Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child

Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child

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by Noel Riley Fitch

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Julia Child became a household name when she entered the lives of millions of Americans through their hearts and kitchens. In this biography, we meet the earthy and outrageous Julia, who, at age eighty-five, remains a complex role model. Fitch, who had access to all of Julia's private letters and diaries, takes us through her life from her exuberant youth as a…  See more details below


Julia Child became a household name when she entered the lives of millions of Americans through their hearts and kitchens. In this biography, we meet the earthy and outrageous Julia, who, at age eighty-five, remains a complex role model. Fitch, who had access to all of Julia's private letters and diaries, takes us through her life from her exuberant youth as a high-spirited California girl to her years at Smith College, where Julia was at the center of every prank and party. When most of her girlfriends married, Julia volunteered with the OSS in India and China during World War II, and was an integral part of this elite corps. There she met her future husband, the cosmopolitan Paul Child, who introduced her to the glories of art, fine French cuisine, and love. Theirs was a deeply passionate romance and a modern marriage of equals. Julia began her culinary training only at the age of thirty-seven at the Cordon Bleu. Later she roamed the food markets of Marseilles, Bonn, and Oslo. She invested ten years of learning and experimentation in what would become her first bestselling classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Now, her career is legend, spanning nearly forty years and still going strong.

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Editorial Reviews
This immensely readable biography will delight Child's legions of loyal fans. Even the most devoted may not know the fascinating details of her life before the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which appeared when she was 50. For instance, did you know that Child was a spy for the OSS during World War II? She lived all over the world with her diplomat husband, spending years in India, China, and many parts of Europe, and she began her culinary education at age 37 with studies at the Cordon Bleu. Written with full access to Child's diaries and letters, Appetite for Life captures this remarkable woman's humor, adventurous spirit, and pure joy in life.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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6.12(w) x 9.16(h) x 1.21(d)

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Perched on the railing of a veranda in Kunming, China, Julia McWilliams was aware only of the uniformed man beside her, reading the poem he wrote for her thirty-third birthday. She stretched her very long legs out in front of her, crossing them at her ankles, so Paul Child could see what he would later call "my beloved Julia's magnificent gams." She barely noticed the formal gardens beyond the porch or the miles of rice paddies stretching toward Kunming Lake. Nor did her gaze settle on the mist-shrouded Shangri-La of temples carved into the rock of West Mountain. It was his voice that captured her, each word he read a note weaving a melody through her heart: "The summer's heat of your embrace . . . melts my frozen earth."

The cotton dress clung to her slim, six-feet-two-inch body. Here she was in China, a privileged girl, seeking adventure, even danger, in the civilian opportunities of World War II, and she had found it, not in the Registry of the Office of Strategic Services, nor in the backwoods refugee city of Kunming at the end of the Burma Road, but in the urbane, sophisticated, multilingual presence of forty-three-year-old Paul Child. They talked all evening, his intellect challenging her, his experienced touch awakening her. In the last China outpost of Lord Mountbatten's command, surrounded at sea by Japanese forces, warplanes droning in the distance, Julia McWilliams felt alive.

How like autumn's warmth is Julia's face,
So filled with nature's bounty, nature's world. . . .

The cadence of his voice, reciting his sonnet "To Julia," intensified the air of anticipation between them, dimming for the first time the news they hadreceived that week of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russia was invading Manchuria to the north. Just hours earlier they had heard of Japan's surrender and knew the world was changing for everyone, not just themselves.

I cast this heaped abundance at your feet:
An offering to summer and her heat.

Paul drove Julia by jeep to a mountain retreat for a weekend, where they talked of meeting each other's families: he had a twin brother, whose family lived in Pennsylvania, she two siblings and a father in California. The differences in their height (he was a mere five feet ten and three-quarters inches), age, education, cultural and political backgrounds, and values seemed less severe in this foreign territory where the future was so uncertain. He called theirs a "sweet friendship" in his sonnet, but she wanted much more from this wartime embrace in a strange land. When he read aloud "the awakening fields abound / With newly green effulgence," he could have been talking about her.

They had met just the year before in a tea planter's veranda in Ceylon, when he was courting several women and seemed far beyond her reach in knowledge and experience. He had the worldly-wise caution of a man who had supported himself since he was a child, sailing the high seas, working at physically demanding jobs, and educating himself in the classics, art, and music. Despite her degree from Smith College, the gangly girl from the West seemed to have little in common with this cosmopolitan ladies' man. "I was a hungry hayseed from California," she would declare half a century later:

There were a lot of women around and he was ten years older than I. Very sophisticated. He had lived in France and I'd only been to Tijuana! So I found him very impressive, you see. And he was also an intellectual. I was a kind of Southern California butterfly, a golf player and tennis person who acted in Junior League plays.

She was indeed a party girl, a child of well-to-do parents, who had never had to work. Though she occasionally held jobs in New York City and Los Angeles, marriage was the usual goal of her generation. Had the war not come, she said, she "might have become an alcoholic" amid the society life of Pasadena. Julia stood out in any crowd, not just because of her height, but because she was strikingly beautiful in a wholesome way. She was also like a magnum of champagne, the effusive life of the party, even, as far as Paul was concerned, occasionally "hysterical." But as he learned more of this woman, he saw the depth of her character, and her joy lifted him from his isolation and reserve. Thirty-five years after their wedding, he told a Boston newspaper, "Without Julia, I think I'd be a sour old bastard living off in a cave."

