I will be the first to admit I’m not the type to read big non-fiction books. So I’m pretty proud of myself for actually getting through the 500 pages of Appetite for Life! This is a biography with a big B: it was authorized; the author had full access to Julia Child, her letters, several family diaries, as well as letters and interviews with family and friends. It’s very much the historical work, sometimes overstuffed with minutia, names and dates, but does an excellent job of describing Julia and how she fit into the recent history of food as well as US history. The appendices describe all the source material, a great job was done in editing to only 500 pages. In the end, I find myself awed and inspired by Julia and her works.
The early part of the book is slow, she grew up as a spoiled California party girl which was not all that interesting. The story picks up during the time she was in the OSS in India and China. Fascinating to me (as someone who doesn’t read big historical books, but lately, lots of WWII fiction) was the non-European perspective of WWII: the people and politics of the time, including the OSS, McCarthy-ism, and their influence on Vietnam.
Later in life, Julia Child was quite the celebrity between PBS shows and Good Morning America appearances in addition to her books. I never saw much of her on TV (but knew enough to fully enjoy Dan Aykroyd’s satire of the show), and never had the Mastering The Art of French Cooking cookbooks. I didn’t understand her real influence on food. Her memoir, My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'Homme gave me much more background on what went into the first cookbook, but this book brought so much more to the story.
Julia was passionate about food, and wanted to share this passion with others. She followed through with incredible organization, detail and hard work to share the vision through teaching. She had the drive to get things right (and that would be her definition of right). Also impressive was the energy that Julia had, right through her 80’s, even with the problems of aging like bad knees and loved ones in nursing homes.
Julia’s vision started with an attempt bring the pleasures of cooking and eating to the American public, not the “America home economics with its undercurrent of nineteenth-century melioristic scientism”. (Definition of melioristic: the notion that the world can be improved by human effort). Her cookbook was out of step with the current fashion: “Americans were then eating canned vegetables with marshmallows melted on top, frozen chickens cooked in canned mushroom soups, frozen fish sticks, and dishes that could be served during commercials… Processed food products and junk food led to unwanted poundage, which in turn stirred up a wave of dieting and diet books … Avis [Julia’s agent] commented about the “gunk” in the American kitchen and the increasing number of manuscripts for diet books she was receiving … “[There is] not a single honest recipe in the whole book – everything is bastardized and quite nasty .. Desserts .. sweetened with saccharin and topped with imitation whipped cream. Fantastic! And I do believe a lot of people in this country eat just like that, stuffing themselves with faked materials in the fond belief that by substituting a chemical for God’s good food they can keep themselves slim while still eating hot breads and desserts and GUNK.” This was in 1959! (and its taken until 2009 for me to get all of the high fructose corn syrup out of my house, and even then some slips back in, last in the guise of Rice Crispy Squares).
The other theme that runs through Julia’s work was to help Americans overcome their “fanatical fear of food”. An example: “fear of food was endemic in suburbia. Every new health warning (Poisons in Your Food) reinforced America’s puritanical relationship to food and wine. Food was either a sinful or a bothersome necessity. The most popular food books in the early 1960s were Calories Don’t Count and the I Hate to Cook Book…” That said, she had some confrontations with other visionaries of the time, like Alice Waters. Julia felt that all the talk of organic foods and evils of pesticides would just further scare people from cooking.
I could go on.. but this book really hit home for me during my current quest to reduce the amount of processed food in my diet and understand the struggles of those around me with food. Plus I have another role model on living a full life, continuing to learn and share and grow (bad knees and all). The other take away: During the life of Julia Child, there was massive amount of written communication compiled, including letters, diaries, manuscripts, and written articles. I sometimes wondered if she ever made a phone call! But I can hope that in addition to more people cooking from the larger selection of fresh food available, that someday people can use our blogs, tweets, Facebook and other written communications to write inspiring biographies!