Thursday, April 28, 2011

Julia Child in A Covert Affair

Julia Child's wartime spell in the Office of Strategic Services has always seemed the most intriguing chapter in the story of her evolution from the cocoon of her staid, soft-shoe Pasadena upbringing into the iconic French chef who revolutionized American cooking. Serving in that precursor of the CIA not only took her away from her native shores for the first time but also plunged her into two cultures about as different from what she was accustomed to as any you might find. Surely, it was no coincidence that India and China also boasted two of the world's greatest cuisines, so that amid all the culture shock there was also exposure to a panoply of spices and new ways of cooking.

How appropriate, then, that Jennet Conant, who has demonstrated her flair for bringing to life the odd interstices of World War II's intelligence services in "Tuxedo Park" and "The Irregulars," should now be training her sights on this time in Julia McWilliams' life, when she met Paul Child, the man who would give her that name — and so much more.

Conant doesn't disappoint in her picture of the whirlwind life of the OSS, created very much in the image of its founder, the maverick William J. Donovan. Her glimpses of how he overcame bureaucratic rivalries and turf wars are as exciting as her picture of life in the field, complete with dengue fever, cobras and scorpions.

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