Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and other books, has often said that reading about Julia Child is a lesson in happiness. I couldn’t agree more. I also loved My Life in France, which Julia co-wrote with her nephew.
In this month’s Twitterature post, I mentioned how much I enjoyed reading As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. As I read it, I couldn’t help but note all the fun little life lessons imparted in the letters between these two ladies. I’ll share a few:
Mise en Place – Preparation Makes Everything Easier
Mise en place refers to the practice of assembling all the ingredients you’ll need before you begin cooking. Not only does this work in the kitchen, I think it’s a metaphor for life as well. One of the reasons Julia was able to quickly assimilate to the new cultures she found herself in (as a result of her husband’s work, they were often on the move) is because she took the time to learn the language and immediately jump into life with the locals.
Mentors Are Important
Avis had much to do with making Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking a reality. Julia brought talent and an amazing work ethic to the table, but Avis had connections in the publishing industry (while Julia was a total greenhorn). Julia was humble enough to accept Avis’ critiques of her manuscript. (Modern Mrs. Darcy has a lot of great stuff to say about mentors.)
… So Are Good Boundaries
No matter how close you are to another, good boundaries are important if you want the relationship to stay healthy. When Julia told Avis she wanted to devote the book to her, I was so impressed when Avis refused to allow it. Concerned about any awkwardness that could result from that decision, she thanked Julia for the compliment but insisted she immediately dismiss the idea. That was really wise of her, if you ask me! At that point, their relationship was quite new. At a certain point in the creation of MtAoFC, Julia had to make the tough decision to cut out one of her initial business partners who was contributing little to the project. That was difficult, but necessary.
Women Have Always Been Busy
We talk about the super/crazy busy, the culture of busy, how busy moms are, etc…as if it were a new phenomenon. Apparently not. Many times throughout the book, Julia and Avis lamented about how they were too busy to properly rest. It’s interesting the stories we tell ourselves about the 50’s, most of which are probably false.
… Many Women, Mid-Century, Hired Household Help
Avis and Julia frequently discussed the fact that proper cooking was nearly impossible to do when one was playing “chauffeur and nursemaid” to kids, and it was assumed that most of the women they wrote for would have help.
And Women Have Always Worked
The events of the correspondence between Julia and Avis took place mostly in the 50’s, but both of them were occupied full-time. Julia had no children, but Avis raised two kids while keeping up a writing career as well as serving as bookkeeper and accountant for the family business. And of course Julia taught cooking classes as well as writing 40 hours a week.
Do It Now (The Dishes, That Is)
I chuckled when Julia and Avis both went on a small rant about how much easier it is to “wash up as you go”. Instead of letting the pots and pans pile up, taking some of the enjoyment out of your company and dinner, immediately wash them (sans soap, per Avis’ advice!) while they’re still hot. I admit, I do this and it is SO much easier to clean a fresh, hot pan.
In cooking (and in life – because isn’t la cuisine a metaphor for living?), paying a “few more pennies for butter” makes everything so much better. Meals can be simple if the ingredients are high quality and fresh. ‘You get what you pay for’ is a message that repeats throughout this book.
“We live on Paul’s salary, and anything from my income is used for pure squandering… the point of money, we think, after you have taken care of the minimum living essentials, is to spend it.”
What Julia said here corresponds with research on money and happiness – that the expenditures we think will make us happy (buying houses) make little difference, but the small luxuries (lattes or fresh flowers) actually contribute far more. That, and spending must align with our values. Not to mention the importance of living beneath one’s means.
A Positive Attitude
Julia, as a result of her husband’s government office, moved frequently, but she always made fast friends wherever she went. I think it’s because of her positive attitude. She always looked for the good in any situation, quick to embrace the unique culture of the places she found herself, despite initial misgivings (for instance, she was quite reluctant about her move to Germany – what with the Holocaust in very recent memory, but quickly found much to love about the people and language).
It took Julia a decade to get her now famous cookbook published. She had the heartbreak of multiple rounds of rejections before anyone would touch it. Still, she never considered diluting her message to make it more marketable to the masses.
On Health and Nutrition
“[I]… don’t like hygiene either, and feel it is very bad for one to isolate oneself from all the germs, then one cannot go out of the cordon sanitaire because one has no immunity. Enough hygiene to be reasonably clean and free from typhus and dysentery and cholera, etc, but enough is enough.”
Forget vitamins. Make healthy things taste good! I just can’t put it any better than this:
“I think one should get one’s vitamins in salads, and raw fruits, and what is cooked should be absolutely delicious and to hell with the vitamins.”