'If a book is well written, I always find it too short.'
- Jane Austen


Julia Child: My Life in France

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 31, 2016
Category: Food and Wine

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WHAT I DID THIS SUMMER: I wrote a play. I didn’t plan to — I’ve been writing a novel — but I stumbled upon a story about one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Reading that story, I thought about all the people who see old age as a winding down and a stint in assisted living and a drugged-to-insensibility death in an antiseptic hospital. And then I thought about this artist and his powerful late life romance and dazzling late life creative flowering and the happiest possible ending. It’s everything you don’t see in the theater, or, for that matter, in books and movies. So I plunged in. Act I wrote itself. And then came a surprise. Just as I was starting Act II, I experienced a stunning personal reversal: the sudden, inexplicable loss of a close friendship. It was like a death — I was rocked to the core. But I could write. Indeed, all I could do was write. Act II now delivers an emotional wallop that, I hope, will leave an audience in tears of joy. And I found myself thanking my friend for delivering a blow that was probably inevitable. This may make no sense to you, but I gave thanks for pain that paved the way for joy. I had to laugh. I was, oddly, happy.
Just back from London and Cambridge and Edinburgh, and a week of restaurants. And I thought of Julia Child’s first meal in France, and the life that it inspired, and a memoir that gives as much pleasure as a chicken, expertly roasted...

Julia Child would be 104, so it’s understandable that, for many Americans, she looks and acts like Meryl Streep in the Nora Ephron film that burnished her eccentricities. But in the wayback machine, you can find the real Julia, teaching her fellow citizens the joy of French cooking on public television — a frowsy, big-boned (6’2", 158 pounds) matron with a trill in her voice, hacking up a chicken with more zest than is called for, most likely because she’s been chugging the cooking sherry.

My favorite way of considering Julia Child — the Julia Child of "My Life in France" — is as a revolutionary. Not intentionally. She just had the great good fortune to find herself living in Paris with no job and nothing more compelling than a tentative interest in cooking. She signed up for classes at Cordon Bleu, got hooked, and with two friends was soon working on a book we now take for granted but was then unimagined — an authoritative guide to French cooking for Americans.

Published 55 years ago, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One’ has never gone out of print. It never will. It is the gold standard. [To buy the cookbook from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Of her 11 books, none was a memoir. But she kept scribbles and letters, and at the end of her life, she began to shape this book with her grandnephew. Like almost everything she touched, ‘My Life in France’ is a triumph — insightful, poetic, deadly accurate about people, and, above all, tasty. Reading it, you breathe French air. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Nothing in her early life would have predicted that Julia Child would become formidable in any way. Her father was a conservative Southern California businessman; her mother was "warm and social." After college came World War II and government work in Ceylon. There she met Paul Child, an artist who designed ‘war rooms’ for the generals. The first meal she cooked for him — brains simmered in red wine — was not a success. Still, they married, and, in 1948, moved to France. She was 36. She didn’t speak a word of French.  

Her first meal, in Rouen, started with oysters, served with a pale rye bread and unsalted butter. They were followed by sole meuniere, "perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley." Mr. and Mrs. Child washed it down with a bottle of Pouilly-Fume. They moved on to a green salad and a baguette, fromage blanc and cafe filtre. "Absolute perfection," Julia decided. "The most exciting meal of my life."  

Fortunately, the Childs were not rich — two-star restaurants were the best they could afford in Paris. But Julia was reading cookbooks, making friends in the food markets, falling in love with Paris. At Cordon Bleu, her classmates were 11 former American servicemen who were studying courtesy of the GI Bill of Rights. She went right to the head of the class.  

To read this book is to peer over her shoulder and learn with her. Scrambled eggs, for example. They are not whipped, just gently blended. Smear the pan with butter, add the eggs, salt and pepper, cook over a low flame. After about three minutes, the eggs will start to form a custard. Only then do you stir rapidly with a fork, sliding the pan on and off the burner. Pull the egg curds together — and, finally, add more butter, to "stop the cooking." Sprinkle with parsley (or not). Serve. Dazzle.  

