4 indispensable cooking lessons from Julia Child’s “My Life in France”

It’s impossible not to feel an affectionate warmth towards Julia Child while reading My Life In France, an autobiography co-written with her husband’s grand-nephew, Alex Prud’homme. Because while this “6-food-2-inch… rather loud and unserious Californian” is best known for introducing French cuisine to American homes, this book revealed a far more intimate expression of her deep love for and fascination of France — from the undeniable “joie de vivre” that so charmed Child, to the language, geography, literature, art, and, of course, sublime gastronomic culture.

“I had come to the conclusion that I must really be French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact,” writes Child. “I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.”

In what is essentially a love letter to her home away from home, Child relays in exquisite detail her journey from inexperienced student at Le Cordon Bleu, to her foray into “cookery – bookery” and, eventually, onto the television screen. She delivers lesson after lesson of timeless advice, to be heeded both in and out of the kitchen, in a refreshingly honest and endearingly self-deprecating voice.

It proved quite difficult to boil down her wisdom into the following four points, so I implore you to read the book in its entirety. If it’s possible for words to nourish you, Julia Child’s do just that.

1. Never apologize for the food you make.

I often find myself prefacing dinner with “who knows how this is going to taste?” or “if you don’t like it, you 100% don’t have to eat it.” I suppose I do it to put my guests at ease, or to soften the blow if the meal is, in fact, a train wreck, but Child argues that such excuses are entirely unnecessary.

“When one’s hostess starts in with self-deprecations… it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not” she writes. “Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one’s shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, ‘Yes, you’re right, this really is an awful meal’ Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed — en bien, tant pis!” 

2. Submit every recipe to a demanding and thorough “operational proof.”

“It’s all theory until you see for yourself whether or not something works,” writes Child.

Each and every recipe in Mastering was painstakingly researched, tested, and re-tested with slight variations in ingredients and techniques. Recipes, for Child, were to be treated like formulas with the utmost scientific exactitude to guarantee without a shadow of a doubt that American and French home cooks alike could replicate it — which meant weeks at a time were spent eating nothing but crab bisque in an effort to exhaust all the things one can do with the crustacean. And when it came time for eggplant, Child remarked that her skin may very well have taken on a purplish hue from the sheer quantity consumed.

The inevitable cooking failures that transpired in the pursuit of “operational proof” never deterred Child, because while she may have spent upwards of two years and 284 pounds of flour to try out all the home-style recipes for French bread, she believed above all that “good results require that one take time and care.

And in our world today where convenience manages to trump all, Child reminds us that some of the best (and most delicious) things in life take time.

“… a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience.”

3. People are the most important.

As her career picked up steam, Child found herself pulled in several different directions — oftentimes quite literally between France and the United States, and other times between writing and filming. But even at the most demanding moments, she was steadfast in her belief that “No one’s more important than people. In other words, friendship is the most important thing — not career or housework, or one’s fatigue — and it needs to be tended and nurtured.”

4. No one is born a great cook; one learns by doing.

Child went to great lengths to cultivate her passion for cooking, but she didn’t start with the level of expertise and confidence that she was so celebrated for in the latter part of her life, and now posthumously. So it’s quite fitting that she ends her autobiography with the following:

“This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”

READ MORE: 10 things France has taught me about food

4 thoughts on “4 indispensable cooking lessons from Julia Child’s “My Life in France”

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