Paris in July: A Culinary Sojourn

In 2008, Ann Mah, food writer and Francophile wife of an American diplomat, had her deepest desire realized when her husband Calvin was appointed a post in Paris. Having moved to three different cities in the previous five years: New York, Beijing, Washington, D.C., a three-year sojourn in Paris was beyond her wildest dream.

Then came the rub. Soon after they arrived in the City of Light, Calvin was called away to another diplomatic mission: in Baghdad, Iraq, by himself for one year. Just months arriving in Paris, Ann had a taste of fate in the most ironic form: to live in her dream City, alone. She knew that would probably be the hardest year of her life.

To fight off the loneliness and isolation she was experiencing, Mah began to look to another diplomat’s wife in Paris sixty years earlier for inspiration and channel her pioneering gusto: Julia Child.

The title is a giveaway. Mastering the Art of French Eating––instead of ‘Cooking’ as Child’s book––is a humble homage to the food journalist’s heroine. While she didn’t follow Child to the prestigious culinary school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, in her year of living in France all by herself, Mah charted her own culinary journey to various regions in the country to taste and research on the cuisine of the land. The subtitle is also enticingly delicious: Lessons in food and love from a year in Paris.

In ten chapters, Mah presents the ten places she had visited, from Paris bistros to farmhouse kitchen, haute cuisine to communal cooking, she records her experience in the specific locales and their signature dish along with historical perspective. And at the end of each chapter, the recipe:

Paris / Steak Frites
Troyes / Andouillette
Brittany / Crêpes
Lyon / Salade Lyonnaise
Provence / Soupe au Pistou
Toulouse, Castelnaudary, Carcassonne / Cassoulet
Savoie & Haute-Savoie / Fondue
Burgundy / Boeuf Bourguignon
Aveyron / Aligot

From her last name, you might also be curious about her own background. Yes, within this little food memoir are sprinkled with stories of Mah growing up Chinese American in California. While her love of France brewed very early in her life following her family tour there as a child, she wasn’t given the chance to learn the language that she loved, French, but had to go to Chinese school on Saturdays as stipulated by some sort of a ‘tiger mom’. Within these chapters, then, embeds the quest for identity and personhood. Here’s a quote that more or less sums it up:

“Diplomacy has been called the world’s second-oldest profession, and ever since the sixteenth century––and maybe even before––other wives of diplomats have endured similar existential crises, fading into obscurity while their husbands’ achievements were recorded in history. Perhaps, then, that is why I turned to Julia [Child] for inspiration… not just because she loved food, and had also lived in China, and was also a trailing spouse, just like me––but because I was looking for proof that professional success and marriage to a diplomat were not mutually exclusive.” –– P. 218

A delightful read for Paris in July and actually, anytime.

Thyme for Tea and Readerbuzz are the hosts of this annual blogging event.


I listened to the audiobook first then read the hardcopy: Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love by Ann Mah, Viking Penguin Books, 2013. 273 pages. The audiobook is narrated by the actress Mozhan Marnò (The Blacklist, House of Cards), ideal for learning the pronunciation of the French words. Hardcopy is good for getting the recipes, and makes the narratives and anecdotes more memorable.

Julie and Julia (2009): Movie Review


UPDATE Feb. 2, 2010: Meryl Streep is nominated for a Best Actress Oscar in the coming 82nd Academy Awards.

UPDATE Jan. 17, 2010:  Meryl Streep has just won the Best Actress Award (Comedy or Musical) at the Golden Globes.

Update Dec. 16, 2009: Julie and Julia has been nominated for a Golden Globe Best Motion Picture Award (Musical or Comedy).

Meryl Streep has been nominated for a Golden Globe Best Actress Award (Musical or Comedy).

For someone who would rather lie on the couch and watch the Food Channel than work in the kitchen, what better way to entertain herself than to watch a full feature movie on the legendary Julia Child and her modern day follower scrambling to keep pace.  But still, I had my doubt.

123 minutes of cooking, even though I don’t need to lift a finger, could still make me feel stuffed and exhausted. And, watching a novice attempt an almost impossible feat of cooking through Child’s 524 French recipes in 365 days in a cramped apartment could mean unlimited servings of predictable, clichéd kitchen mishaps.

So, it was with little expectation that I entered the theater.  But I was pleasantly surprised and much gratified.  For first of all,  the movie is not just about food and cooking.  Rather, it describes a journey of writing, publishing, and yes, blogging.  Now that really piqued my appetite.  As for the klutzy culinary mishaps, despite their banality, they are turned into laughable moments that we can all relate to, kudos to Amy Adams (Julie) and Meryl Streep (Julia).

Writer/director Nora Ephron has done a wonderful job weaving together two different books to create the screenplay:  Julia Child’s My Life in France (co-authored by Alex Prud’homme) and Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia:  My Year of Cooking Dangerously.  The two stories, which take place 50 years apart, are intertwined so seamlessly that the audience is given the impression that the two are acting side by side.  Now here’s a spoiler alert, skip to the next paragraph right now if you don’t want to know…  The parallel story lines remained so, Julie and Julia never met. And oh how much more the plot could have thickened if they did.  I was a bit let down by this, after being set up with the ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ cue.

The beginning of the movie sets the stage for some visually pleasing sequences.  The retro design of Julia’s 50’s France is a scrumptious delight.  A revelation: Julia Child was not born knowing how to cook.  After following her diplomat husband Paul (the ever reliable Stanley Tucci, The Devil Wears Prada, 2006; Shall We Dance, 2004) to France, she began exploring her interests.  She had to start from scratch by going to culinary school, the Cordon Bleu.  A late bloomer she was, and what an inspiration… never too late to follow your heart.  Streep has done a marvelous job delivering the personality, speech and nuances of the legendary Julia Child.  I must say though, her performance in this movie seems like a prolonged bed bouncing scene from Mamma Mia!


And fast forward to the present, the cinematic effect makes a run down, one-bedroom apartment in Queens look cozy and even inspiring, which is justly so.  Julie Powell (Amy Adams, Doubt, 2008; Enchanted, 2007) is a struggling writer, emotionally drained by her day job answering the phone at the Lower Manhattan Development Corp in the wake of 911.  Following Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking at home after work saves her sanity and invigorates her desire to write.  Through blogging daily about her culinary experiment, Julie ultimately realizes her dream.

It is Amy Adams that has won my heart.  She is such a natural.  Her performance is pleasingly understated, just a touch to bring out the taste.  It is after all a thankless role, a novice following the cooking guru to the dot in her cramped kitchen.  A tad bit more spicy would spoil her portrayal as merely slapstick and banal.  Her down-to-earth demeanor, like her attempt to explain to her mother what blogging is, makes it sound like a conversation taken out of our own home.  And above all, it’s her relationship with her husband Eric (Chris Messina, Made of Honor 2008) that makes the story grounded and realistic.

And finally, bravo to the two husbands who are always supportive, encouraging, eat and praise whatever their wives cook.  And all the more for Julie’s Eric, who has to silently pop Tums before bed, and, even after running away to escape the nightly ordeal, would faithfully come back ready to reconcile.  Can these men be real?  Like Ephron’s other works, let’s just treat this one as another fantasy.  For it is she who created the screenplays for Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998), and yes, When Harry Met Sally (1989).  But wait, Julia Child’s My Life In France is autobiographical.  And so’s Julie Powell’s account.  The tag line does not fail to inform us so: Based on two true stories. It’s good to know.

~ ~ ~ Ripples