen for us by Matt Morgan of Morgan & York in Ann Arbor). My friend Kate came along with me and was just as excited as I was to sample the dishes of these talented ladies. It was great to finally be able to put some faces to the names of bloggers I’ve been following and corresponding with for several months now, and I regret having missed the last gathering (Summer in January). But I’m confident there will be many more to come, and that the food will be just as delectable!
Some of the offerings Sunday included quiche à l’oignon, tarte Tatin, a country pork liver pâté, champignons à la Grecque, some chocolate-filled choux pastry puffs, a chocolate crème brulée, some baguette and cheeses, and a wonderful chicken and sausage stew with rouille made by our hostess. I wanted to pace myself and taste different
foods with different samples of the wine, so I was making my way rather slowly through all the goodies on the table. Much to my dismay, when at last I got to the desserts, the tarte Tatin was completely gone! I had to content myself with a little scraping of the crust, which tasted heavenly… I think I may have to make one for myself in the near future to make up for this disappointment. In spite of that, Kate and I left the party blissfully satiated, and she was cool enough to let me nap in the car on the way back
since I was exhausted (long weekend!) and had band practice immediately upon returning home. There are no rewards without time and hard work though, and that goes for music as well as cooking. That said, this recipe is an easy one that you can put together in 30-40 minutes the next time you want to add a little French sophistication to your appetizer spread.
Mousse de Foies de Volailles aka Chicken Liver Pâté (adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. I)
1 lb chicken livers
1 stick (4 oz) + 2 tbs butter
1 shallot, minced
1/3 cup cognac or madeira (I substituted brandy)
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tsp quatre-épices
1/2 tsp salt
Rinse and drain the livers and remove the stringy fatty bits. Julia instructs removing any green or black spots (eww), but my livers fortunately did not have any. Cut the livers into 1/2-inch pieces. Melt the 2 tbs butter in a heavy skillet and sauté the shallot until it begins to soften, then add the livers. Cook until firm but still rosy on the inside. Scrape pan contents into the bowl of a food processor.
Return pan to heat, adding the cognac. Reduce to about 3 tbs, then add to food processor. In the same skillet, melt the remaining stick of butter. When melted, add this, the cream, and seasonings to the processor and blend until smooth. At this point, it will look like nothing so much as a meat smoothie, but don’t worry- all the fat in there will harden up just fine when it gets chilled. Julia instructs pressing it through a sieve, but I didn’t want to make that much of a mess, and mine still turned out plenty smooth.
Line a small loaf pan or a few large ramekins with plastic wrap or wax paper if you want to be able to unmold your pâté. If you’re ok with serving it straight from the container, you can skip this step and just pour it in. Put in the refrigerator until completely chilled and firm. If serving at a party, keep in mind that it will become quite soft if left sitting out, due to all that butter. Serve with water crackers or little toasts or baguette slices, good mustard, and something pickled.