Ann Mah: Mastering the Art of French Writing

I had the great fortune to get to read Ann Mah’s gorgeous new memoir, Mastering the Art of French Eating, in galley. It is such a lovely mix of travel, food, and personal exploration that I know it will be a big hit. Kirkus calls it, “Consistently passionate and emotionally resonant, Mah’s prose brims with true love … A bighearted, multisensory tour of France.” Ann was awarded a James Beard Foundation culinary scholarship in 2005 and her articles about food, travel, fashion, style, and the arts have appeared in publications including the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and the International Herald Tribune. And Ann’s story of how her book came about is as bighearted as the book itself. – Meg

One of the first things I bought for our apartment was the picture. It was a photo of Julia Child in her kitchen in Paris and I wanted to hang it in my own, a talisman to inspire my cooking and writing.

MasteringArtFrenchEating1Those of us who love Julia are each touched by her story for a different reason: the late bloomers, the kitchen unconfident, the professionally unsatisfied. As a food lover and enthusiastic home cook, I had long appreciated Julia’s cookbooks – but I didn’t begin to truly admire her until I found myself in a situation similar to hers: a trailing spouse, a diplomat’s wife.

A month after we got married, I left my job in New York and moved with my husband to China. I loved being married, but in those early days, newly unemployed, I floundered. I missed my job as an editor so much I felt like I’d lost an internal organ. I wept, I worried, I spent weeks alphabetizing our bookshelves. I wondered how I’d ever adjust to life as a trailing spouse, moving around the world for my husband’s career while lacking my own.

It would be disingenuous to say that Julia Child led me to food writing. She was one among a pack of writers whose work inspired me to strive and to despair. But I had read her biography and I considered the parallels in our lives: her stint in China, her marriage to a Foreign Service officer, her life as a trailing spouse, her career nurtured throughout multiple international moves. In Beijing, I started writing for a local expat magazine, a free monthly that, though littered with typos, burst with energy. I wanted to write about food but they needed stories about everything else so I wrote about orchid care, Chanel knock-offs, men’s seersucker suits. Eventually, when the dining editor left, I leapt at the chance to take her place. I loved reviewing Beijing’s restaurants and writing about Chinese regional cuisine, experiences that would eventually inspire me to write a novel. As the months passed, I slowly built a path in another direction, a new dream to nurture.

The wonderful, terrible thing about diplomatic life is that you move all the time. After four years in China, we moved to Washington, DC, and then Paris, each overseas transfer a reminder of the things that couldn’t be packed into boxes and sent on a transport ship: contacts, friends, ideas, the daily routine that was my life. But I looked at the loving teamwork of Julia’s marriage to Paul — unwavering despite multiple untimely overseas relocations. The self-mocking tone of her letters when she became a little maudlin over professional or personal disappointments. The success that bloomed from her hard work and sheer will, despite the upheavals of diplomatic life. And I felt hopeful.

Ann-in-Paris KGLJulia and Paul arrived in Paris in 1948, when Paul was assigned to a job at the American Embassy. In 2008, my husband began an assignment at the American Embassy in Paris, and, like Julia, I too became a diplomat’s wife in France. In the four years that I lived in Paris, she was never far from my thoughts. I looked for her in all the usual places — her apartment at 81 rue de l’Université, which she dubbed rue de Loo. Her old haunts like E. Dehilleren or Au Pied de Cochon; lesser known spots, too, like the Hôtel de Talleyrand, home of the Marshall Plan and post-war diplomatic cocktail soirées, or Place de la Concorde, where our husbands worked at the Embassy, albeit separated by sixty years. I tried to replicate her culinary curiosity by remaining open, adventurous, passionate — even when faced with a heaping plate of tripe sausage. I used her cookbooks as a guide to eat and travel through France – eventually, they inspired me to write a food memoir called Mastering the Art of French Eating, which I hope honors her enthusiastic spirit.

Julia floundered a bit professionally in her youth. But once she discovered traditional French cuisine, she became committed – deeply, seriously committed – to learning to cook it. Among all her qualities, I strive to replicate this the most: her determination despite discouragement, her dedication despite tedium. Cooking – like writing – isn’t always fun. But at the end of the struggle, the long hours, the loneliness and frustration, sometimes there’s something to share and enjoy. To quote Julia: “That’s what human life is all about – enjoying things.” I keep her photo on my kitchen wall to remind me of the hard work – and the enjoyment. – Ann