Archive for category Biography
(Note: I found this draft of a post from several years ago, and wondered why I never posted it. I offer it now, with minimal editing.)
I have been on a Julia Child journey lately, as I make my way through the Bob Spitz biography of her life. There is a lot to like about her: That she was a late-bloomer who didn’t hit her stride until middle age. She was a woman everyone who met seemed to have loved. But the most amazing thing of all, I think, is that at the beginning of her journey, she sucked at cooking.
She loved good food, an interest she shared with her husband, Paul Child. Early on in their marriage, she tried to cook, often with disappointing results. But she kept trying, receiving help from her sister-in-law, among others. Slowly, she improved. When her husband was posted to Paris, it was the beginning of her formal education as a cook. But before she could enroll at Le Cordon Bleu, she had to tackle something else she wasn’t good at: the French language.
Now, I don’t know exactly how terrible she was at either cooking or French (later on in the book, when the Childs are posted to Oslo, Spitz refers to Julia’s wonderful “ear for language”), but it is clear she didn’t exhibit any particular early talent for cooking. The usual manner of determining one’s life work is to identify one’s talents, and go from there. Julia Child’s life work grew out of something other than a native talent; it grew instead out of love. She loved French cooking, and desired to master it. For the cooking, she needed the language, so she mastered that as well.
Love is a powerful motivation, but rarely is it enough to overcome the baggage of failure. Julia Child had something else going for her, where the cooking was concerned. That something was science.
An intuitive, “talented” cook might brag about never measuring, and might be vague as to what temperature the oven should be, or how much time the thing should cook. Julia deconstructed everything. In mastering recipes for French classics such as coq au vin, she did trial after trial, methodically adjusting measurements and refining her technique. When compiling recipes for her masterwork, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she and her collaborators tried multiple recipes for each dish, from French home cooks, and from master chefs. Julia kept breaking it down, seeking precision in every step.
Talent is attractive. Talent allows the extraordinary to look effortless. Talent is something to envy.
Julia Child was loaded with talent, but her greatest talents lay in her character and temperament. She is described by those who knew her as having boundless enthusiasm. She was also loaded with persistence and an insatiable desire for knowledge. She seemed incapable of embarrassment. Failure did not shame her; it motivated her to cook a dish, five, ten, or twenty times, until it met her standards.
I’ve gone on before about my shift in reading. At one time, I read close to a 50/50 mix between lit-fic and SF, with a bit of mystery and political intrigue thrown in. Oh, and a non-fiction or two. In recent years, I have given up so-called “realistic” fiction in favor of genre work, almost completely.
Today, though, I find myself in the middle of two books, neither of which are genre, and both of which are non-fiction. One is Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave. The other is the Bob Spitz biography of Julia Child, Dearie.
The Julia Child bio was given to me for Christmas, and it was a good pick, because I adore Julia Child. The second I downloaded after seeing the movie by the same name, because (and this will also be familiar to readers of previous posts) I wanted to see if the movie stuck to the facts as given in Northup’s work. (I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and so far, it does.)
These books are wildly different from one another in some respects. One is about a twentieth century woman who transformed our nation’s approach to home cooking. The other is about a nineteenth century man kidnapped from his life as a free man, and sold into slavery. They are also quite different in quality. The Northup memoir is elegant, full of nineteenth century wordiness and flourish, but clear and brilliant in his descriptions of people, places, and events. The Spitz effort is full of cliches and clumsy wordiness…a nervous, twitchy sort of style. I stumble over his sentences the way I would stumble through a cluttered room. He also seems to have San Diego and Los Angeles counties mixed up with each other. Palomar Observatory is not atop Mt. Wilson. I put up with the writer, because what he depicts is of interest to me.
And now, the great similarity. Both Twelve Years a Slave and Dearie work on me the same way genre fiction does. They are each set in a time different from my own, and in a place so different, it might as well be a different planet. Julia’s childhood of privilege in Pasadena, her career in the OSS, and her transformation into an expert on the art of French Cooking is a grand saga of exploration and reinvention. Solomon Northup’s ordeal is a kidnap and survival story of the first order.
There is a deeper genre connection as well. I love SF because it asks the big questions about who we are, what we could be, what we might become, and where we came from. Julia Child reinvented herself at different times in her life, and Solomon Northup had himself reinvented by others, against his will. Because Julia’s invention was a matter of her own choices, her triumphs were true and solid, and carried her through a long and healthy life. Solomon Northup didn’t fare nearly as well, apparently. He was rescued from slavery, and restored to his true life in 1853, but after a few years, apparently disappeared. No one knows for sure what happened. They didn’t have the phrase, “post-traumatic stress” then, but I imagine this is what he experienced. Plucked from his life, given a new name and sub-human status, and then suddenly restored to become a spokesman for abolition…who he was in his own soul couldn’t keep up with external events.
These are two remarkable life stories, both of which get to the essence of who and what we are.