Late in her life, Julia Child spoke at the National Press Club, where she answered questions from a group of admiring journalists. One of them asked her to reveal the secret to her longevity. The question took more than a minute to set up, platitude after platitude in praise of Child’s contributions to cuisine and American life. Finally, the journalist got around to asking Child to account for her stamina. Child gave the journalist a mischievous smile and said, “I eat well.” Then, amidst laughter from the audience, she went on to the next question.
"Spitz does a nice job of showing us how a rich girl who threw mud pies at passing cars became The French Chef.... If you enjoy loving descriptions of French cuisine and want to re-experience the novelty of a six-foot-three woman with a fluty voice bringing French cooking to the masses, then this book...will be a source of pleasure."
This is the character --- no-nonsense, humorous and enormously appealing --- who emerges in DEARIE, Bob Spitz’s entertaining biography of the late television presenter and cookbook author. The book is part hagiography --- in the Acknowledgments, Spitz writes, “I had an enormous crush on her. Sorry. Deal with it” --- but it doesn’t shy away from detailing Child’s less admirable qualities, including a flippant attitude toward homosexuals and African-Americans, the former of which she would reverse only when gay male chefs of her acquaintance began dying of AIDS in the 1980s.
Julia McWilliams was born to privilege in Pasadena in 1912. When she was young, she used to visit her grandparents’ house and sample the homemade doughnuts her grandmother left on a plate by the kitchen window. Her mother Caro was an indifferent cook who made baking-powder biscuits and Welsh rarebit and little else. Not that young Julia minded: Food was “nothing but fuel,” an opinion she maintained when she attended the Katherine Branson private school and ate their uninspiring meals. “Gluey rice pudding, calf’s liver, sardines --- all fine by Julia,” Spitz writes. This was typical of her cavalier outlook in her early years, during which she had no direction and no ambition. In the section of the Smith College registration form labeled “Vocational Choice,” she wrote, “No occupation decided; marriage preferable.”
After a series of desk jobs, she joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the intelligence-gathering agency that FDR had started in June 1941 in anticipation of the U.S.’s eventual entry into World War Two. A year into Julia’s work as a senior clerk, the agency decided that its observers should “provide Washington with updates on the nationalist movement in India.” She sailed to Bombay, where she met Paul Child, a midlevel State Department diplomat. A casual friendship turned deeper during a trip to Dambulla, Sri Lanka. They married in 1946.
It was while Paul was assigned to the U.S. Information Service in Paris that Julia Child found her calling. During lunch at La Couronne in Rouen, Julia ordered the sole meunière --- a simple piece of sole “in nothing but a bath of clarified butter.” The combination of flavors made her realize what good food was. Soon, she was taking classes at Le Cordon Bleu, run by the tyrannical Madame Brassart. After meeting Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Child spent years testing their recipes and writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, still considered one of the finest French cookbooks written in English.
Spitz writes affectionately about Child’s rise to fame, beginning with her 1962 appearance on “People Are Reading,” a book discussion program on Boston’s public television station, to promote her cookbook. The sections in which he describes her successes, first with the legendary “French Chef” and then with the many series and cookbooks that followed, are fast-paced and engaging. Who wouldn’t be charmed by a woman who, after an attempt to flip a potato pancake misses the skillet, shoves the splattered mess back into the pan and says, “When you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?”
Overwriting is a problem throughout DEARIE. Spitz uses clichés on almost every page, and his enthusiasm leads him to write sentences such as, “An omelet had to be exciting in the mouth, she purred, making it sound like oral sex.” When Child whipped eggs, Spitz writes, she “beat them with the fury of a half-crazed thug.” But despite the overwrought prose, Spitz does a nice job of showing us how a rich girl who threw mud pies at passing cars became The French Chef. Your appreciation of DEARIE will probably depend on how much you like Julia Child. If you enjoy loving descriptions of French cuisine and want to re-experience the novelty of a six-foot-three woman with a fluty voice bringing French cooking to the masses, then this book, like the best of Child’s recipes and television series, will be a source of pleasure.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on September 14, 2012