Whilst in California over Christmas I fell into the welcoming arms of the City Lights bookshop, hiding from the rain and the tramps and the strip clubs along Broadway Street. I took surreptitious photographs of signs which had been smirked and smiled for decades by generations of devoted readers; I pretended to read poetry books (because after all, what else could one do in the shop which kicked off the Beat phenomenon with the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl); and after about half an hour I found myself tucked into a corner in the basement, eyeball deep in biography. And not just any biography – culinary biography. And not just any culinary biography, but Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child (2012).
Julia Child had hovered on the edge of my culinary conscience for years. I cannot remember exactly where I first came across her – possibly through my grandmother, who is a phenomenal cook herself and has been valiantly feeding a family of six children, thirteen grandchildren, and three fostered Chinese students for over seventy years. My grandmother had been to the States, where she picked up a cowboy cookbook (one of the first things I ever made from it was Billy-can brownies), and illustrated an expat cookery volume during her years living in Hong Kong called Cooking with Corona. She had also bestowed upon me three bound boxes full of the Cordon-Bleu Cookery School course in weekly magazines (which I am yet to make anything from), and a delight in all things extravagant, delicious, and dramatic. Her major outlets for this enjoyment of excess are her devout Catholicism (she is the only person I know who has a signed dispensation to take food before Mass when pregnant) and in her cookery. She snorts when she laughs, pronounces chocolate with three syllables, and still pickles and preserves at the age of 90. In my mind, she is a little like a short, Catholic, British Julia Child.
I devoured Dearie in a few days, all 535 pages of it, against the backdrop of San Francisco’s parks, cafes and our hostel room with its overpowering aroma of Chinese food. My husband was at a conference all day and most of each evening, which gave me ample time to read and recreate Child in my imagination. I watched snippets of her cookery shows, and cooked absolutely nothing except scrambled eggs and beans. But I fell in love with her, and a little more with America, through Bob Spitz’s writing. Although his prose tends to cliché, it is vibrant and jolly and likeable – all aspects which I immediately transferred to Child. I liked her guts, the way she made French cooking her own in America, her total commitment to fun and joy and joie de vivre. Here was a woman who didn’t want to be tiny, good, quiet, modest – she couldn’t help but be statuesque, naughty, loud and passionate. She immediately made it onto my mental list of female role models (or ‘women I wish I was more like’), where she holds court in the good company of Tove Jansson, Gwyneth Lewis, Margaret Bennett Jenny Uglow, Jack Monroe et al.
Then yesterday, on my first day without a job and living in Edinburgh, I found Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia (2005) – in hardback for £3 from the Shelter shop in Morningside, since you ask. I hadn’t seen the film, which came out in 2009, but again it had been lurking in the brain-shadows, so I snapped up the book and finished it about an hour ago.
Julie Powell feels like I do about Julia – and the popularity of her blog, book and film suggests we aren’t the only ones. For us, Julia stands for being feminine and joyous, unapologetic in her enjoyment of life and food and drink. She makes us believe that if we have any of those nascent characteristics within ourselves, then we should embrace them and shout them from the rooftops. So this is me, shouting from this virtual rooftop (although I could do it almost from our actual rooftop, as the flat’s a top-floor one): have the courage to do whatever it is that brings you joy. Share it around as much as you can, give it out, out, out. Today, this brought me joy:
not just the bright colours of the flowers, but the fact it was my first day working at my new desk (well, table – but beggars/bloggers can’t and all that) and that I’d managed to write a first draft of a poem, two paragraphs on my embryonic biography project, three letters and this blog. Now, off to the lovely Meadowberry for frozen yoghurt and free Wifi to post this…