"At times Julia's high spirits caught her...mates off guard. One day, she announced that a store-bought baguette was not up to snuff, and blithely flung it over her shoulder. As the offending load spiraled over tureens of French onion soup and platters of carefully prepared food [her Television crew] held their breaths in dumbstruck terror. The doughy projectile could have destroyed an entire day's work in an instant. Instead, it whistled over the trays of food and wrapped itself harmlessly around a wine bottle in the corner. 'No question, it was great TV,' [one of them] recalled. 'And we never did tell her about the near disaster.'" (p.237)
That is one of the sumptuous vignettes Alex Prud'homme illustrates in his brilliant new biography of the "first Celebrity chef" Julia Child. It also happens that Prud-homme is the great-nephew of Child and the co-author of her memoir My Life in France, published in 2006.
For this volume, Prud'homme focuses on what he calls Child's "Second Act." Her seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published to great acclaim in 1961, and The French Chef was a hit on Public Television. After the success of her first endeavors, Child reinvented herself once again after publishing a companion to Mastering, which Julia nicknamed the "Son of Mastering." While still a French-trained chef, Child attempted to explore her American roots and apply her cooking style to her homeland.
Prud'homme is given a wide array of colorful characters to pepper his narrative, from the stodgy yet passionate Simone Beck (her co-author of Mastering, nicknamed "Simca") to Chef Emeril Lagasse, whom Child mentored early in his career. The locations are as diverse as inhabitants, from the Colonial charm of Massachusetts to the gorgeous landscape of France.
Prud'homme chronicles the ups and downs of this reinvention from the 60s to the 90s, including a live broadcast of a dinner from The White House and a failed TV project with acclaimed chef James Beard. Throughout the tome, Child's voice is strong and her opinions diverse, extolling the virtues of McDonald's french fries (which she liked, particularly because at the beginning they were fried in lard) and denouncing Vegetarians, at one point saying that she "didn't know what to do with them...do they look forward to dinner, ever?"
Prud'homme does not disappoint with chronicling or describing these events, his flowery prose straightforward yet immensely readable. His attachment to the subject to the hand is palpable and this addition to the Julia Child oeuvre is a must for fans, not simply as a spiritual successor to My Life in France, but as a journalistic triumph of its own.
If Prud'homme can be faulted for anything, it is that too full of a portrait is given of some of the participants. For example, six pages are given to a young chef who eventually helped Child with one of her TV shows and Child once gave her advice. The book is plagued with one of these super-descriptions every 75 pages or so, and could have done with some trimming.
That minor quibble aside, The French Chef in America is a fascinating read for anyone who admires Child, sumptuous food, or a ripping good read. This book is an antidote to the bitter political feuds peppering the world, a haven to bask in the glow of Julia Child's passion, drive, and love for the cuisine of La Belle France.
**I implore you to watch my blog next week (October 17th through the 21st) , as I'm devoting the entire week to the life and times of character actress Mary Wickes! I scoured her personal archives at Washinton University in St. Louis and have many fascinating discoveries to share with you!**
I invite you to visit my new website, StevenKrage.com! I'm very proud of my new creation and would love to hear your feedback about it.
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