Top | Reviews

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Julia Child always had energy to spare, but she was in her thirties before she discovered the ideal outlet: French cooking. The wife of a diplomat posted to Paris with time on her hands and a sudden passion for the local cuisine, Child enrolled in cooking school, made friends with fellow food-loving Frenchwomen, and, over the course of more than a decade, put together the cookery collection known today as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 2. (Both are in print, and yes, you have to buy them separately.) 

As Judith Jones, her editor at Knopf, recalls in the introduction to the 40th-anniversary edition of Mastering, Child had shopped the manuscript around to solid rejection; one publisher commented, "Why would any American want to know this much about French cooking?" 

Jones, who had lived in France, did: "When I returned to the States, I realized how totally inadequate the few books that dealt with French food really were. They were simply compendiums of shorthand recipes and there was no effort to instruct the home cook. Techniques were not explained, proper ingredients were not discussed, and there was no indication in a recipe of what to expect and how to rectify mistakes. So the home cook, particularly an American home cook, was flying blind. Yet here were all the answers."

As Jones recognized, the secret to Child's success was her insistence on making Mastering useful to the average American home cook. Techniques were explained, substitutions were suggested, even illustrations were included. Plenty of Americans, it turned out, wanted to know all about French cooking.

[[block(sidebar).

h1.Featured recipes




]]

Still, as Julie Powell [read/shorts/3773 "found out" newpage=true] during her year of cooking her way through Vol. 1, plenty of Child's ingredients remain obscure (calves' brains) and her techniques difficult (killing lobsters). And you may struggle for three days with Child's baguette recipe (only in Vol. 2, sorry), only to throw up your flour-covered hands and head for the local bakery instead. 

But without Child, would we have all those European-inspired American bakeries producing reliably crusty baguettes? Without her classic PBS television show, the recently reissued "The French Chef," would we be as willing to flip a potato galette in the air, fail to catch it, and cheerfully moosh it all back together again in the pan with our fingers? 

We certainly wouldn't have Dan Aykroyd's inimitable impersonation of Child on "Saturday Night Live." Unlike Aykroyd, we might not gash an artery while cooking a chicken and blithely continue trussing our bird, but we've learned from the master: No sweat. 

As the authors of the original 1961 edition of Mastering wrote, "Above all, have a good time."

p(bio). [caroline@culinate.com "Caroline Cummins"] is the managing editor of Culinate.


reference-image, l