Julia Child's co-author succeeded in the kitchen but also in second half of life

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By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Oscars are coming! And Meryl Streep is nominated for her role as super-chef Julia Child, who chop-chop-chopped those onions to success in "Julie & Julia." The movie tells the tale of Julia's beginnings as a chef in Paris, set against the later story of young writer Julie Powell, who spends a year cooking Child's most famous recipes.

But for me, the film is really "Julia & Me." I was a student in Paris the very year that Julia Child was working on "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" with her two French colleagues Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. And I was renting a room from Louisette.

How Louisette tried to teach me how to cook! But we were a mismatch. I had come to Paris in 1960 to study poetry and march in the streets for liberte, egalite, fraternite. To me, this preoccupation with cooking was beyond bourgeois. With the passionate but simple-minded righteousness of a 20-year-old, I never wavered. Baudelaire's "Fleurs du Mal" would always trump Louisette's Poulet a la Creme.

Every afternoon I'd come back from classes at the Sorbonne, and Louisette would greet me in a state of delirious agitation. She'd worked all day in the kitchen. Taste this, she'd say. And I would eat the creation on a plate: Was it a mushroom? A piece of pork? Great, I'd reply, but inwardly I was shaking my head: Poor, old-fashioned, oppressed woman . . .

The kitchen was total disaster. Pots and pans cluttered every counter. Knives were scattered about -- a different blade for chopping, dicing, spreading, carving. And the whisks! Several different-size whisks lay beside different-size mixing bowls and measuring cups. Dishes of butter and cheese at room temperature; heavy cream standing by. Mounds of vegetable droppings in the sink. An egg yolk in a cup. A faint sprinkling of white: flour for a crepe? Only in France would it take an earthquake to make dinner.

It is a (small) tragedy for my family that I missed my chance to be a chef. I never learned to master the art, and I remain cooking-challenged. But what has changed is how I see the past. Longevity experts call this life review -- revising the past to integrate the different chapters into a coherent narrative. At this point, time has revised my Paris experience and especially my view of Louisette.

In the movie, she is portrayed as not pulling her weight on the book. I have a different memory. Certainly she tested a lot of recipes -- I ate them. She was also very attractive, with her blue eyes and luminous smile, always smartly dressed with a perfect scarf (when she got out of the kitchen). And now that I am older than she was then, I see a more complex woman. I hadn't grasped how she was struggling. It wasn't all about food. She was going through a midlife Armageddon: Her marriage was crumbling, her finances were drained -- she was on her own.

Hardly old-fashioned or oppressed, she re-created herself after 50. She survived divorce, went on to publish more cookbooks after "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" became a bestseller, and eventually married Mr. Right. Louisette stands out as a success story for the second half of life.

To age gracefully is to bring some grace to your past. You look back through the lens of experience and soften the scenes of youth. You were just a kid -- what did you know? "You can understand things now that you couldn't at the time," says Washington psychiatrist Harvey L. Rich, author of "In the Moment." "We snicker at the young -- we say the problem with youth is that it's wasted on the young. . . . But young people have a different job than older people. They are trying to build a life; we're at the stage of trying to make sense of life. The young haven't acquired the language. They're not there yet."

The advantage of age is perspective. "You can look back with curiosity, a sense of humor, and ultimately resignation. This is what life is about. Enjoy the 'mistakes,' " continues Rich. "It's not about regret; it's about acceptance."

Yes, it was a mistake not to take advantage of fate placing me with a master of French cooking. But I relished the excitement of being a student in Paris. And I'd still rather read poetry than spend a whole day cooking a chicken.

This weekend, when everyone tunes in to the Academy Awards, I probably order takeout.

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