Twenty years ago, Bob Spitz spent several weeks touring Sicily in the company of Julia Child.
"We ate and drank and talked. We talked about her entire life," recalled the writer of "Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child." "I had her voice in my ear while writing the book."
"Dearie," published to coincide with what would have been Child's 100th birthday on Aug. 15, is a detailed, nuanced biography of television's beloved "French Chef." Spitz makes good use of Child's diaries, letters and other papers to present the private woman as well as the public, culinary icon.
"She was dogged in her pursuit of independence,'' Spritz replied when asked what facet of Child's life would most surprise readers. Child, he said, maintained her independence from everyone else in the food business, thwarting anyone who tried to "co-opt" her into promoting various products or issues.
What surprised the biographer the most?
"How hard she worked on those recipes,'' he said, referring to "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," her 1961 masterpiece. "It took 10 years to write that book. She did those recipes 15 to 20 times. If she was making something she might use every cut of beef until she found the best. And she'd try every vinegar to find what was best. Those recipes took months to create and refine."
Author, too, of 2005's "The Beatles: the Biography," Spitz said Child shared the same vigorous work ethic of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. "Dearie," he added, "is the story of someone not cut out for a particular profession who took that profession by the horns and became utterly the best at it through nothing but hard and relentless work."
Child was a vivid, multilayered personality. As Spitz noted, she could swear with the best of them, loved ribald jokes and appreciated a handsome man. Her opinions, whether it was about butter, abortion rights orRichard M. Nixon(she would draw his name out syllable by syllable in disgust), were boldly spoken.
"Julia wasn't a saint,'' Spitz said. "That's what upset her so much about an earlier biography. She said, 'They made it sound like I was dead and a statue.' She wanted to come to life. I wanted to bring Julia to life so everyone would know her and be able to smell the food on every page. Julia hated it when people pulled punches. She liked to tell things the way they were. She spoke her mind."
Child speaks out once more in this fully articulated biography, named "Dearie" after one of her favorite expressions.
"There was never going to be another title for this book,'' Spitz said. "I think it defines Julia completely. She called people 'dearie' because she loved people. She was great. She made everyone believe she was talking to them.
Other new books about Julia Child
Julia's Cats: Julia Child's Life in the Company of Cats, by Patricia Barey and Therese Burson, Abrams, $16.95
A cat-centric biography of Julia Child? Why not? The back book jacket quotes Child herself as saying, "Really, the more I cook, the more I like to cook. To think that it has taken me 40 yrs. to find my true creative hobby and passion (cat and husb. excepted)." This book ably braids these three strands of Child's life. The many feline fanciers out there will surely enjoy the photographs of the cats, many taken by her husband, Paul Child.
Burson, an Evanston resident, is partners with Barey in a video production company that does what she described as "heavy-duty" instruction videos on some pretty somber topics. They did this cat book as a break from their usual duties. The idea was sparked by a photograph of Child in Paris with a cat posed on her lap. "I was intrigued,'' Burson said, noting the women agreed that tracking down the cat angle would be fun work.
"In 'My Life in France,' Julia talked a bit about her Paris cat,'' Burson said, referring to Child's posthumously-published memoir. "We went off to Boston and combed through her letters and diaries. Lo and behold, there was a treasure trove of little stories and anecdotes."
Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child by Jessie Hartland, Schwartz & Wade, $17.99
This children's book exuberantly tells the story of how Julia Child came, slowly and fitfully, into her glory. Hartland's wise words and witty drawings captures Child's peppy personality, awkward grace and gutsy pluck. The story ends with Hartland's own recipe for crepes, a dish children are encouraged to make.
Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, by Susanna Reich, Abrams,$16.95
France awakened in Julia Child a hunger for both good food and good cat companionship. This lavishly illustrated children's book tells the story of Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child, Julia's first cat. The tale of "the luckiest cat in all of Paris" is played out against the larger story of Child really learning how to cook, a process which would lead to her stellar career. Amy Bates' illustrations are charmingly lyrical and loaded with all sorts of telling details that bring Julia Child — and Minette — fully to life.
Out now in paperback editions:
"As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship & the Making of a Masterpiece" (Mariner, $15.95), edited by Joan Reardon.
"Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child" (Anchor, $18.95), by Noel Riley Fitch, with a new introduction by the author.
Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child
Bob Spitz, Knopf, 576 pages, $29.95
Bob Spitz will speak on Sept. 13 about "Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child" at two Chicagoland locations.
Vernon Hills: Noon, Sullivan Center, 635 Aspen Dr. To register call the Cook Memorial Public Library District, 847-362-2330.
Lake Villa: 7 p.m., Lake Villa District Library, 1001 East Grand Ave., 847-356-7711.