Saturday, August 1, 2009


The new Julia Child movie opens this weekend. The shelves are full of books about her and by her, by people who remember her, and by people who want to be like her or at least want to cook like her. Her kitchen is in the Smithsonian. Her voice is in our heads whenever we cook, although it might be the voice of Dan Ackroyd. No wonder. She is our modern domestic goddess, never mind Martha Stewart and Alice Waters. (All three women have several anecdotes each in A Book of Ages.)

What surprises me is that Nora Ephron didn't think Julia had enough back story for a movie of her own, that she needed to share the screen with a young woman blogging about her recipes. What can you say? Today's TV obsession with chefs and kitchens has more to do with egos and speed and extravagance, with concept, less to do with the down-to-earth creation of good food and eating it. This young wife, played by Amy Adams, promises to cook every recipe from The Art of French Cooking in one year. Hilarity ensues. But which life are we more interested in? Who do we identify with?

That's the point, I guess. Julia works for the spy agency called the O.S.S. during WWII, travels to India and China, marries an urbane diplomat, moves to Paris, enrolls at the Cordon Bleu to learn French cooking (she didn't know how to cook at all until her mid-30s), she writes a cookbook (which her publisher turns down), then goes on public TV and becomes a star. Every life has an arc, and Julia's is interesting and full of surprises. She appears six times in A Book of Ages.

My book is about how famous lives reflect our own, so it's the private, domestic details I find most interesting. Freud and Henry Ford collecting antiques, Steve Martin collecting art, Churchill learning to paint, Jack Kerouac and Edward Elgar learning to drive, Hitler becoming a vegetarian. So I include Julia Child's first meal on her first trip to France––she was 36. The most vivid detail I discovered was the hotplate in her D.C. apartment, where she didn't cook very much or very well.

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