The real revelations in this book are not about food, however — they’re about work. There’s a lot of it involved in the creation of a book, especially when you’re creating something new. "WHY DID WE EVER DECIDE TO DO THIS ANYWAY?" Julia writes to one of her collaborators. But after eight years, the thing is done. And Knopf offers to buy it for $1,500. The galleys weigh 15 pounds. When printed, it is 732 pages long.  

In 1961, when ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ was published, Paul Child was 59 years old. Julia was 49. They had no expectations of a bestseller, much less a franchise. But the New York Times raved — the recipes are "painstakingly edited and written as if each were a masterpiece, and most of them are" — and the appearance on the "Today" show went well. The book sold and sold. In 1962, Julia taped three half-hour shows for WGBH, the public TV station in Boston. By the following year, she had taped 26 more.  

But this is not a celebrity memoir. This book is called "My Life in France" for a reason — it is there that Julia and Paul feel most fully alive. Paul’s photographs deliver the country in delicious slivers. The passages at their home in the South of France lift off the page and surround you. You inhale lavender. You feel the breeze. In the distance is the smell of lamb cooking in herbs. There is laughter, and wit, and, most of all, blessed silence. If this is not a description of Heaven, what is?  

Paul takes ill and dies. Julia soldiers on. She understands — you have to keep grabbing life. Food and love and very shrewd French friends have taught her well: "Nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should."  

The book ends this way: "The pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite — toujours bon appetit!" As you read these words, you finally get it — this is not a book about food, this is a book about life. A wise life, a life of beauty, art and invention. You can learn a lot from a life like that.

Start with this book. 

Short takes

So you wrote a book? Here’s how to let the world know.

When I was launching Head Butler Creative Services, I expected to get queries from writers — often first-time writers — with questions about their manuscripts. To my surprise, I’ve often heard from writers who ask, “The book’s done. Now what?” Some want me to introduce them to agents; that’s not what I do. More either have a publisher or are self-publishing and are freaking out at the starting gate — in a noisy, crowded field, how will they get noticed? Fauzia Burke knows. Over two decades, she’s done book PR for Alan Ada, Arianna Huffington, Tom Brokaw, Tana French — and a number of writers I’ve sent her way. Now she’s written a book: “Online Marketing for Busy Authors: A Step-by-Step Guide.” It’s a primer, but that’s what writers who are novices at Internet publicity need. In the spirit of the Internet, it’s interactive; in chapter after chapter, she quizzes you about your goals and the specifics of your book. And then she suggests that you use blogs and social media — the very stuff you may think doesn’t matter — to build your brand and sell your book. Baby steps? If you haven’t taken them, start here. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

“Suddenly Single After 50: The Girlfriends’ Guide to Navigating Loss, Restoring Hope, and Rebuilding Your Life”

I often quote a line from a nurse during the Vietnam War: “If they gave a parade for people who survived their lives, the marching would never end.” Put Barbara Ballinger and Margaret Crane near the front of the American marchers. In 2000, Barbara’s husband of 31 years announced “The passion is gone.” And then it took her 4 years to be divorced. Margaret and her husband were an unbreakable couple. Then he got sick. Five years later, in the 42nd year of their marriage, he died.

What next? Barbara and Margaret are old friends. Both are writers. Married in their 20s. With aging parents and grown children. And, at the start of “Suddenly Single After 50: The Girlfriends’ Guide to Navigating Loss, Restoring Hope, and Rebuilding Your Life,” both alone — and both refusing to be broken.

Their book is part self-help, part-memoir. It’s much more personal than you expect from this kind of book. Barbara: “I needed validation that someone wanted me after being dumped. When I got online and started looking, I realized it was like a supermarket, with a lot of merchandise on the shelf. I quickly became hooked.” So hooked that she had to create a spreadsheet to track her dates: “I mixed one guy up with another, so I knew I needed help. ” For Margaret, the biggest challenge was taking charge of things her husband had handled, especially finance: “I had no idea what we had. I overreacted at first and started dumping everything — club memberships, subscriptions, cable. I would take two-minute showers to keep my water bill down. I never completely filled my tank with gas. I clipped coupons. Finally, I decided to interview financial planners.”

