Posts Tagged ‘Paris’

Jesse Kornbluth, of, jealous of friends who have jetted off to Paris and wishing he could have dinner with Julia Child — even on her 100th-if-she-were-alive birthday.

As we note what would have been Julia Child’s hundredth birthday, it strikes me that most Americans who know her as someone who had something to do with food probably think of her as … Meryl Streep.

There are worse fates.

Like the image that Julia Child had before Nora Ephron made the film that burnished her eccentricities, back when she taught her fellow citizens the joy of French cooking on public television — a frowsy, big-boned (6’2″, 158 pounds) matron with a trill in her voice, hacking up a chicken with more zest than is called for, most likely because she’s been chugging the cooking sherry.

My favorite way of considering Julia Child — the Julia Child of “My Life in France” — was a revolutionary. Not intentionally. She just had the great good fortune to find herself living in Paris with no job and nothing more compelling than a tentative interest in cooking. She signed up for classes at Cordon Bleu, got hooked, and with two friends was soon working on a book we now take for granted but was then unimagined — an authoritative guide to French cooking for Americans.

Published 40 years ago, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One’ has never gone out of print. It never will. It is the gold standard. [To buy the cookbook from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Julia Child died in 2004. Of her 11 books, none was a memoir. But she kept scribbles and letters, and at the end of her life, she began to shape this book with her grandnephew. Like almost everything she touched, ‘My Life in France’ is a triumph — insightful, poetic, deadly accurate about people, and, above all, tasty. Reading it, you breathe French air. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Nothing in her early life would have predicted that Julia Child would become formidable in any way. Her father was a conservative Southern California businessman; her mother was “warm and social.” After college came World War II and government work in Ceylon. There she met Paul Child, an artist who designed ‘war rooms’ for the generals. The first meal she cooked for him — brains simmered in red wine — was not a success. Still, they married, and, in 1948, moved to France. She was 36. She didn’t speak a word of French.

Her first meal, in Rouen, started with oysters, served with a pale rye bread and unsalted butter. They were followed by sole meuniere, “perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley.” Mr. and Mrs. Child washed it down with a bottle of Pouilly-Fume. They moved on to a green salad and a baguette, fromage blanc and cafe filtre. “Absolute perfection,” Julia decided. “The most exciting meal of my life.”

Fortunately, the Childs were not rich — two-star restaurants were the best they could afford in Paris. But Julia was reading cookbooks, making friends in the food markets, falling in love with Paris. At Cordon Bleu, her classmates were 11 former American servicemen who were studying courtesy of the GI Bill of Rights. She went right to the head of the class.

To read this book is to peer over her shoulder and learn with her. Scrambled eggs, for example. They are not whipped, just gently blended. Smear the pan with butter, add the eggs, salt and pepper, cook over a low flame. After about three minutes, the eggs will start to form a custard. Only then do you stir rapidly with a fork, sliding the pan on and off the burner. Pull the egg curds together — and, finally, add more butter, to “stop the cooking.” Sprinkle with parsley (or not). Serve. Dazzle.

The real revelations in this book are not about food, however — they’re about work. There’s a lot of it involved in the creation of a book, especially when you’re creating something new. “WHY DID WE EVER DECIDE TO DO THIS ANYWAY?” Julia writes to one of her collaborators. But after eight years, the thing is done. And Knopf offers to buy it for $1,500. The galleys weigh 15 pounds. When printed, it is 732 pages long.

In 1961, when ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ was published, Paul Child was 59 years old. Julia was 49. They had no expectations of a bestseller, much less a franchise. But the New York Times raved — the recipes are “painstakingly edited and written as if each were a masterpiece, and most of them are” — and the appearance on the “Today” show went well. The book sold and sold. In 1962, Julia taped three half-hour shows for WGBH, the public TV station in Boston. By the following year, she had taped 26 more.

But this is not a celebrity memoir. This book is called “My Life in France” for a reason — it is there that Julia and Paul feel most fully alive. Paul’s photographs deliver the country in delicious slivers. The passages at their home in the South of France lift off the page and surround you. You inhale lavender. You feel the breeze. In the distance is the smell of lamb cooking in herbs. There is laughter, and wit, and, most of all, blessed silence. If this is not a description of Heaven, what is?

Paul takes ill and dies. Julia soldiers on. She understands — you have to keep grabbing life. Food and love and very shrewd French friends have taught her well: “Nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should.”

The book ends this way: “The pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite — toujours bon appetit!” As you read these words, you finally get it — this is not a book about food, this is a book about life. A wise life, a life of beauty, art and invention. You can learn a lot from a life like that.

Start with this book.

