My Life in France

By Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publisher: April 2006

On November 3, 1948, Julia and Paul Child arrived in Le Havre, France, aboard the SS America.  Julia — who thought of herself as “a six-foot-two-inch, thirty-six year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian” — had never been to Europe, didn’t speak much French, and was not a very good cook. As she peered through the fog at the twinkling lights of the harbor, she had no idea what she was looking at. “France was a misty abstraction for me, a land I had long imagined but had no real sense of.”

Paul was ten years older than Julia, a diplomat, and a gourmand who spoke fluent French. They had met in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the OSS during world War II. Paul loved France, and when he was offered a job there with the US Information Service, Julia says, “I tagged along as his extra baggage.”

Driving to Paris in their Buick, they stopped to lunch in Rouen, at La Couronne, a restaurant built in 1345. They ordered portugaises oysters, Sole Meuniere, a green salad, and Pouilly Fume; for dessert, fromage blanc and café filtre. Julia, who had never had such food, was transported. “It was,” she recalled, “the most exciting meal of my life.”

In Paris, the Childs settled into a quirky apartment at 81 Rue de l’Universite (“Roo de Loo”), and immersed themselves in the cafes, restaurants, and marketplaces of the city. While Paul worked at the US embassy, Julia began to shop and cook and learn the language. Eventually, she graduated from the famous le Cordon Bleu cooking school, taught her own cookery classes with two “food-mad” French friends, Simone (Simca) Beck and Louisette Bertholle, and turned their recipes into Mastering the Art of French Cooking — the cookbook that would revolutionize America’s ideas about food.

The first two-thirds of My Life in France are about Paul and Julia’s six years in Paris and Marseille. Here Julia recalls her triumphs and failures behind the stove, how Chef Max Bugnard taught her la cuisine bourgeoise, and the nine years it took to write and rewrite Mastering before Knopf finally published it in 1961. These were what Julia called “the best years of my life,” the crucial moment when she defined herself, and experienced “an awakening of the senses.” The last third of the book is about the Childs’s later adventures in France, their house in Provence, Julia’s TV career as “The French Chef,” her friendship with James Beard and Roger Verge, the dissolution of her collaboration with Louisette and Simca, and the many fine meals she and Paul enjoyed along the way.

Judith B. Jones, who edited Mastering, and worked with Julia for over forty years, was also the editor of My Life in France. She lived in Paris at roughly the same time that the Childs did (though they didn’t know each other there), and so when the twice-rejected manuscript for Mastering the Art of French Cookinglanded on her desk, Judith instantly understood it in a way that no one else did. She was a young editor, but her passionate advocacy for Masteringpersuaded the rather skeptical Alfred Knopf to publish it. He didn’t like the title, saying, “If anyone buys a book with that title, I’ll eat my hat.” After forty five years, Mastering is still in print. “I like to think Alfred’s eaten a lot of hats!,” Judith says.