I came across this book while browsing at the library. I’m not sure it would normally have caught my eye, but a blogger that I read on occassion had recently mentioned it and so when I recognized the cover I casually picked it up. And while the Mr. went off to discover (as he usually does) that there are no computer books on the shelf that he hasn’t read, I found myself being sucked into its vortex. By the end of the first page I was hooked. And I’m a sucker for a powerful hook. Three little sentences at the bottom of the page were all that was needed to cement my interest.
But he hadn’t seen anything yet. His wife, Julia Child, had decided to learn to cook. She was thirty-seven years old.
I closed the cover, checked it out and finished it in just under two days. Typically when I am reading with this kind of focus (and, truth be told, a fair amount of desperation), it is because I am reading for myself. Which is to say, I am reading to discover something vitally important about who I am and what I am doing here. There was something so familiar in this woman’s voice. A sense that life had not quite turned out as planned, not that it was terrible or awful by any means (in fact there were very good things about it — which only serves to make you feel guilty and ungrateful), but it was just disappointing, unfulfilling. And it is very hard to tell the people around you that you feel this way without them taking it personally. Of course it has nothing to do with them, it is such an internal dissatisfaction, but it is a prevasive feeling that seems to slowly and then much more quickly take over your whole life.
So here she was, temping. A secretary. She’d come to New York with thoughts of acting, but nothing had come of it. She didn’t know what she wanted to do or be. There was this sense of being lost, of having no purpose, of not mattering. And no matter how wonderful your partner is (and it sounds like her husband is quite a gem), they can’t help you out of your own internal labyrinth — at least not in the way that romantic comedies would like to make you think. Marriage does not equal happiness, because if you are unhappy with yourself, no one else can make you happy. (Even if they bring you coffee in bed every morning and tell you they love you all the time — yep, my husband is also a gem).
So, he did what he could do. He sent her to visit her mother. He told her that they couldn’t keep living like this (depression, crying jags and anxiety take their toll on a relationship, this I know). And when she returned toting a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Childs and proceeded to use it to make a kick-ass Potage Parmentier (i.e. Potato Leek Soup), he suggested she blog about her culinary endeavors. And blog she did. She set a challenge for herself, cook all 500+ recipes in the Mastering the Art of French Cooking in just one year. Turns out, this insane little project was exactly what she needed.
Prior to this, I had no idea that Julia Childs, culinary goddess, had not discovered her true calling until later in life. As someone who is constantly lamenting her slowness at finding her place in this world or realizing her dreams, I cling with a desperate intensity to stories of people who “make it” after XX years (this number keeps climbing the older I get). It gives me hope that I will write that book or figure out what it is that I am truly passionate about (agriculture, holistic medicine, literature, cooking, nutrition, psychology, etc.).
So, what made this book so compelling? Well, for starters, her voice is real. Something authentic and true. She writes with her own style and an excellent sense of humor. More importantly I found her relatable. I’ve had my own bouts with helplessness and hopelessness, feeling as if I am staring down a long, arduous dead end of a corridor and unable to shake that “this isn’t fair!” sense that life should be about something more than just a job I don’t like and a few moments of distraction in the form of friends and Buffy and a husband and vodka gimlets. I’ve craved a sense of purpose and validity. This book is about all of those things. It isn’t really about French Cuisine at all. As she so aptly puts it,
Without the project I was nothing but a secretary on a road to nowhere.
So, over the course of a year, she literally cooked and blogged her way out of the black hole of despair she’d been living in. In many ways I expected to be disappointed by a very neat and tidy conclusion. I typically frown upon these types of endings — especially when it comes to real life, which is much too open ended and continuous — but sometimes, everything does come together that way and you can put an end to that chapter of the book or that volume in the series. At the end of the book she was different, or maybe it is more accurate to say she was more fully in posession of herself. But along the way, she did a really good job of making sure you saw all the heartache, the joy, the crazy fits of hysteria and the sheer willpower that went into this endeavor. It is a very satisfying book — satisfying in much the same way as a delicious meal crafted with your own two hands and enjoyed with your dearest friends.