book review: Dearie: the Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz

There are many people who might not think that spending 25+ hours listening to an audiobook is a productive or enjoyable use of time. But when you commute as much as I do, you need something to pass the time and/or stave off the road rage. (Oh Parkway West, you try the soul.) The most recent book I finished is Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz. It was a fantastic use of more than 25 hours of my time. 

Julia Child’s profile has been heightened in the last few years, much of that owing to the rise of cooking in the public interest and a wildly popular memoir, Julie & Julia, which chronicles one woman’s project to cook all of the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking within one year. The movie based on the memoir also brought her to the forefront of popular culture, introducing her to a generation that didn’t grow up watching her cook on public television.

I was introduced to her through that memoir. I then found myself intrigued enough to go deeper, and I picked up My Life in France, Julia’s own book about, obviously, her life in France with her husband, Paul. Ironically, I read the book during my honeymoon. (Yes, we’re the type of people who read books on trips, even honeymoons.) It’s one of my favorite reads of all time.

Spitz’s book begins at the beginning – with background on Julia’s grandparents and family history. It traces her (remarkable) life in great detail, quoting from her own letters, family members and friends. (Man do I wish we were still a society that had a letter writing habit.) We’re so used to hearing about how Julia liked to cook and how she introduced French food to American society. We forget that she was actually a real person and had interests outside of what she brought to our culinary history. I liked that this book really spent time explaining how Julia became the person that the country fell in love with, including the things that were important to her and the things that made her who she was – good and bad.

We have a tendency with public figures to gloss over the not-so-nice parts of their personalities, especially if their public faces are positive. I liked that this book clearly showed that Julia had character flaws, just like anyone else. She was a normal person who led an extraordinary life.

A good biography makes you want to call everyone you know and start sentences with “Did you know that…?” I wanted to do this so many times while listening to this book. Did you know Julia was a breast cancer survivor? Did you know that she had a thing for hot dogs from Costco? Did you know she was friends with James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher? Did you know the love of her life, her husband Paul, suffered from dementia in his last years and didn’t know who she was? Did you know she was supposed to be on one of the planes involved in 9/11, but due to a scheduling snafu ended up staying in Boston longer?

I also think a good biography doesn’t feel like a list of facts, but an engaging narrative. This book made time spent in the car fly by, partially owing to a great reading by the actress who recorded the book, but also simply because it felt like a story I was swept up in. I have a much greater appreciation for the national treasure that is Mastering the Art of French Cooking and how it stands apart from so many other cookbooks through the years. Even in her 90s, when craving french onion soup, Julia made her own recipe. No other recipe could touch it. 

Perhaps I’m drawn to Julia because of her strong feminism. Or because she was both larger than life and ordinary. Probably a lot of reasons, as she was a complex woman. But maybe at the end of the day, I love that she valued something that I do – cooking and carefully crafted, delicious food. She didn’t just value the food, but the work and the skill and the time that it took to produce. Cooking is valuable and it’s for everyone – an art everyone can access and enjoy.