Oh Dear, Oh “Dearie” Me

My poor Kindle has been feeling quite neglected this past month as my bedtime reading was restricted to an absolute doorstop of a book, Dearie, the Julia Child biography by  Bob Spitz.

Biographies are one of those hit-or-miss things for me. I’ve picked up random tomes on people I know nothing about and been utterly engrossed, re-reading them over the years (Galina being a prime example), whereas books on subjects I’m somewhat familiar with have left me cold. The voice of the writer matters quite a bit, and Bob Spitz–who admits a bit of a crush on the grande dame of French cuisine–does an excellent job of narrating her life and the times that helped shape them.

We open with her first stint on public television, and Spitz turns such phrases as

“The shows were dry as toast,” but plans were afoot to inject a little jam into the equation. (p5)

Cooking, like sex, was practiced privately–and, some might say, without much enthusiasm–in the home. (p8)

you never forgot that this was the story of a food revolution but he didn’t hammer away at the point unmercifully. I appreciated his delicate use of imagery as well as his complete picture of Julia Child’s life. Even before, really, as the early chapters go back to the lives of her forefathers, the men who would eventually settle in Pasadena, California, in answer to restless Midwest spirits looking for a respite from their harsh winters–and the gold that California was full of.

While I already knew Julia was no great cook in her earlier years (I’ve seen Julie and Julia, of course), there was so much left out (of my personal knowledge) of how she came to her love of food, French food in particular, and how much Paul had to do with that. She was positively aimless until she met and married Paul Child after many months abroad with him during the war, and even then cooking was something she took up only after many other failed attempts at filling her time when she refused to go back to secretarial work. (And while much is mentioned of how Julia was “a spy”, Spitz is careful to point out that when the opportunity came for Julia to move out of the Registry office she commanded in several foreign locations and actually become a spy, the war would have been over by the time she would have been trained, and it just never happened.)

We also learned much more about Julia’s husband, Paul Child. Any romantic notions I had of him from what was portrayed in the aforementioned movie were mostly dashed as we learn about his struggles with inferiority and his lack of confidence leading to a lack of ambition, but oh did he redeem himself as we learn how integral part  he played in her early television success–his attention to detail rivaled only his wife’s, I’d say, and he really helped her get her TV-legs and keep things running behind the scenes.  (By the  by, did you know Julia was not a fan of Meryl Streep’s back in Streep’s activist days? Julia was, sometimes misguidedly, in favor of the technological advances being made in agriculture, including certain pesticides and Streep’s protest of the use of Alar–later banned–put the actress on Julia’s shit-list.)

And if you’re alarmed by my use of common vulgarity, above, you should realize that to have said it any different would be untrue to the late doyenne’s nature–she who possessed the most mercurial spirit and cursed like a sailor when the mood took her, who pulled no punches with her opinions, would appreciate my turn of phrase, I think.

The entire book was a wile ride of ups and downs, relocations and set-backs, struggles to stay in the public eye against failing health–both Paul’s and, eventually, her own. I respect the hell out of the woman who stopped certain medications because they robbed her of her sense of taste. Who went out of her way to avoid the appearance of sponsors “buying” her good opinion. Who knew when to say enough was enough.

And even though I knew how the story ultimately ended, that the book would more than likely close with her death, the way the author phrased it–with the toast at Olio e Limone…

“Our dear friend and mentor Julia Child passed away today,” she said. A chorus of gasps and cries sifted through the room. “So we invite all of you to raise a glass in her honor.” With great vivacity, she sang out: “Cin cin! Salute, Julia.”

Someone had the good sense to shout, “And bon appétit!”

And damn if I didn’t cry. And teared up again as I told Todd about it the next night over supper. Just as I’m tearing up now, typing out those same words, more than a week after their first reading.

That, my friends, is the mark of a well-written story. One that grabs you, involves you in the subject’s life, and touches you more, now, with their death than you felt at the time in history when it actually happened.

Even though I’d done “the chef thing” by then and was still marginally connected to the food world, her passing was a blip on my radar. Now I grieve that I didn’t grieve more, then. It’s a peculiar feeling to realize what the world “lost” that day, and that more wasn’t made of it.

Last month would have been Julia’s 100th birthday, and much fuss was made over that fact. At first, I admit, a part of me saw it as just another PR move, just another hashtag campaign in the making. But after more fully digesting Julia’s impact on food and cooking, the effects of which are still being felt, I humbly apologize for such a jaded opinion and encourage you all to dust off that copy of Mastering… and cooking something in her memory.

Bon appétit!

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I was provided a copy of Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, by Bob Spitz for purpose of review. All of the above opinions are my own.

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