Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child
Category: nonfiction, biography, Julia Child, food, cooking, France, celebrity
Synopsis: An account of the culinary star who brought French cooking to America.
Date finished: 2 March 2013
Comments: Like most people, I’ve always enjoyed Julia Child. I now regard her even more highly. She’s a national treasure, tireless in her quest to bring good (French) food to the American palate. Before reading the book, though, most of what I knew about her was her 1999 Emmy Award-winning PBS series with Jacque Pepin. They disagreed on everything, sometimes playfully, sometimes vehemently. She was advanced in years, and she didn’t look well, was physically unstable, but still full of, to use my grandmother’s expression, “vim and vigor.” Not knowing much about her long, illustrious career, I thought Jacque was there to teach her about French cooking. I laugh to think of this now.
I tend to have a healthy distrust of biographies for several reasons. They’re too apt to slant one way or another, and it’s too easy to edit a life to fit the writer’s agenda. So, I admit, I distrusted Spitz just a little bit all the way through. Known for his pop culture biographies of such stars and events as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Woodstock, I wasn’t sure he was invested in his culinary subject. Come to find out that he knew Julia late in her life, so I softened a bit—although that fact didn’t come out until the Sources and Acknowledgments pages way in the back of the book. Throughout (though more in the beginning), he seemed to be bored by his own prose and would add odd puns, bawdy jokes, and ill-fitted swearwords (e.g. “hard-ass” when referring to her father, “shit-faced” [page 69], “balls” [page 522], “more connected than an IBM mainframe” [page 433], and this odd sentence on page 12: “An omelet had to be exciting in the mouth, she purred, making it sound like oral sex.”) Those instances made it seem just a little too much about him and his self-perceived literary prowess, didn’t fit with his tone, and, frankly, annoyed me. I was also annoyed by the gratuitous, random italicization.
It’s hard for me to grade a biography; what are you grading, really? The biographer’s writing? How much you come to like the subject? You can’t really rate it on how factual it is, since the author is likely more an expert than the reader is. I don’t really know, so I had to go with an overall gut feeling, combining these three. I’m glad I read Julia’s Cats before this biography, since I’m not sure I would have appreciated it for what it was knowing so much more about Julia.
Would I have liked Julia Child had I met her? Likely, I would have adored her as a star but disliked her political persona and some of her moral decisions. She very much disliked Republicans (likely because her father very much disliked liberals), and she even considered declining the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2003) because it was offered to her by President George W. Bush. While her husband, Paul, was nearing the end of his life in a nursing home, she was dating (though she didn’t call it that) another man. These actions made her human, but diminished her a bit in my eyes. (Though, to be fair, after a brief chat with President Bush, she decided maybe he wasn’t the terrible person she’d always thought.) I will always enjoy her practical nature, her bawdiness, her unusual height (6’3”) and voice. I also appreciate her first three decades (plus) spent utterly rudderless, adrift with no great passion, and how her first Parisian meal of sole gave her entire life purpose and direction. As someone still waiting for her plate of sole, so to speak, this gives me hope. And after reading this book, I especially appreciate the tremendous, painstaking work she did to bring French cuisine (and technique, she would hasten to add) to the states.
Some of my favorite stories from the book: It was well known that Julia Child was listed in the phone book, and she’d spend her entire Thanksgiving day answering frantic calls from culinary civilians. (Never apologize, dearie!) Another favorite was Julia’s distrust of Meryl Streep for Streep’s campaign to examine the ill effects of a certain chemical used on apples. Julia said Streep was no scientist, and she’d be better off butting out. Meryl Streep, of course, went on to play Child in the 2009 film “Julie & Julia.” (And, she was right about that chemical being hazardous.) My least favorite part of the book: the last few chapters describing Paul’s decline and then Julia’s. Although Spitz handled the telling of them well, they were uncomfortable nonetheless.
All in all, Dearie was a good chronology of Julia Child’s life (in the U.S., France, and other countries), cookbooks, and television career. I doubt that much was glossed over. Spitz quoted many family members and friends, though I was surprised at how little was in Julia’s own words considering she’d produced a memoir (My Life in France, 2008) and left behind reams and reams of personal papers.
Would you recommend this to a friend?