Friday, May 25, 2018
Books

Review: 'Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child' by Bob Spitz shows timing was everything for queen of the kitchen

Julia Child was the classic late bloomer. It took her half a lifetime to figure out what she wanted to do with herself, and thank goodness she did or our own lives would be different. At least our culinary lives.

Child was nearly 50 when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published and over that monumental threshold when she made a splash on TV, a medium that she loved and that loved her in return for the rest of her life. It is not hyperbole to say that Child, who died in 2004 just two days before turning 92, was one of the most influential culinary figures of the 20th century. She changed the way we cooked, coming along at a time when TV dinners threatened a complete takeover of the American kitchen.

Timed to her 100th birthday on Aug. 15, Bob Spitz's exhaustive biography Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child travels some familiar terrain but also unearths new details, especially about her early days and her love of pranks. Even as a child she was known as a fun-loving troublemaker, a trait she maintained throughout her life. "Without pleasure there was no payoff" for Child, who was offended by conformity and sought to prove that throughout her life.

Much of Child's story is well-known. Julia McWilliams was the daughter of privilege, growing up pre-Depression in idyllic Pasadena, Calif. She graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts and then went on to become an advertising copywriter in New York. She dreamed of writing novels, but early efforts were dashed by poor grammar.

She went on to work at the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C., and was posted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1944 and then to China. While in Ceylon, she met Paul Child, who also worked for the OSS. They fell in love and were married in 1946. Their devotion to each other is well-documented, with him eventually becoming her manager. A widely printed photo from a PBS set shows him wiping her brow. They never had children, and he died 10 years before she did.

Paul Child was eventually posted to Paris, where Julia Child had her culinary awakening. She had not been much of a cook before that, but her appetite for life bloomed in the city of abundant food.

She wanted to learn how to cook like the French, and her husband encouraged her to enroll in classes at the acclaimed Cordon Bleu cooking school. Her tenure there was rocky — the 6-foot-3-inch American woman was quite a startling figure in the mostly male classes — but it led her to the cooking club Cercle des Gourmettes. There she met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, and the three of them would eventually craft a cookbook that translated French cooking for an American audience. Their relationship was not without rancor, and she eventually become the face of the project.

Spitz, a seasoned biographer with books about the Beatles and Bob Dylan, can be a clunky writer. He overuses exclamation points, making some sentences seem like a teenager's tweets. "Paris! Was it really possible?" and then several paragraphs later, "In Paris! Julia and Paul were giddy with anticipation." Okay, we get it.

He also has a tendency to use cringe-worthy food analogies, like Child taking in the "whole samosa" of India, a play on the phrase "whole enchilada."

In general, though, Spitz does a wonderful job of painting a complete picture of Child, not just perpetuating the Dan Aykroyd Saturday Night Live parody, which, by the way, she loved.

By the end of the book, Spitz, whether he means to or not, lays out a case that Julia Child might not have been Julia Child had she peaked 15 years earlier or 15 years later. Child was in the right place at the right time to make a huge impact on the cultural landscape. Plus she had that indomitable spirit.

Her promotion of Mastering the Art of French Cooking coincided with the early, heady days of the John F. Kennedy White House, when the country was not only enamored of him but of the first lady and her interest in all things French.

Fledgling public television was in need of someone to take it beyond smoking men sitting at tables talking about books. Child's supreme self-confidence radiated from the screen, convincing even the most novice home cook that she could conquer a souffle.

Child became good friends with powerful cookbook author James Beard at the height of his influence. With her typical loyalty, she spearheaded the fundraising effort to establish the James Beard Foundation and give it a permanent home in Beard's New York brownstone after his death.

Had Child come along 15 years later, she would not have been able to maintain as much autonomy as she did. She refused endorsement deals, a common practice in today's media landscape.

In her last shows on PBS, the network she remained loyal to, she paired with chef Jacques Pépin, who often disagreed with her but usually let her have her way. Even to the end, she was a bit of a scamp, irritating Pépin and putting off some Kendall-Jackson Winery executives in the studio audience when she surprised them all on air by saying the day's meal would be paired with beer and not wine.

Another reminder that Julia Child did it her way.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.

 
Comments
Notable: Books for the beach

Notable: Books for the beach

NotableBooks for the beachSuit up: It’s time for a few new books built for vacation reading.By Invitation Only (William Morrow) by Dorothea Benton Frank is the latest serving of Frank’s trademark warm humor and engaging characters, set around two wed...
Published: 05/25/18
Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

NightstandJudy BlundellSince it’s Memorial Day weekend, we decided to touch base with Judy Blundell, whose new book is High Season. The novel’s protagonist is Ruthie Beamish, director of a small museum who, to make ends meet, rents out her seaside ho...
Published: 05/25/18

Events: Pulitzer winner Jack Davis to discuss ‘The Gulf’ at Oxford Exchange

Book TalkUniversity of Florida historian Jack E. Davis (The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea) will discuss and sign his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at 1 p.m. May 27 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Admission $5, applicable towar...
Published: 05/25/18
Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

David Sedaris gets right to the point in the opening of the first essay in his new book, Calypso: "Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll ac...
Published: 05/24/18
Review: Strait-laced writer Michael Pollan explores psychedelics, and leaves the door of perception ajar

Review: Strait-laced writer Michael Pollan explores psychedelics, and leaves the door of perception ajar

Microdosing is hot. If you haven’t heard — but you probably have, from reports of its use at Silicon Valley workplaces, from Ayelet Waldman’s memoir A Really Good Day, from dozens of news stories — to microdose is to take small amounts of LSD, which ...
Published: 05/24/18
Bancroft: Philip Roth deftly explored male lust, Jewish identity, American history and politics

Bancroft: Philip Roth deftly explored male lust, Jewish identity, American history and politics

Philip Roth, one of the most potent voices in American fiction, died Tuesday night of congestive heart failure in a New York City hospital. He was 85.Mr. Roth was the last man standing of a generation of fiction writers sometimes called "the great wh...
Published: 05/23/18

Events: Tarbell.org founder Wendell Potter to discuss, sign book

Book TalkTarbell.org founder Wendell Potter (Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It) will discuss and sign his book at 4 p.m. May 23 at the St. Petersburg Main Library, 3745 Ninth Ave. N.Applications are ...
Published: 05/21/18
The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

Tom Wolfe’s best writing lifted real people into legend: car designers and astronauts and disciples of LSD. With that writing, Wolfe lifted himself into legend as well. The author of 16 books, including such bestsellers as The Right Stuff and ...
Published: 05/18/18
Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

On a July day, Terry Maitland, one of the most popular men in Flint City, Okla. — high school English teacher, Little League coach, husband and father, recently named the town’s man of the year — attends a teachers convention in a city over an hour’s...
Published: 05/17/18

Events: Gilbert King to discuss ‘Beneath a Ruthless Sun’ at Inkwood in Tampa

Book TalkCutter Wood (Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime) will discuss and sign his nonfiction book about a murder on Anna Maria Island at 6 p.m. May 14 at Bookstore1, 12 S Palm Ave., Sarasota.The Gulfport Historical Society p...
Updated one month ago