Fans raised on PBS reruns of the matronly Child tooling around her Cambridge, Mass., kitchen may not recognize the young firebrand Spitz introduces in the early chapters of his sweeping narrative. We learn about her propensity for throwing mud pies at cars as a child before graduating to boarding school and on-the-sly martinis. Later, at Smith College, Spitz drily observes, “Julia minored in partying.”
Spitz has cherry-picked photos as well as antics. A 1939 photo of Child (then McWilliams) in her home town of Pasadena, Calif., screams va-va-voom, as “the social butterfly” reclines in a chair, her eyes seductively half-closed. In a 1944 picture from Ceylon — where she was a sort of information manager for the Office of Strategic Services — her dress is pushed up to her knees, showing off “the legs that transfixed” the man who became her friend and then her husband, Paul Child.
While their relationship developed around many hearty meals at restaurants, Julia was a total novice in the kitchen. “Word around our house was Paul’s girlfriend couldn’t cook,” Spitz quotes Paul’s nephew Jon Child as saying. “The joke was she could burn water if she boiled it.”
It’s the kind of anecdote that Spitz excels in mining to telling effect. Only a few pages later, he sits us down at the restaurant in Rouen, France, where Julia and Paul had stopped for lunch on the way to his new government posting in Paris. The meal set Julia on her path as a culinary icon. “For an instant, there was sweetness of a kind she had never experienced before — butter perhaps, but more full-bodied, like a butter bomb, with a smoky scorched tang. An instant later, the sea — probably a briny fish fume with a splash of white wine. Wait! A faint lemony whiff drifting by . . . now gone.”
After wiping your drool off the page, you might wonder where Spitz uncovered such narrative gold. It can be hard to say. Sometimes he cites his source. More often, he omits the attribution. Only at the end of the book does he explain that the notes and bibliography are online due to their length. Nice to know, but nicer would be additional context in the text itself.
If there is something to be said for that approach, it’s that the minimal citations reduce the distance between Spitz’s voice and Child’s. He takes us to her tiny Paris kitchen, where she ceaselessly develops recipes we can almost smell. He puts us under the lights of those early TV studios. Author and subject almost become one, as Spitz channels the spirit of Child in his own words. On bouillabaisse: “Now that she was in Marseille, she intended to solve that shifty little fellow.”
The extensive narrative of Child’s early years as a cook and the creation of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with Simone Beck Fischbacher and Louisette Bertholle makes her rise to fame all the more satisfying by the time Spitz takes us there. And his detailed research into mid-century American cooking helps us understand why exactly Child was such a big deal. Where other cookbooks were vague, even untested, hers were exacting. Where previous TV chefs would instruct women to make salmon mousse with canned fish and red food coloring in a blender, she would call for fresh fish, simply dressed. While manufacturers of gadgets sold housewives on ways to save time in the kitchen, she showed that spending time on cooking could be fun and that, hey, it was okay to make it even more fun with a glass of wine.
Spitz doesn’t shy away from Child’s prickly side. She had a tendency to say un-PC things about gay people, vegetarians and even women. Still, the overall portrait is an affectionate one, only marginally undermined by Spitz’s admission in his conclusion that he had traveled with Child for several weeks in 1992. “If I have to admit to one prejudice confronting this book, it is that I had a powerful crush on her. Sorry. Deal with it,” he writes. All is forgiven, though, because by the end of his book, anyone with a heart, and a stomach, probably will have a crush on her, too.
is an editorial aide for The Washington Post’s Food and Travel sections.