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Read, then Cook

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‘If you can read, you can cook.’ This was the simple, revolutionary philosophy behind Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961 and 1970), written by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Even with sixty years’ hindsight, the book’s lasting success is remark­able. In two volumes and running to well over a thousand pages of precise technical French cuisine it was launched on a nation of home cooks who knew little about la belle France, yet it became a runaway best-seller and catapulted one of its authors to fame.

The first volume was published in 1961, at a time when women were leaving the home and finding employment, when domestic technology was booming, when convenience was king. One unen­thusiastic publisher dismissed the project, saying: ‘Americans don’t want an encyclopedia, they want to cook something quick, with a mix.’ They would soon be decisively proved wrong.

Beck and Bertholle, both Frenchwomen, had already written a cookbook when they met Child: a wide-ranging book of French recipes for American cooks. It had been taken on by a publisher who had had it translated and named it What’s Cooking in France? It turned out to be an embarrassment: it was inadequately translated, poorly put together and badly received. Chagrined and disappointed, they turned to their new American friend Julia Child in the hope that she would help them salvage the book and republish it. After looking at what had been produced and testing some of the recipes, she insisted they start from scratch. So that’s what they did. From the moment of Child’s involvement, she became the driving force behind what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Julia Child (née McWilliams) was born in 1912 in Pasadena, California to wealthy parents: her father was a successful la

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‘If you can read, you can cook.’ This was the simple, revolutionary philosophy behind Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961 and 1970), written by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Even with sixty years’ hindsight, the book’s lasting success is remark­able. In two volumes and running to well over a thousand pages of precise technical French cuisine it was launched on a nation of home cooks who knew little about la belle France, yet it became a runaway best-seller and catapulted one of its authors to fame.

