Julie & Julia: Switching Gears.
by Meredith O’Brien
Her career of choice commenced when she was in her late 30s, after her first career in government service during World War II had concluded. “I was 37 years old, and still discovering who I was,” she said. The book that put her on the map was published when she was 49 years old, followed a year later by her first appearance on her own TV program.
To read about the career of Julia Child and see it dramatized on the silver screen, is to be inspired. In a climate when some parents pressure their children to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives when they’re only in high school, the notion that Child, a graduate of Smith College with a degree in history, was able to launch her professional career in her forties was a revelation. “I knew I didn’t want to become a standard housewife, or a corporate woman, but I wasn’t sure what I did want to be,” Child wrote in her memoir, My Life in France.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about Child after seeing the delightfully uplifting film Julie & Julia – starring Meryl Streep as Child – and after reading Child’s My Life in France, about how when she was 36 and arrived in Paris with her husband Paul in 1948, she didn’t know how to cook. Yet now, her name is synonymous with cooking. The movie traced Child’s evolution from that of being a former clerk with the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) to the wife of a diplomat who wanted to challenge herself. At the same time, Julie & Julia fast-forwarded to New York City, circa 2002, where Julie Powell, who was just turning 30, was feeling lost and turned to Julia Child for motivation. Powell, who only cooked recreationally, threw herself into a year-long project where she decided to cook her way through Child’s first and most famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a 700+ page tome whose eight-year creation was covered in the film. Powell’s odyssey through the 524 recipes was chronicled in her blog which was later turned into a book, Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.
The parallels between Child and Powell in the film were wonderfully serendipitous.
While living in France when her husband worked for the U.S. Information Agency, Child said she fell in love with French food and became obsessed with learning how to cook authentically Parisian cuisine. “I had never taken anything so seriously in my life – husband and cat excepted – and I could hardly bear to be away from the kitchen,” Child wrote in My Life in France. “ . . . How magnificent to find my life’s calling, at long last!” Child ignored the sometimes hostile criticism of her cooking, as well as sexism (she was the only woman in a professional level “boys’ club” cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school) in order to hone her new craft.