Customer Reviews: My Life in France
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on April 24, 2006
Most Americans know of Julia Child via the parodies of her cooking show --- a frowsy, big-boned matron with a trill in her voice, hacking up a chicken with more zest than is called for, most likely because she's been chugging the cooking sherry. Well, that was, on occasion, a fair take on Julia Child, the jolly chef who taught her fellow citizens the joy of French cooking on public television.

But Julia Child was much more than a 6'2", 158-pound precursor of Martha Stewart. She was a revolutionary. Not intentionally. She just had the great good fortune to find herself living in Paris with no job and nothing more compelling than a tentative interest in cooking. She signed up for classes at Cordon Bleu, got hooked, and soon found herself, with two friends, working on a book we now take for granted but was then unimagined --- an authoritative guide to French cooking for Americans. Published 40 years ago, 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One' has never gone out of print. It never will. It is the gold standard.

Julia Child died in 2004. Of her 11 books, none was a memoir. But she kept scribbles and letters, and at the end of her life, she began to shape this book with her grandnephew. Like almost everything she touched, 'My Life in France' is a triumph --- insightful, poetic, deadly accurate about people, and, above all, tasty. To read it is to breathe French air.

Nothing in her early life would have predicted that Julia Child would become formidable in any way. Her father was a conservative Southern California businessman; her mother was "warm and social." After college came World War II and government work in Ceylon. There she met Paul Child, an artist who designed 'war rooms' for the generals. The first meal she cooked for him --- brains simmered in red wine --- was not a success. Still, they married, and, in 1948, moved to France. She was 36. She didn't speak a word of French.

Her first meal, in Rouen, started with oysters, served with a pale rye bread and unsalted butter. They were followed by sole meuniere, "perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley." Mr. and Mrs. Child washed it down with a bottle of Pouilly-Fume. They moved on a green salad and a baguette, fromage blanc and cafe filtre. "Absolute perfection," Julia decided. "The most exciting meal of my life."

Fortunately, the Childs were not rich --- two-star restaurants were the best they could afford in Paris. But Julia was reading cookbooks, making friends in the food markets, falling in love with Paris. At Cordon Bleu, her classmates were 11 former American servicemen who were studying courtesy of the GI Bill of Rights. She went right to the head of the class.

To read this book is to peer over her shoulder and learn with her. Scrambled eggs, for example. They are not whipped, just gently blended. Smear the pan with butter, add the eggs, salt and pepper, cook over a low flame. After about three minutes, the eggs will start to form a custard. Only then do you stir rapidly with a fork, sliding the pan on and off the burner. Pull the egg curds together --- and, finally, add the butter, to "stop the cooking." Sprinkle with parsley (or not). Serve. Dazzle.

The real revelations in this book are not about food, however ---they're about work. There's a lot of it involved in the creation of a book, especially when you're creating something new. "WHY DID WE EVER DECIDE TO DO THIS ANYWAY?" Julia writes to one of her collaborators. But after eight years, the thing is done. And Knopf offers to buy it for $1,500. The galleys weigh 15 pounds. When printed, it is 732 pages long.

In 1961, when 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' was published, Paul Child was 59 years old. Julia was 49. They had no expectations of a bestseller, much less a franchise. But the New York Times raved --- the recipes are "painstakingly edited and written as if each were a masterpiece, and most of them are" --- and the book sold and sold. In 1962, Julia taped three half-hour shows for WGBH, the public TV station in Boston. By the following year, she had taped 26 more.

But this is not a celebrity memoir. This book is called "My Life in France" for a reason --- it is there that Julia and Paul feel most fully alive. Paul's photographs deliver the country in delicious slivers. The passages at their home in the South of France lift off the page and surround you. You inhale lavender. You feel the breeze. In the distance is the smell of lamb cooking in herbs. There is laughter, and wit, and, most of all, blessed silence. If this is not a description of Heaven, what is?

Paul takes ill and dies. Julia soldiers on. She understands --- you have to keep grabbing life. Food and love and very shrewd French friends have taught her well: "Nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should."

