both books are about Julia Child, of course, but they are different in tone and focus. My Life in France is Julia’s memoir of living in Paris and Marseille, France (1948-1954), learning to cook, and co-writing her first book; it is written in the first person, in Julia’s voice. The French Chef in America, on the other hand, is a journalistic look at Julia’s life in America during the 1970s, when she produced four books and various TV shows; it is written in the third person, in my voice. I think of the two books this way: while My Life in France tells the story of Act One of Julia’s adult life, The French Chef in America is about Act Two.
To briefly recap, My Life in France explains how Julia McWilliams and Paul Child met in Sri Lanka while working for the OSS (the precursor to the CIA), during WW II. They married in 1946, and were posted to Paris by the US Information Service in 1948. In the early Fifties, Paul worked at the US Embassy, while Julia graduated from the Cordon Bleue cooking school and discovered her raison d’etre in cooking la cuisine bourgeoise – excellent, middle-class food prepared according to an established set of rules. (Julia loved rules.) With her French friends, Simone “Simca” Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Julia opened a cooking school and toiled for years on the book that was finally published in 1961 as Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That book led Julia to television, where she began to perform as The French Chef in 1963.
I think of those years as her gestational period, when Julia was in her thirties and forties, and morphed from a too-tall, too-loud, social butterfly into a worldly diplomatic wife, expert cook, and gifted writer. In her memoir, she recalled this period as “the favorite years of my life,” when she experienced a “flowering of the soul.”
Julia died in August 2004, two days before her 92d birthday, while we were in the midst of writing her memoir. It took me another year to finish it, and My Life in France was published in 2006. It became a best-seller, and in 2009 inspired half of the movie “Julie & Julia.”
The French Chef in America focuses on Julia in the 1970s, when she was living in America as an established celebrity. The Seventies was a decade of global upheaval, when Julia was in her sixties, and she consciously transformed herself a second time.
She broke away from cooking classical French food and working with her French “sister” Simca Beck. With encouragement from her editor at Knopf, Judith B. Jones, Julia began to use recipes from around the world, wrote in the first-person, embraced her American roots, and created different kinds of books and TV shows. I regard this period as Julia’s Second Act: the moment when she consciously broke from “The French Chef” and reinvented herself as “Julia Child,” and discovered her true voice.