Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A new Penguin Lives appears; Shapiro on Julia Child

Books now read in ’07: 48
Title: Julia Child
Author: Laura Shapiro
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 5-29
Pages: 181

I had thought that Viking’s fine Penguin Lives series of brief biographies had ended in 2004. So, imagine my surprise last week when I stumbled upon the most recent entry – Julia Child by Laura Shapiro -- three years after the last biography appeared.

I have always loved this series. It has been an interesting blend of historical figures by notable authors in the perfect format – generally running to less than 200 pages, including the bibliography and reference on sources. It began in 1999 with Larry McMurtry’s Crazy Horse, a book that set the standard for all that were to follow, including Jane Smiley on Charles Dickens, Garry Wills on Saint Augustine, Edna O’Brien on James Joyce, Douglas Brinkley on Rosa Parks and Bobbie Ann Mason on Elvis.

Shapiro’s biography of Julia Child fits nicely into the 30-plus books in the series. She offers a nicely balanced account of Child’s contributions to American cooking. Shapiro notes that Julia did not introduce Americans to quiche, although that is how she was often introduced. “What Julia did do first,” writes Shapiro, “and single-handedly, was to make sophisticated home cooking count. She made it impossible to ignore. Publishers, food editors, television executives, the food industry -- everyone who believed that American women were pledged for all eternity to frozen chicken potpie had to rethink a great many assumptions in the wake of The French Chef.”

Shapiro resists the impulse to canonize Child. She notes that she was unduly supportive of the American food industry, including the practice of irradiating food; was deeply distrustful of the health-food movement and scorned the New American cooking launched by Alice Waters at her Chez Panisse in Berkley. She also notes, most fairly, that much of Child’s influence has waned since her death as American’s have embraced lighter fare and new influences

Julia Child’s greatest and most lasting influence are found in her boundless enthusiasm for cooking and for good food. “Her passion for food,” Shapiro concludes, “raced through her whole body.”

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad to see that you are another fan of the Penguin Lives series, and I'm glad to see that Penguin is continuing it after the departure of James Atlas. If you get any more information on new books coming out in this series, please share with us here. Penguin's website doesn't provide any information on this series at all.