The first volume was published in 1961, at a time when women were leaving the home and finding employment, when domestic technology was booming, when convenience was king. One unen­thusiastic publisher dismissed the project, saying: ‘Americans don’t want an encyclopedia, they want to cook something quick, with a mix.’ They would soon be decisively proved wrong. Beck and Bertholle, both Frenchwomen, had already written a cookbook when they met Child: a wide-ranging book of French recipes for American cooks. It had been taken on by a publisher who had had it translated and named it What’s Cooking in France? It turned out to be an embarrassment: it was inadequately translated, poorly put together and badly received. Chagrined and disappointed, they turned to their new American friend Julia Child in the hope that she would help them salvage the book and republish it. After looking at what had been produced and testing some of the recipes, she insisted they start from scratch. So that’s what they did. From the moment of Child’s involvement, she became the driving force behind what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child (née McWilliams) was born in 1912 in Pasadena, California to wealthy parents: her father was a successful landowner and developer. She was expensively educated at a boarding-school in Marin County and then, following in her mother’s footsteps, enrolled in Smith College, where she majored in history. Her enrolment form asked what vocation she had in mind. Child wrote, ‘No occupation decided; Marriage pref­erable.’ After college, she spent time in New York working as a copywriter, then returned to Pasadena. She was restless. In 1942, she joined the Office of Strategic Services and a couple of years later was posted to Kandy in Ceylon, where she met Paul Child. Paul and Julia married in 1946, and two years later they moved to Paris for Paul’s work. It was there that Julia Child truly fell in love with food. She had grown up with a full-time cook and had no experience of cooking. Eating out in Paris was an unadulterated joy for her, and she quickly became obsessed with French food, but her culinary attempts at home were hit-and-miss. While she was looking for something to occupy her days, her husband came home with the address of Le Cordon Bleu. She joined a course there but found it too simplistic and her classmates too frivolous; she quickly managed to get herself transferred to the institution’s professional cookery course. Learning to cook French cuisine extended her passion from French flavour to French technique. After her exams, a friend introduced her to fellow food enthusiast Simone Beck. Simca, as Julia would come to call her, had grown up in Normandy, and had the culinary intuition and inheritance which proved to be the perfect match for Julia’s practice-makes-perfect atti­tude. The two women formed a close friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives. From the get-go, Child had high hopes for what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She told her lawyer – who had the temerity to suggest that any publishing deal was a good deal for an unknown author – ‘I see no reason to crawl about on our stom­achs. This is no amateur affair written by little women who just love to cook, but a professional job written by professionals; and, I would say without modesty, even a “major work” on the principles of French Cooking. I therefore have no intention of wasting it on a no-account firm.’ Bertholle, Beck and Child were all trained by Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, but the point of their book was that it was for people who lacked any formal training. Child had a different perspective on cooking to that of Beck and Bertholle: she had come to French cook­ery as an adult, and had learnt deliberately, rather than instinctively. This informed everything she did. ‘Cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn,’ she later told her TV audi­ence. She was adamant that every recipe in the book must be developed and tested to the point of it being foolproof. The first volume took six years to research and write, contained 524 recipes and ran to over 700 pages of soups, sauces, eggs, entrées and luncheon dishes, fish, poultry, meat, vegetables, cold buffet, des­serts and cake. It covered everything from a simple leek and potato soup to how to use veal knuckles for jellied stock. It taught you how to cook soufflés and sweet­breads, and how to debone a duck and why you might need to do so. There were already many books and magazines on French cook­ing available for American readers, but all of them assumed considerable knowledge of French culinary technique. Child wanted to create something different: a book that would take a novice from béchamel sauce to a foolproof Pâté de canard en croûte. It was this level of sometimes tedious precision that caused Bertholle to lose interest in the project. Child and Beck, in turn, became doubtful as to how much Bertholle was contributing, and whether she really deserved to be a co-author. Ultimately, she was given equal billing for the first volume, but a lower royalty. Unsurprisingly, this caused a rift between the three women, and she was not involved in the second volume. Julia Child was an outsider in the world of French food. She hadn’t grown up cooking; she was an expat who had arrived in France through marriage and accident, rather than under her own steam. Even physically, she stood out: she was six foot two, and possessed a distinctive, warbling voice. She was 41 when she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu, and 42 when she began writing recipes. But all of this meant she was uniquely able to understand what someone who knew nothing about French food needed to know in order to cook it. Like Child, I came to cookery late, without knowledge or instinct; with enthusiasm but no confidence. Like Child, I went to Le Cordon Bleu, and when I did, it was reassuring to know that a tall, loud and bumbling woman had found her feet there. When I read Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I greatly appreciated her diligent handholding, which didn’t assume instinct or culinary common sense, because, frankly, I had none. Ultimately, Julia Child helped me become a much better cook. Child had no time for those who preferred to wrap French cooking up in pomp and mystery. She once wrote to her long-time pen pal Avis DeVoto: ‘They were talking about Beurre Blanc, and how it was a mystery, and only a few people could do it, and how it could only be made with white shallots from Lorraine over a wood fire. Phoo. But that is so damned typical, making a damned mystery out of perfectly simple things just to puff them­selves up.’ She expanded on the theme in her introduction to Mastering the Art of French Cooking’s first volume:
We have purposely omitted cobwebbed bottles, the patron in his white cap bustling among his sauces, anecdotes about charming little restaurants with gleaming napery, and so forth. Such romantic interludes, it seems to us, put French cooking into a ‘never-never’ land instead of the Here, where happily it is available to everybody. Anyone can cook in the French man­ner anywhere, with the right instruction.
It is for this reason that, unlike most of the food writing I’m drawn to, Mastering the Art of French Cooking doesn’t include any personal or historical narrative. No charming stories lurk between the recipes. It is purely an instructional manual. It’s interesting to contrast Julia Child with her British contemporary Elizabeth David, who all but single-handedly brought Mediterranean cooking to British shores. In French Provincial Cooking, in the introduction to the hors d’oeuvres section, David dedicates several pages to a particular café she visited in Remoulins when filling her car with petrol. Child simply states, ‘For those who enjoy making pastries, here are a few good hot hors d’oeuvres and one cold one,’ before launching into a recipe for Roquefort cheese balls. Despite various publishing hiccups and the occasional waning in enthusiasm, Beck and Child never lost faith in the belief that there would be an audience for their book. Their faith was justified: within five years of publication the first volume had sold 100,000 copies, despite little publicity. Both volumes have since been reprinted many times, and they became the basis for a very successful film, Julie and Julia (2009). Mastering the Art of French Cooking launched Child on a television career that would last the rest of her life and turn her into a household name. In one sense, the book was very much of its time: it opens with the line ‘This is a book for the servantless cook.’ It arrived during a period when many households had given up domestic help, and women (mostly) who had never cooked before were entering the kitchen for the first time. But in another way, the book was and remains timeless: its comprehensive nature meant that for the follow­ing sixty years, it became a first port of call for anyone interested in French cuisine, and I believe it still is. Julia Child died in 2004 at the age of 91. It is perhaps ironic, given her early lack of ambition, that she would go on to spearhead a book that was unprecedented in scope and ambition. Child was a woman who found her passion later in life, who began cooking at 41, who had her first book published at 49, and who then became a national treasure. Once she’d found cookery and writing – giving others con­fidence through the medium of her recipes – she was unstoppable. But her professional steeliness was matched by her unwavering belief that cooking was not only available to anyone willing to give it a go, but also a potential source of joy. As she says in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, ‘Above all, have a good time.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Olivia Potts 2022


About the contributor

Olivia Potts is a food writer and chef. Her first book, A Half Baked Idea, won the Fortnum & Mason debut food book award, and her second book, Butter: A Celebration, will be published this September. You can also hear her on our podcast, Episode 23, ‘A Writer in the Kitchen’.

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