At no point in human history have so many known so much about something that was once considered a dark art practiced by mustachioed tradesmen in funny hats. No, I’m not talking about cowboys. What we’re dealing with here is professional cookery, that once-cloistered, near-priestly enterprise that, like so many professions these days–drive-time radio DJ, personal trainer, rebellious skateboarding entrepreneur–has seen its practitioners elevated to the level of rock stars.
Three recent chef-centric books–a tender Francophile memoir, a frisky collection of quick-hit essays and a lengthy exercise in participatory journalism–ascribe a neat arc to the fraught American relationship with food. It’s true, we used to be a nation of shoot-it-skin-it-burn-it-eat-it folk. But sometime in the 1950s, we started to get ideas, based largely on the burgeoning postwar travel industry. Suddenly, middle-class rubes who had subsisted on brown bread and chipped beef during the Depression, and on K rations, Hershey’s bars and (when in uniform) Lucky Strikes during World War II, discovered haute cuisine.
There are those who would argue that this was when America lost its way. It was a slippery slope from sole meunière to oral sex, marijuana, campus protests, all-night raves and, inevitably, Wolfgang Puck. Certainly, a rightward-leaning Protestant establishment, tossing back a few G&Ts before enjoying a plateful of flavorless slow-stewed chicken, reeled in the face of all that French puffery (forget Italian food, which was the 1952 equivalent of today’s Mexican, a subaltern cuisine eaten by a swarthy, sweaty, oversexed breed). And it was decisively French, this initial revolution in American taste. They may have gotten manhandled by the Nazis on the battlefield, but the citizens of Gaul–with their finely calibrated ability to distinguish between subcategories of butter and salt, to turn a snail into something appetizing and to transform goose torture into foie gras in a loving gourmet exercise–came roaring back in the kitchen.
No one symbolized this grand adaptation, this gustatory conquest, more than Julia Child, a tall, brassy Foreign Service wife from Pasadena who’d been raised on a diet of Republicanism and boiled meat. Once Child hit Paris, however… shazam! Her burning bush was the aforementioned sole meunière (tasted almost immediately after she got off the boat in 1948). Henceforth, the stodgy Yankee palate would never be the same. Child spent decades in France soaking up French cooking, and as a result she became an inverted evangelist of digestion: She and her artsy husband, Paul, both OSS veterans from World War II, had headed overseas to sell the Europeans on America. She returned to convince Americans that everything they had been putting in their mouths up to that point had been wrong.
My Life in France (co-written with Alex Prud’homme, Paul’s grandnephew) is an enchanting book, a love story on several levels. It also tells the tale of how Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the most important American cookbook ever published, came about. Toward the end, we learn how Julia Child, daughter of a dull California businessman, became Julia Child, the French Chef (“Bon appétit!”) of PBS fame, and later Saturday Night Live parody (“I’ve cut the dickens out of my finger!” exclaimed Dan Aykroyd, in Julia drag). But most of all, this is a book about a book.