At any given time since I was 16, you could have called me, quite accurately, a Francophile. Lately though, this interest/mild obsession has been reinvigorated by some lovely books about France and – more importantly – French food.
I can trace my love of all things French back to high school when I made the romantic and wildly impractical decision to take French class instead of Spanish to fulfill my mandatory language credits. Those classes led to my participation in a high school trip to Europe (still not sure how I got my parents to pay for that one). It was three days in each of three cities: Edinburgh, London, and Paris.
Paris was my favorite and those three days are solidly etched in my mind as three of the best days of my life. Could this dramatic distinction be the result of the haze of nostalgia and hyperbole of teenage emotions? Possibly. But I did have a wonderful time.
There was one afternoon in particular that has always shined the brightest in my memory. It involves getting lost, as I often was before the age of smart phones. But this time, as my friends and I wandered the streets of Paris with little to no idea where we were, instead of nervously trying to figure my way back to something I knew and recognized, I embraced the adventure of the unknown.
In my memory, which is vivid if not 100% accurate, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, Paris has put on its finest garb to greet the wide-eyed Alaskan high school students that wandered in its midst. Wandered with only a few francs each, I might add. After a couple of hours blissfully walking the streets looking at everything, but looking for nothing, we happened upon a bakery. Like you do in Paris. I’m not sure if it would have been up to snuff by Parisian standards, but to my taste buds it was ambrosia. We sat at a little round table out in the afternoon sun and shared a couple different pastries between us (remember the dearth of francs), each more delicious than the next.
I sat there outside that pastry shop, in my own version of heaven, and remember imagining myself living this life. Imagining what it would be like if I lived in this neighborhood, in that building up the street where each apartment has its own little balcony – mine would be the one with the overflowing flower pots that left just enough room for someone to stand among them and look out over the city. Imagining that this was my neighborhood bakery and that every evening on my way home from work I would stop in to buy myself a sweet treat for dessert. It was intoxicating, this imagining.
This experience, small (and a tad naïve) though it seems now that I retell it as an adult, was pivotal to me as a teenager on the road to becoming an adult. It opened my eyes to another way of life, to a big world that existed outside of my own experiences. I might have known, in theory, that there was a big world out there that I hadn’t seen, but the reality of it hit me like a smack in the face and left me dumbfounded and grinning.
This one afternoon, My Afternoon in Paris as the file in my brain reads, made me want more of that big world. I talked about this afternoon in college admissions essays, it inspired me to study abroad my junior year, it was one of those moments that shapes your life. And all over some pastries. Some damn good pastries.
The women in the books I review this week are certainly very different, from me and from one another, but they too embraced France, welcomed it into their lives and their imaginations, and it changed them.
My Life in France is beloved and iconic chef Julia Child’s autobiography. It spans her life, but really focuses on her time in France while she got her culinary education, both formally at Le Cordon Bleu and informally on the streets of Paris, and spent almost a decade writing her landmark cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
After reading this book, I wanted to be Julia Child’s best friend. And I wanted to move to France. Since neither of these things is likely to happen any time soon, I treasure the presence of this book in my life. I can pluck it from my bookshelf (or, ahem, check it out from the public library) any time I want and be instantly transported to Julia’s France – and oh! what a France it is. I defy anyone not to fall in love with the French locales described in this book. The colors, the smells, and, most of all, the tastes of all the places Julia and her beloved husband Paul lived and visited – from Paris to the port city of Marseille – will stay with you long after you finish reading.
And then there is Julia herself, whose character simply bursts off the pages. She has this big, fun, boisterous, passionate personality and you really come to feel as if you know her – as if she is speaking straight to you from across a little, round, Parisian table, telling you her stories.
Many of these stories are about her cookbook, her life’s work, and contain all the right kind of fascinating details about the process of its creation – making you feel like you are a lucky observer peeking into a wonderful, secret world you were never meant to see. Many other stories are personal ones of her life with her husband Paul. Their tender, solid relationship is the part of this book that I was least expecting, but most enjoyed. Their life as described in these pages – despite unavoidable hard times, including a brush with Senator McCarthy and a depressed period of living in Germany – is truly enviable, full of adventure, laughter, mutual respect, and intense devotion.
This book was also, of course, the inspiration for the Julia-half of the 2009 movie Julie & Julia, written and directed by the late Nora Ephron.
Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard, is in many ways a similar tale of a woman who finds herself, both physically and symbolically, in France.
Elizabeth falls in love with a French man and moves to Paris where, after some hemming and hawing, she marries him. In many ways, however, this is just the beginning of the story. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to love in the recounting of this early phase of Elizabeth’s relationship with her eventual husband, Gwendal, including some very seductive recipes that I wanted to rush to my kitchen to make immediately.
The parts of Elizabeth’s experience that really spoke to me though, are the ones that go beyond the romantic ideal she seemed to be living. These are the stories about her struggles to build a new life – a stranger in a strange land. Her accounts of the loneliness she felt, how difficult it was to make friends, her attempts to understand French women’s nuanced attitudes toward food and body image, her integration into a new family. All told with an honesty that is inviting, an optimism that is inspiring, and a graceful wisdom that instructs.
The method of sharing her experiences in vignettes can sometimes feel a little choppy, simply because they can make the reader feel like there are parts of the story that are missing and you don’t want to miss one second of this engaging tale. The overall structure of the book is a success though – it is narrative and reads like a novel, but includes recipes at the end of each chapter that pair perfectly with the theme of what preceded.
Don’t forget that you can find reviews and rating for these, and other books for food-lovers on my Good Reads page!
Now, you’ll have to excuse me while I go find a pastry…