Laura Shapiro’s life of Julia Child packs the oft-told story of the gregarious giantess into 181 taut pages. Raised in a wealthy family, Julia McWilliams chafed at the stuffy pastimes of her social set, joined the OSS, and, while working in Ceylon, met her husband, Paul Child. In 1948 the newlyweds moved to France, where Julia sampled a famously mind-blowing sole meunière — ”handsomely browned and still sputteringly hot under its coating of chopped parsley” — and found her calling. What followed is legendary: the Cordon Bleu courses, the contentious work on the cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the popular TV shows. Shapiro digs beneath the familiar milestones, unearthing Child’s shortcomings (she once called for the ”de-fagification” of American cooking) and, more importantly, the source of her phenomenal appeal. People loved Julia because she was exuberant and unpretentious. Because when her tarte tatin collapsed, she patched it up and said, ”I think that actually makes a more interesting dessert.” Because she licked the spoon, relished U.S. supermarkets, and did not reflexively sneer at McDonald’s (indeed, she deemed the fries ”surprisingly good”). A-
For Jennifer Reese’s take on another recently published biography of a hard-driving culinary evangelist, see Alice Waters and Chez Panisse.