The book ends this way: "The pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite --- toujours bon appetit!" As you read these words, you finally get it --- this is not a book about food, this is a book about life. A wise life, a life of beauty, art and invention. You can learn a lot from a life like that.

Start with this book
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on April 12, 2006
With every word I sensed I was there. I could smell the air, feel the cold and want a blanket. I lusted to be able to taste the foods she talked about. I laughed when she described her first attempts at food preparation. I loved that she was pragmatic and yet extravagant about cooking utinsels. Her husband was very encouraging of her endeavors. Together they shared a life and a love, but it was more, they shared a passion for travel and the tastes of other cultures. My mouth salivated as she toured the markets. Her French was horrible by her own admission but her genuine interest in the culture won out with shop owners. It is a delicious read.
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on April 6, 2006
This, hands down, is one of the best reads of the year. We took it with us on vacation last month & my wife and I competed over reading rights whenever the kids were otherwise occupied. It's beautifully told and as compelling as a great mystery that you know has a happy ending. It will remind you of your honeymoon in France (even if you went somewhere else) and inspire you to go again. And when you finish, you'll want to find a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and keep going....
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on April 7, 2006
As a young person growing up in the Boston area, I watched Julia Child on WGBH. I will never forget her Salade Nicoise show where the lettuce ended up on the floor instead of the colander. This is why we loved Julia Child - she was real and fun and didn't take things too seriously. This comes through in My Life In France although sometimes it's a little too engrossed in the mundane details. It's an excellent read in her inimitable voice of her discovery and love of food and the trials and tribulations of writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her curiousity, commitment to detail, perservence, and natural talent for communicating made Master the Art of French Cooking rock the food world when no one thought such a cookbook would sell. I loved reading about Julia's triumph.
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on May 11, 2006
In her memoir, we discover that Julia Child was not born with a wooden spoon in her hand; her early cooking experiences were sometimes less than delectable. Her adventures, culinary and otherwise, are chronicled in amazing detail and much charm, written with Alex Prud'homme, Paul Child's grandnephew.

The book opens with an introductory first sentence from Julia that speaks for itself:

"This is a book about some of the things I have loved most in life: my husband, Paul Child; la belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating."

The story begins as Paul and Julia move to Paris after two years in Washington, D.C. Thirty-six-year-old Julia has mixed feelings about the move. She fears that the quiet, stylish, mannerly, and tiny French would be aghast at a six-foot-two-inch "rather loud and unserious Californian." However, almost instantly Julia is enamored of France and its people. She delights in her first French meal, sheepishly telling her husband she doesn't know what a shallot is. The description of that first meal, and the many following, is as loving as if she were describing her firstborn.

Julia begins to cook a bit, helped by French friends who show her the best places to shop and introduce her to new foods such as snails and truffles. As her food consciousness rises, her ability to speak French also improves. Her next step is to sign up for a year-long course at the famed cooking school, Cordon Bleu, where she discovers a true passion for French cooking (she calls it her "personal calling"). She also realizes she has much to learn --- she can't even scramble eggs properly. Indeed, even as she grows more knowledgeable, she continues making cooking errors, resulting in bizarre dishes.

Julia's passion for cooking extends beyond school. At home, she experiments, making batch after batch of mayonnaise and other dishes. She begins to write down recipes. After graduation (she fails her first final exam and has to take it over), Julia joins two women in opening a small cooking school. The three begin collaboration on a cookbook that, after countless publishing disappointments and rejections over many years, would eventually become MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, a classic that would change cooking in the United States forever.

Julia and Paul move to Marseille and then to Germany, finally moving back to Washington, D.C. Everywhere, they find adventure, friends, and delicious food. Julia, of course, becomes a celebrity chef, starring in her own television series and writing several books.