Chinese food brought them together, at least talk of food did. He thought she could cook, but in fact she had a keen interest in food largely because she was always hungry. They loved the Peking-cuisine restaurants in this refugee city where the first cookbook was written around 3000 B.C. and the "earliest restaurant" opened during the T'ang Dynasty. They drove out with OSS friends whose parents were missionaries here and who knew the language and food, and they feasted on the many regional Chinese cuisines. Paul also spoke to Julia about the food of France, which he had enjoyed in the 1920s. Fluent in French, he talked with such a distinct inflection he seemed British to Julia. He would have been seen as effete in her native Pasadena.

Paul was unlike the Western boys she hung around with in her large circle of friends in Southern California, unlike any of the men her friends married. In hearing about his life, she soon realized he had no religion, few family connections, and held the business world in disdain. He was an artist and raconteur, a black belt in jujitsu, who could mesmerize colleagues with his stories. He represented a world she ached to know, an intellectual and European world, typical of the OSS personnel (such as anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Cora DuBois) whom she had come to admire during the past year in India and China. When she described her Presbyterian-raised father, a man of business and prominent in the civic affairs of Pasadena, Paul realized how dissimilar she was to any woman he had ever loved, for they all, including a woman he had lived with for many years, were petite, dark, and sophisticated in dress and manner. In contrast, Paul found Julia youthful, but "tough-fibered" and "natural."

"It wasn't like lightning striking the barn on fire," Paul said of their meeting in India. "I just began to think, my God, this is a hell of a nice woman, sturdy, and funny withal. And responsible! I was filled with admiration for this classy dame." If love grew slowly with him, for her it was the coup de foudre, and she made immediate plans to learn to cook for him. Like her paternal grandfather, John McWilliams, who left all he knew to follow the Gold Rush in 1849, she was ready to consider a break with her past.

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Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
PamelaB86 More than 1 year ago
The Biography of Julia Child is not only a story of her very interesting and inspirational life, it is the story of early television and the blooming contemporaty publishing industry in the mid to late 1900's. Julia Child was on the leading edge of a wave of cook book publication from which many have benefited. She was the leading edge of the cooking show industry in a way that is unmatched today. The book gives us a view of her youth and maturity, her world travels and government service, her broad and bright personality and her courage in the face of many challenges. Julia was truly a giant among people and this book shines for her. An enjoyable read spanning nearly a centry.
sleeper19395 More than 1 year ago
Julie Child was a large women with an matching appetite for good food, adventure and a 'well-lived' life. This book is filled with small details of her many associations in the diplomatic and foodie world. A leisurely journey through her childhood, early work experiences and married life. While it includes no recipes it does follow the evolution of several of her more famous recipes, notable her Queen of Sheba cake, as they evolve along with Child's own tastes. The book glosses over some of the more bitter struggles in the food world as I imagine did Julie herself. Although a California girl, she adopted the 'Northeasterner' attitude of acknowledging a problem, solving it to the best of one's ability and then getting on with life. Everyone can learn something from this book, in food or life.
Shelley54 More than 1 year ago
I knew who Julia Child was, and had seen her on TV, but was never really that interested. After seeing the movie Julie/Julia, and reading the book I was curious. This woman had a very interesting life! This is a great biography-very detailed. For biography lovers like me this is definitely the book for you!
wordfiend More than 1 year ago
While not as engaging as Julia Child's own biography "My Life in France", this book is chock full of the details that Julia herself left out. Fitch clearly worships at Child's altar and paints a loving portrait of a truly unique woman. The book could have been edited a little more in order to remove some of Fitch's lists of friends, dinner companions, what everyone ate, etc. Some big events in Child's life are a bit glossed over, such as her professional break with Simca Beck. Paul Child's views on Beck are repeated, but there is little from Julia's point of view. To get a more complete understanding of some events, "My Life in France" is the better resource. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and it kept my interest throughout. If you're interested in the complete Julia Child, from cradle to grave, "Appetite For Life" is a must. Pair it with "My Life in France" for a complete picture of a fascinating woman.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the first part of this book tremendously but as it went into her cooking career and involved ALL the people she met and worked with the author had some trouble putting it all together. There were some awkward sentences, quotations that added little, and numerous items in parenthesis that became so cumbersome that the text had to be re-read to figure out how the additional bracketed information related. The detail was so tremendous that it will never be improved upon, however for a recreational read it was as if each day of Julia's life was accounted for. It pays a lovely tribute to Julia's spirit and ambition but perhaps a few less ingredients would have made a better recipe.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm only in the first 50 pages of the book, but I'm finding it poorly written. More than once the author begins a paragraph that sounds as though it is going to have a further thread, but just stops and has no reason to be there. And she keeps referring to Julia's size. Heavens....we get it. I'm terribly disappointed in it so far. I find myself skipping whole chunks out of boredom.
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donna-chaos More than 1 year ago
The book was a dreadful who's who look at the intelligencia of the era rather than an exploration of the character. I was bogged down from the first 20 pages with who sat next to who at dinner. Most of the members of my book club were unable to finish.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago