America’s First Foodie

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child
by Bob Spitz
(Knopf, 2012)

It’s hard to overstate the influence that Julia Child had on the American food landscape. The engine or inspiration behind countless cookbooks and television shows, Julia was a one-woman industry decades before such a thing even existed. Before Julia, American dinner tables were graced with canned soup casseroles and sugared hams; after she had her way with us, we knew how to sauté, flambé, and soufflé. Even more importantly, we understood the true and enduring power of butter.

For people, like me, who grew up watching this warbley-voiced giant wrangle roasting pans on PBS, Julia has always been the reigning queen of cooking, but her death in 2004 sent the American mythmaking machine into overdrive, triggering a near ceaseless stream of tributes. By the time Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia came out in 2009, even I, a Julia-zealot, was downright glutted. And I wasn’t feeling any more peckish three years later when Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child showed up on my doorstep. Like the cheese course following an epic meal, I just didn’t know if I could stomach Spitz’s 534-page opus. Luckily, I’ve never been able to resist cheese. Having now gorged myself on the thing, I can tell you that while it doesn’t quite reach the level of fine dining, it is compulsively eatable.

Best known for his celebrity biographies of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, Spitz has made a career out of helping cement the reputations of beloved pop cultural icons. He is, in other words, a high priest of the very mythmaking machine in question. Predictably then, Dearie is not so much a psychological survey, as it is long, lavishly detailed fan letter. If you’re expecting a deeply nuanced view of Julia’s motivations and character, you’ll likely be disappointed. But what the book lacks in intellectual rigor, it compensates for with sheer enthusiasm.

Dearie’s scope is ambitious. It starts before Julia’s birth in 1912, stretches past her death some 92 years later, and crams far more than one normal lifetime’s worth of living in between. What emerges from this sprawling portrait is a figure of such vitality and will she makes even Martha Stewart look like a bit of a slouch. For those of us accustomed to thinking of Julia as the befuddled fairy godmother of cooking, one of the book’s most surprising revelations is what an iconoclast she was. As a child, she was an unrepentant mischief maker; as an aspiring French cook, she worked unremittingly to break into a world that seemed loath to have her; and as a teacher and champion of fine dining, she battled pretentiousness every chance she got. What Julia Child believed in, she believed in fervently and she knew just how to employ her high-wattage charm to win people over to her way of thinking.

There are many high points in Dearie—Julia’s stint as the gatekeeper of records with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, her lovely and slow-ripening courtship with Paul Child, her triumphant arrival on the American cooking scene—but the most sumptuous parts of the book are about her love affair with French food. In 1948, Julia had what amounts to a conversion experience at a little bistro in Rouen called La Couronne. Prior to this meal, Julia, as Spitz paints her, is a force without a focus, an untapped font of potential in search of a target. His near-pornographic description of this simple meal of sole with lemon and butter is so immediate and arresting it shows us how a perfectly cooked fish turned a passing interest in food into a lifelong obsession with the alchemy of cooking.

If Spitz is guilty of anything, it’s a certain kind of squeamishness when it comes to digging into the less savory aspects of Julia’s personality. As a testament to her superhuman pragmatism, he treats us to page after page detailing her years-long struggle to perfect and publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But when this same pragmatism leads Julia to stow an ailing Paul in a home and depart for greener pastures, or fuels her decision to turn her back on a late-in-life paramour whose failing health reminds her too much of her own mortality, his reports turn brief and cursory. Spitz is loath to tarnish his angel and this makes Dearie less meaty than it might have been. But then, this is not a book intended to make Julia Child more life-sized. In Spitz’s loving hands, she’s turned into nothing less than an icon.

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Orli Van Mourik