American Pie

Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child

by Noël Riley Fitch
Doubleday, 569 pp., $24.95

A Welcoming Life: The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook

compiled and annotated by Dominique Gioia
Counterpoint, 119 pp., $35.00

Marcella Cucina

by Marcella Hazan
HarperCollins, 471 pp., $35.00

The All-New Joy of Cooking

by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker
Scribner, 1136 pp., $30.00

The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century

by Jean Anderson
Clarkson Potter, 560 pp., $35.00

Julia Child
Julia Child; drawing by David Levine

Probably the lives of cooks are never very interesting except to themselves—the métier of cook is too healthy and gregarious, too much the embodiment of a selfless ideal of service, too filled with the Taurean pleasures of root vegetables to indulge itself in suffering. And the biographer of such a fortunate life as Julia Child’s is at a special disadvantage. Gone the early poverty, parental neglect, sexual abuse, physical handicaps, geographical isolation, insensitive peers, and worldly indifference that form the themes of more literary lives. The reform of American cookery might have provided a riveting subject in itself, but in Noël Riley Fitch’s biography instead we have Child’s prosperous ancestors, cheerful parents, privileged circumstances, normal schooldays, brief adventures in the OSS, exotic travels in Ceylon and Singapore, successful marriage to Paul Child (a sophisticated and talented painter, diplomat, traveler, and gourmet), and her hugely successful career as the queen of American cooks.

Pass over the embarrassing references to their dawning sexual passion, not what we want to know about the cook, who is, after all, more mother figure than Magdalene. Her publishers, for once overestimating reader prurience, have chosen a jacket photo of a sultry Julia in her twenties, nothing to do with the large, funny, goofy, and endearing television personality we are familiar with, though, to paraphrase Jane Austen, there should be no natural contradiction between physical size and the flutterings of desire.

No doubt the life of Julia Child has much to teach us about persistence and integrity. In the tradition of privileged California women of her generation, lacking a profession she took up an approved female pursuit; aided by a good digestion and a sympathetic husband (who, as a good man would, supported his wife in her agreeable experiments), in the course of a lucky sojourn in France, she found French food and made it her own. In another age she might have been Florence Nightingale or Jane Addams. To take nothing away from Child’s character and talent, her fame also owed something to historical events and technology, especially the arrival of television.

The historical moment was right for food. People setting up housekeeping in the Sixties, when the first Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published (1961), usually had The Joy of Cooking or The Good Housekeeping Cookbook at their side, but a yearning for more sophisticated cooking was felt by a small, or perhaps a largish, segment of people, especially women who, seeing the ennui of decades of plain cooking stretching out before them, felt that the casserole, however creatively assembled, did not perfectly consort with newly raised ideas of personal fulfillment. Gourmet challenges were in the air for men too, who now took up cooking with enthusiasm. Many already had Gourmet magazine’s two volumes of rather cryptic “classic,” mostly French, recipes, and were puzzling out the preparation of Crêpes Suzette and Poulet de Bresse…

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