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On our first trip to New York, back in March, Husband and I went to see The Steins Collect at the MET. It was magical. The collection was a joint effort between Gertrude Stein and her brothers (as well as their wives) and was an amazing overview of some of the best artists from the turn of the 20th century, which also happens to be my very favorite period. The one thing I have not been able to get out of my head was the little postcard pictured above from Henri Matisse to the family of Michel Stein. It’s absolutely amazing to know that all of these people were actually friends: Matisse, Hemingway, Picasso, Stein, Fitzgerald… etc, etc. To that end, I am pulling out A Moveable Feast (Hemingway’s account of the time) and just received Midnight in Paris from Netflix. When it’s 104 in Tennessee, why not escape to Paris?

What are you reading as a little summer escape? Any recommendations?
Until next week… xo* ~Hannah B.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of, this week taking you to Paris — in 1938.

If you have a deadline looming or even a busy week, the absolute last thing you want to do is crack open “Mission to Paris” and think you’re going to read just a chapter, because you’re not.

You’re going to read when you shouldn’t be reading. You’ll read at lunch. On the street. Deep into the night.

But if you then try to convey your enthusiasm for “Mission to Paris” to someone who has never read any of Alan Furst’s 13 novels, you may have a hard time. These are spy thrillers by category, but the main characters aren’t usually spies; in this book, the hero is a Hollywood movie star who, in 1938, is “loaned out” to a Parisian producer to play the lead in a French film. More and more, in total violation of convention, Furst’s novels feature romance, invariably with women who are not swimsuit models. As for suspense, even before you start a Furst novel set in Europe during the run-up to World War II, you know at least part of the ending — the hero is not going to kill Hitler and save the world.

So why are Alan Furst’s novels so addictive?

Just read the first paragraph of “Mission to Paris.”

In Paris, the evenings of September are sometimes warm, excessively gentle, and, in the magic particular to that city, irresistibly seductive. The autumn of 1938 began in just such weather and on the terraces of the best cafés, in the famous restaurants, at the dinner parties one wished to attend, the conversation was, of necessity, lively and smart: fashion, cinema, love affairs, politics, and, yes, the possibility of war—that too had its moment. Almost anything, really, except money. Or, rather, German money. A curious silence, for hundreds of millions of francs — tens of millions of dollars — had been paid to some of the most distinguished citizens of France since Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. But maybe not so curious, because those who had taken the money were aware of a certain shadow in these transactions and, in that shadow, the people who require darkness for the kind of work they do.

An immense amount of information is conveyed in those 155 words. The tension between the lively start of the fall season in Paris and the conversation no one wants to have about German money. The way that money compromises the rich Frenchmen who take it. The presence of shady characters. And, not least, the feeling you get when you have fallen under the spell of a master storyteller. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

And that’s just the first paragraph.

The first chapter — click here to read it — follows a French fool who absconds with enough of that German money to live comfortably in another country for years. Think he gets away? Or do you think we see, in brisk, no nonsense prose, the efficiency of the German operation in France — in 1938?

All of that suggests what awaits Fredric Stahl when he arrives in Paris to make a movie. He’s no matinee idol: “He couldn’t punch another man, he wasn’t Clark Gable, and he couldn’t fight a duel, he was not Errol Flynn. But neither was he Charles Boyer — he wasn’t so sophisticated. Mostly he played a warm man in a cold world.”

The Germans, knowing Stahl was born in Vienna, are interested in him. And they want so little: come to Berlin, just to judge a festival of films about mountains. $10,000 for a day’s work. Lufthansa will fly him over and back.

Stahl is less than interested. But then he gets a taste of German commitment to the triumph of the Reich. (As Goebbels’s people liked to say, “We don’t send out press releases. We send out operatives, and then other people send out press releases.”)

Stahl prudently consults an American spymaster.

“You’re not a spy,” the officer tells him. “That takes nerves of steel, and soon enough becomes a full-time job.” A “but” follows: “If, in your time here you, ah, stumble on something, something important, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you let me know about it.”

And that happens.

Reading rapidly to the end, you could say that the reason you’re so involved with a Furst novel — if you’re new to his books, you may want to go right on to The Foreign Correspondent and The Spies of Warsaw and Spies of the Balkans — is because he writes so well.

True enough. But I see another reason: At the start of a Furst novel, his main characters are not spies. They’re drawn into espionage by circumstance, but also, I think, by character. They see clearly that there are good guys and bad guys, and at some point, you’ve got to decide where you stand. So although these novels are about Europe in the years before World War II, they’re also exquisite little morality plays about right now, right here.

But mostly, damned if they don’t make you think, “I’ve got to get to Paris, and soon.”

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