February 23, 2016

Julia Child’s French Cooking Book Was A Trail Blazer



I have never seen the movie Julie & Julia, the one about the blogger and the superstar cook, although I’m told that while the character of Julie was an obnoxious one, Meryl Streep was expertly cast as Julia. Julia Child, that is.


I’m not American. And when Julia Child published her masterwork, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I was in nappies. So apart from the spectre of her reputation, which is powerful, I was a little ignorant of the specific contribution Child had made to food in the US and, by extension, the rest of the English-speaking world. My mistake.

And I now have some perspective. I have just finished Child’s autobiographical My Life in France, published following her death in 2004 at a very respectable 92. The book apparently provided inspiration for Julie & Julia, and it’s not hard to see why, although there is speculation as to what Child herself, late in her long innings, actually thought of Julie Powell’s blog, which led to the movie.

Regardless, the book’s a gentle, delightful read for any nostalgic Francophile, touching on many aspects of the nation that have quietly slipped away. Postwar Paris, seen through Child’s stoic eyes (for it was not all biere and boules), was a magical place of characters, food, wine and culinary discovery.

The raw material for the book is undeniable. Child led a fascinating, colourful, energetic life, and truly broke ground by fronting what was probably the first television series on cooking, The French Cook. Lots of books reminisce about a bygone Paris. 

What you cannot help but take from reading My Life in France, however, is profound respect for the achievement that was Mastering the Art of French Cooking, on which Child collaborated, to a greater or lesser extent, with two French friends while living in France, the US and Norway.

Much of the book is about The Book. In an age of almost instant food titles from celebrity chefs — the annual from him, another friends/simple/fast/family book from her — the 12-year gestation of this brilliantly researched and tested masterpiece must seem confounding.

The simple premise was this: introducing enthusiastic American home cooks to the foundations, techniques and ingredients of real French food.

Remember, it was the late 1940s when this project began in Paris — a time of snail mail and typewriters, and no such thing as market research. Would anyone in the US buy a comprehensive manual on French food when it was eventually published in 1961? Nobody knew.

As Child herself writes of that period when the project was launched, in the 2001 anniversary edition of Mastering: “Nobody I knew, either American or French, seemed at all interested in la cuisine francaise. My American colleagues had a little femmes de menage who did the housekeeping, shopping, and cooking, and I was considered more than a little odd because I did all the cooking and marketing — such fun — as well as all the serving when we have company.”

Fortunately, that didn’t stop Child and her friend and main collaborator Simone Beck from ploughing on. Her instincts, and those of her ultimate editors and publishers, were spot on. And, as much for its fastidious research and plain-language explanations as for its moment in history — a time when interest in food was rising and servants were becoming an unaffordable anachronism — MTAFC, as Child herself referred to it, sold its socks off.

Flicking through that anniversary edition, you can see how the original manuscript took more than a decade. It’s all the more commendable for the fact that, prior to arriving in France in 1948 with her husband Paul, Child had barely cooked.

The product of a well-to-do Californian family, there had been cooks and maids chez Child. It was their mutual sense of adventure that took the couple to Paris and her boundless appetite for French food and life that took Child down a path of discovery that led to the book.

She was a motivated researcher and student, and a Cordon Bleu qualification was only a small piece of the Child culinary jigsaw.

Also, flicking through, I am reminded that between the covers of My Life in France is much discussion of Child’s and Beck’s beurre blanc method.

I gave it a whizz. For me, it was more a beurre jaune: cheap, yellow Australian butter probably doesn’t cut it for a sauce like this, and my technique will need a little practice, but with steamed asparagus, it was delightful.

Even more satisfying was souffle demoule, mousseline — an unmoulded cheese souffle usually called a “twice-baked souffle” these days because it goes back under the grill bottom-side-up with a bit of cream, for colour. Brilliant.

Julia can stay in the kitchen.

So, I’m a little late for the Queen of American Cooking, as she ultimately became known. My loss. 

I suspect that without her, many Australian heroes of my generation — Stephanie Alexander, Tony Bilson, Neil Perry and Peter Doyle, to mention only a few — might never have picked up a whisk.

Julia, we owe you.

By John Lethlean
With many thanks to The Australian 


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