In MY LIFE IN FRANCE, Julia emphasizes "the importance of including fun and love in the preparation of a meal!" Both elements are abundant ingredients in this book as well. Aided in their research by a mountain of family letters and Paul Child's photos, some of which illustrate the book, each anecdote is detailed and lavishly described. Julia's voice shines through; she appears as she seemed in life, refreshingly unselfconscious, willing to poke fun at herself, and full of passion (and aren't we fortunate to experience Julia Child once again now, after her death in 2004? Many thanks to Alex Prud'homme. Without his nudging and brilliant work, we would miss out on this late-served and much-appreciated dessert).

It all adds up to a delightful and fascinating read. In fact, I give it the ultimate book reviewer's compliment: I'm keeping my copy in order to reread it. Highest recommendation.

--- Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon (
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One of Julia Child's most compelling attributes was her ability to share her knowledge without ever being intimidating. She gave you the sense that she was as accessible and friendly as your neighbor next door, although infinitely more interesting.

Of course, that "neighbor" only talked about food and recipes, and you didn't get to know her very well. This book shows how charming -- and human -- Julia Child really was (petty irritations and all). Mostly, it's like having Julia over to your house for a wonderful dinner party, in which she tells wonderful stories about her time in France. Obviously, food is a large part of that, but there are entertaining anecdotes about everything from being adopted by a cat to their worries about Paul's career to their move to Marseilles. Because the family kept all of Paul and Julia's letters home, the detail is as fresh and fun as when it first happened.

The book is entertaining and fun, with the added inspiration of watching a woman grow from "I could barely cook" to the legend we all admired. Recommended.
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HALL OF FAMEon September 25, 2006
My Life in France is the most entertaining memoir I've read in 2006! It's a winner.

I first met Julia Child under unusual circumstances. My consulting firm was located down the street from where she got her hair done. Every Friday night, she would be seen peering into the windows to look at our art collection. After a few weeks of this, I walked outside and invited her in to tour the work up close. She was immediately studying everything from about three inches away. She thanked me politely and charged out the door. There was no hint of the slightly tipsy person filled with laughter who hosted The French Chef. Ah . . . I felt like I had met the real woman beneath the persona.

From that meeting, I gathered that she was a woman moved more than most by curiosity. I found myself also being curious about how she learned enough about French cooking to help co-author that masterwork, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Most French people in those days would not choose working with an American as a way to produce a work about France. That would be like putting salty Virginia ham into Quiche Lorraine.

My Life in France nicely filled in all the blanks for me. The book was lovingly finished by her grand-nephew, Paul Prud'homme, after Julia's death and is filled with lovely photographs produced by Julia's husband, Paul Child.

Here's the short version of the book. Julia had been in Asia for World War II as part of the OSS and met her husband there. He was ten years older than she was and well traveled . . . especially in France. After World War II, he joined the USIS (predecessor to the USIA) which played a friendly sort of propaganda function promoting American values and ways of doing things. In November 1948, Paul landed a posting in Paris and Julia, the Pasadena, California bred daughter of a conservative businessman, was in for the surprises of her life. She fell in love with French food at her first meal! With no job in France, she began working on her language skills and learning how to cook (a new task for her!). Soon, she decided she wanted to go to Cordon Bleu. After some misadventures, she finally passed with some modest skills designed to help a homemaker rather than a chef. But she made friends with others who loved French food and eventually became acquainted with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The latter two had an informal agreement to publish a book on French cooking for Americans. But they had just lost their American collaborator. Julia stepped in.

From there, much of the book recounts the decades of painstaking work that went into creating that first book and its follow-ons in which Julia played the role of making the recipes work in American kitchens with American ingredients and utensils. It's truly mind-boggling. My respect for her work is unlimited!

The book finishes with explaining how Mastering became a best seller and Julia became a television star.

Along the way, you'll meet her favorite food vendors, tutors, chefs and guests. She'll also delight you with her mouth-watering menus and how dishes turned out under different circumstances.

The title of the book is a little misleading. The material also covers time spent in Germany, Norway and the United States. You also get a full look at her marriage and the great joy that both Childs brought to their love.