“We’ve learned that endings change,” they conclude. Very hopeful. Very helpful. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Words on Music: Introducing Robin Meloy Goldsby

When I launched Head Butler/Jesse Kornbluth Creative Services, I didn’t expect to be editing a manuscript by a Times best-selling writer — but that happened. Even more unlikely: I didn’t expect to be editing a collection of short stories by a writer who could be praised in the Times. The disclosure is that Robin Meloy Goldsby sent me ‘Manhattan Road Trip’ and paid me to suggest edits. The more important disclosure is that I made no more than a dozen marks on her manuscript.

Robin Goldsby is an American musician –– a Grammy-nominated lyricist, composer, author of four books and a children’s musical, with half a dozen CDs to her credit ––- who lives in Germany. Her stories are about musicians, some famous, some not, all burdened by the issues that artists (and many of us) face: the hunger for recognition, the challenge of excellence, the unfairness of time and age, the money thing.

What’s terrific about “Manhattan Road Trip” is her empathy for every character. In “Rouge Noir,” my favorite story, we follow Samantha Lockney, a world-class concert pianist. She was once the “It” girl of classical music; now she’s aging and her looks are fading. She has returned to her childhood home to perform the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Also in town: a pop celebrity so famous she’s known by one name (“Baby”). Here come envy and competitiveness. Samantha on Baby: “Saw pictures of Baby in Vanity Fair last month. She was wearing a latex mermaid costume. Even with flippers and fishtail, she’s a looker. I remember how that used to feel. Seas parted, doors opened, and men with coffee breath and thinning hair told me I wasn’t just extremely talented, I was lovely. I believed every word. Fans surrounded me like fruit flies on a ripe peach.”

Baby, the ass-shaking star of the second story, has interrupted her international tour to attend the Pittsburgh funeral of her elementary-school music teacher, Mrs. Melozzi, whose daughter has asked her to perform Mrs. M’s favorite Debussy prelude for the funeral service. She’s having a crisis of confidence: “Goddamn Debussy. Why did he have to write complicated music that sounds so simple? ‘La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin’ — ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ — won’t sound good unless it sounds effortless. Effortless takes years.” Will Baby conquer Debussy? I held my breath on the last page. Anyone would.

If you play music at any level or know someone who does or is even contemplating a career in music, or if you like smart, reality-based fiction, or whatever, “Manhattan Road Trip” is at least as worthy as name-a-bestseller. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Summer is the best time to read John Cheever.

You’re sitting in a beach chair with his Collected Stories— the book, not the Kindle. At your elbow, a cool drink. There’s a breeze. Time slows.

Start with the first story in the book: “Goodbye, My Brother.” It’s about a WASP family with one of those big houses on the bluffs of Nantucket. The family’s three grown sons, a daughter, a mother, various spouses and kids have assembled for a late-summer vacation. Swimming, drinking, family dinners, club dances, game nights at home: This reunion should look like a Ralph Lauren commercial. Why it doesn’t: Lawrence — the youngest brother, the one who “looks like a Puritan cleric” — has arrived.

We all know people like Lawrence, people who try “to spoil every pleasure.” We endure them because we don’t see much of them. But to share a house with Lawrence, to have your two weeks of vacation darkened by his omnipresent scowl — it drives the narrator, an otherwise mild-mannered high school teacher, to spill the blood of his blood.

Lawrence departs in a huff on a gorgeous late-summer morning — not that, from the ferry, he’d see its beauty. And the narrator? The ending of his relationship with his brother is inspiration for a final look at much more than a family drama. Here’s the last paragraph:

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eyes in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming — Diana and Helen — and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.

And then you start to read the next story….