Thanks to Nora Ephron’s film, Julie & Julia, we’re experiencing something of a Julia Child Renaissance. Ephron’s movie, at least the half starring Meryl Streep, sparkles with Child’s vivacity and enthusiasm as she forges her identity as America’s most beloved chef.
The “Julia” half of Julie & Julia is based on Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life in France, which remains perhaps the most inspiring treatise on creativity and living life to the fullest that I’ve ever read. Full disclosure: any book in which a plucky American pulls up stakes and makes a home in a foreign land (particularly a foreign land in which a romance language is spoken), absorbs the “local color,” and eats and drinks with zeal is my literary equivalent of porn.
Unconstrained by cultural and social norms of the day, Julia Child married a man ten years her senior in 1946, at the age of 34. Her relationship with her husband, Paul, was one of two equals–friends–who encouraged one another personally and professionally for nearly 50 years. She was 37 years old when she began attending the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school. 37! In our youth-obsessed culture, the thought of beginning to learn our life’s work in our late 30s seems daunting, yet Julia did just that–and went on to become an icon.
Julia didn’t really seem to have a plan, per se, but she had something far better: she was possessed of a “Well, what’s the worst that could happen?” attitude and a real taste for adventure. Once immersed in whatever task was before her, though, Child worked tirelessly, settling for nothing less than excellence.
Of course Child’s account of her life in post-war Paris is picturesque and romantic, and her reminiscences about French food, in all its glory, are just heaven. But for me, the most compelling aspect of My Life in France is Child’s enthusiasm for life itself. In her 80s, Julia’s husband died, as did her longtime friend and collaborator, Simone Beck. Child relinquished her beloved house in Provence and pondered the next chapter of her life:
“Now I was moving forward again, into new experiences, in new places, with new people. There was still so much to learn and do–articles and books to write, perhaps another TV show or two to try. I wanted to go lobster-fishing in Maine, visit a Chicago slaughterhouse, teach kids how to cook…In short, my appetite had not diminished!…the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite…”
Julia Child had a marvelously long, rich, colorful life, but not an easy one. She lived through the Great Depression and WWII, she had a contentious relationship with her father, she yearned for a child but her efforts, as she put it, “didn’t take,” and her legendary status in the culinary field came after many setbacks and rejections. Yet her passion and curiosity remained undiminished through the end of her life. What a powerful example. Bon appetit, indeed!