My Life in France

The title to Julia Child’s as-told-to 2006 memoir could not be more generic. “My Life in France” is a name that might be given by countless English-speaking Francophiles to the stories of their années françaises. Which makes it a very fitting title, since from its opening page Child’s memoir captures an absolutely archetypal experience. She describes her early years in France as “a crucial period of transformation in which I found my true calling” and “experienced an awakening of the senses.” This is the beautiful dream that has inspired so many Americans, both before and after Child, to move to Paris.

As a historian, I am trained to look for patterns in the sources. Still, as I’ve begun researching the history of Americans in France, I’ve been surprised at how formulaic their experiences can appear. As early as the 1700s, American visitors saw the “Grand Tour” through France (and Italy) as a path to open their senses to life’s sublime beauty. Although the primary rationale for the Grand Tour was to view classic works of art and architecture, France’s fine food played no little part in the travelers’ awakenings. The diary of John Greenwood, an American painter who toured Europe in 1763-1765, describes visiting fine restaurants in Paris, in addition to the Tuileries (before it was demolished) and Barron Tier’s renowned art collection. Greenwood’s first meal at the “famous eating house” on Rue de Buci (a street still popular among American tourists to Paris) led to many subsequent dinners. By the end of his time in Paris, Greenwood’s American palate had been sufficiently educated that he turned his nose up at the “foul wine” served on the cutter back to Dover, England.

Julia Child was famously awakened to the art of cooking by her first meal in France, a plate of sole meunière, enjoyed at La Couronne, a michelin-starred restaurant in the city of Rouen en route from Le Havre to Paris. The delicate fish browned in butter with a sprinkling of parsley on top “was the most exciting meal of my life,” Child recollects, “a morsel of perfection.” Reading this story, I did my best to laugh, not cry, at the quite opposite impact that our first meal in Paris – andouillette and boeuf tartare – had on our palates. Julia’s husband Paul did a far better job at planning their first meal. With her first bite of sole meunière, Child plunged into the infatuation with French food and wine that would make her famous. By Christmas 1949, when the Childs went to visit friends in Cambridge, Julia complained as heartily about English cooking as John Greenwood had about the Dover cutter wine. She reserves particular disgust for a boiled chicken they were served at a charming Tudor inn, with its little feathers still sticking out of the skin, and its blanket of revolting “cream sauce” made from flour and water, barely salted.

Before marrying Paul in September 1946, Child had no experience cooking. She dutifully enrolled in a brides-to-be cooking class taught by two English women in Los Angeles, where she learned to prepare pancakes, a lesson she unwisely ignored when making her first meal for Paul: brains simmered in red wine. The dish was so disgusting, even to a couple with “cast-iron stomachs” and adventurous palates, that they scraped the plates into the garbage and found something else to eat. Once in Paris, Julia’s tastes grew even bolder, as she discovered escargot and became obsessed by truffles. A present of Larousse Gastronomique for her thirty-seventh birthday only encouraged her increasing fascination with French cooking. In October 1949 she signed up for class at École du Cordon Bleu. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Child arrived in Paris still unformed. Decommissioned from the civil service (OSS) after World War II, newly married but luckless in her attempts to get pregnant, she was uncertain what to do with the rest of her life. Paris, and French cooking, brought her self-knowledge. “I wandered the city, got lost, [and] found myself again,” she muses metaphorically. This is the archetypal journey of the American in Paris. It is the clichéd narrative that I find myself, at age 37 (just like Julia!), trying not to recapitulate in these blog posts. Of course, trying to avoid becoming a cliché in Paris is just another cliché, as Elaine Dundy wittily points out in The Dud Avocado (blog post on that book later). At least I can console myself that if I do replay the same well-worn scenario of every hungry American woman or man who has spent a year in Paris before me, I will be well-fed along the way.

When Child returned to La Couronne in Rouen for a second visit, following a return trip to the U.S. in 1951, she ordered the same meal she had enjoyed on her first arrival, two and a half years before. The sole meunière was just as delicious, but no longer a mystery to her. Now she could identify the smells in the air, and the techniques behind the dishes. “La Couronne was the same, but I had become a different person,” she reflects. Her life in France had changed her at a fundamental level. I can’t imagine choosing to return to the andouillette restaurant where we ate on the morning of our arrival. If I ever do, it will most certainly be a sign that I have undergone a profound transformation, but not necessarily for the better.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

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