Throughout, the book is filled with little Julia-isms in that humorous self-deprecating style that we all came to love on The French Chef. She lards the text with some piquant French phrases and quotes (which are usually translated more mildly into English).

As an author, I found her process of finding a publisher and working with publishers to be quite fascinating.

In her last decades, the book is a picture of grace as she devoted herself to her husband, her old friends and to French cooking.

Bon appetit!
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on March 16, 2007
This is a charming book, where Julia Child talks in detail about her years in Paris and France just after the Second World War. Julia

completely fell in love with France and with French food and the way of life there. The relationship between Julia and her husband Paul is also lovely to read about, as they completely adored each other. Julia's passion for life, her energy, her sense of humour, modesty and intelligence shine through every page. This is accompanied by a complete lack of self-pity eg where she mentions their inability to have children.

She describes in detail her first encounter with French food, her experiences studying at Le Cordon Bleu, learning to speak French, setting up her own cooking school and writing her first cookbook. There were many trials and tribulations in the years of research, testing of the recipes, collaborating with the other authors and getting the book accepted for publication. Julia was like the original Alton Brown or 'Cook's Illustrated'. Of the three authors, one of whom contributed very little, it was Julia who was constantly tinkering with the recipes in order to find the best result. Spend a month experimenting with the best way to boil an egg? No problem. She was fascinated by kitchen science, which was in its infancy in those days.

Julia also describes eating at restaurants all over France and she remembers many of the menus in detail, as well as the vintage of wines they drank and how the individual dishes were prepared. She talks about shopping for ingredients in the marketplace and some of the unusual kitchen gadgets she picked up in Paris, which later appeared on the set of her TV shows.

So many things were done differently in those days - you put your milk bottles on the window sill to keep cool because most Parisians didn't have a refrigerator, and just about everything in the professional kitchen was still done by hand in the old manner. It was a different culinary world and I am pleased that some of this history has been preserved in this book.

The book has a lot of general historical interest too - when they arrived there was rationing and there were hardly any cars in Paris. They walked all over the city, routes that you just could not do on foot these days. Her husband was a photographer/artist and there are some interesting B & W photos of Paris & the French countryside included in the book. They also had a house in Provence long before the influx of tourism changed and spoiled the area. She and her husband met many influential and eccentric people.

The book was a collaboration between Julia and her husband's twin brother's grandson, who is an author in his own right. I thought it was very enjoyable and interesting. Is this a great work of literature? No, and to be honest, few biographies are. But this book does what it set out to do very well. It is pleasant and easy to read and the story it tells is very interesting. I would recommend it for people with an interest in culinary history or community cookbooks, an interest in French cuisine, and of course for anyone who liked Julia Child. It makes a lovely accompaniament to the bible of classic French cuisine: "Mastering the Art of French Cooking".
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on April 11, 2006
This book is just brimming with life, just as Julie Child did during her years in France. This book has inspired me to retrace Julia's steps through France (in 2007), approach the kitchen with more energy, and adopt a more serene approach to life in general...this book is just outstanding. I read it in 7 hours, straight through, and after lending it to those to whom I have promised it, I shall read it again...Bravo Julia for sharing your life in France with us, and Bravo Alex for seeing to it that it was published. What an amazing life, what an amazing person.
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How did Julia Child hook up with her other two authors and write that watershed book "Mastering the Art of French Cooking"? And how did she get on PBS in Boston on WGBH? Here's the story, plus that of Paul Child, her diplomat husband.

I found this a fascinating book because Julia Child was kind of a childhood icon--we all started cooking differently because she woke Americans up to the fact that vegetables didn't have to come in a can or box and you could do some elegant meals at holidays with things that didn't require a covering layer of marshmallows. We took a trip to Washington and did see her kitchen, reassembled piece-by-piece in the Smithsonian. It's revealing; it's a small kitchen like a workshop, with pegboard and "tools" on the wall and not as fancy as you'd imagine.

This book was a wonderful insight into Julia's life and anyone who cooks and admires her work should read it. Gosh, do I miss her!
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