Publication date: 8/7/2012
Bob Spitz developed a powerful crush on Julia Child while traveling with her through Sicily in 1961. Interviewing the French cooking icon on the record, Spitz was amazed “she never held back from speaking her mind, never shied from a tough opinion, never pulled her punches, never blinked.” Her candid nuttiness overwhelmed the American journalist and author of The Beatles and Dylan.
“She was exactly like her TV persona: warm, funny, outgoing, whip-smart, incorrigible, and, most of all, real.”
Years and writing projects later, he would finally commit to penning Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, scheduled for release by Knopf in time for her 100th birthday.
Will this biography be the final word on Julia Child?
Definitely a contender. Combing through archives of her letters at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library as well as through the papers of Paul Child and Simone Fishbacher, Spitz also interviewed family, friends, contemporaries and protégés who were always welcome in Julia’s warm kitchen and iconic life.
“She was every bit a sixties superstar as Jackie Onassis or Walter Cronkite, whose personalities magnified the contributions they made. But unlike other luminaries fixed in the public eye, Julia gamely thrust a sense of humor into the mix. Cooking was fun for her, it was the shadow ingredient in every recipe in her repertoire, and she wanted everyone to experience it that way, too.”
Spitz gushes faithfully about Julia Child, who marveled at new travel adventures in the French, German and Norwegian cities where her husband received State Department assignments as a career bureaucrat.
From her first meal in France, lunch at La Couronne in Rouen, Julia would insist on learning the language, frequenting local markets and discovering the regional cuisine. Locals were always charmed and eager to help this American woman who loved to eat.
Spitz writes vividly about Julia’s ambitions and she could certainly be a bully when she was threatened. Mastering the Art of French Cooking began as a collaborative endeavor for Julia, Simone Fishbacher and Louisette Bertholle. In a scathing letter, Julia diminished the contributions of Louise and stripped her percentage of the royalties, which were later bought out for $30,000.
Julia insisted that she and Simone protect their legacy and avoid a publishing wrangle with Louisette’s heirs over the fate of the book’s copyright.
According to Spitz, Julia was not averse to hiring a lawyer to protect her interests after release of the best-selling cookbook. The same woman who could deliver risqué double entendres and practical jokes on the PBS set of The French Chef would never be apologetic for demanding respect.
The French Chef series would be awarded an Emmy, the first ever given to an educational TV station. Life and The New York Times would publish feature spreads on Julia.
“A mountain of letters poured in after every show, thousands of requests for the recipes. Everyone wanted to cook what Julia Child was cooking.”
Julia, a fan of Goldfish crackers and Dan Aykroyd’s SNL impersonation (“Save the liver!”), also advocated a no-nonsense approach to good food. According to Spitz, Julia had no patience for phobias regarding fat. She affirmed that butter and cream were essential components of la belle cuisine.
“If we ate the way nutritionists want us to eat,” she said, “our hair would be falling out, our teeth would be falling out and our skin would be drying up.”
Food elitist tantrums for fresh-picked and foraged ingredients seemed over-the-top and unnecessary requirements for eating well.
Spitz quotes Julia:
“Visit any supermarket and you’ll see plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. And if you don’t like the looks of what you see displayed, complain to the produce manager. That’s what I do, and it always gets results.”
This eccentric woman with the warbly voice would change the way America ate, but would also shape the next generation of cooks and chefs. She especially admired the New American cuisine mavericks overturning the standards she had pioneered with French cooking.
Julia transformed the Boston food scene by introducing and patronizing young chefs like Lydia Shire and Jasper White. She quizzed them about technique and signature dishes and became more improvisational with her own cooking as a result. At new restaurant openings, she would seek out the chef and offer a kind word of encouragement.
“Tell me, dearie, was there a little tarragon in your mayonnaise?”
Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz is a highly worthwhile read and a real contender for definitive status as a chronicle of the French cooking icon’s life.
Category: Nonfiction, Biography, Julia Child