BLESS YOU, JULIA

We might have expected a certain amount of twittering from the Nervous Nellies over how much butter Julia lavished on those delicious French dishes that she translated for the American home cook in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book, after all, was written before the Fear of Fat Mania (Julia’s expression) became an epidemic in this country in the 90s. Julia was never moved to modify the ingredients because they represented exactly what was called for in the classic French cuisine and moreover she didn’t believe in such nonsense. Her motto was that pure butter in moderation was good for us and that if we all ate a little of everything and didn’t indulge in seconds (or heaping platefuls), we’d be fine. Of course, in the aftermath of the fat hysteria, she was proved right. Hydrogenated products were found to be more harmful than butter and pure animal fats, and it was all those hidden fats and corn products in fast foods that were the culprit. Still people cling to old myths, particularly when it’s easier than changing one’s eating habits.

But I found it disappointing that The New York Times had to dredge up these old issues in their story on August 23rd about the soaring sales of Mastering, thanks to the move Julie and Julia. The good news is that these young people inspired by the movie are turning to a book that will really teach them how to cook.

Clearly food writer Regina Schrambling does not agree and in her August 28 piece on Slate, titled “Don’t Buy Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and subtitled “You will never cook from it,” she claims that Mastering “has always been daunting” and that all those copies bought in the last few weeks are going to remain untouched. She then admits that she herself, after graduating from restaurant school, never cooked from it. So how is she in any position to assess it?

The truth is that she, and The New York Times, too, miss the whole point. The book is aimed at readers who really want to learn how to cook and need a lot of guidance. That’s why the master recipes are sometimes long and detailed. Everything is spelled out so that the neophyte cook understands the ingredients, the techniques involved, the possible pitfalls, and how to remedy mistakes. That does not necessarily make the recipes “labor-intensive and time-consuming,” as the Times reporter gratuitously stated, or that they are geared only to “a rigorous cook with endless patience for serious detail” (Schrambling). How does one learn if you are not given instruction? Is there any other art form that does not require understanding and practicing the fundamentals? Moreover, once you have understood and mastered the method, it is imprinted on your cooking brain so that next time, as Julia often said, you won’t even need a recipe.

I myself learned to cook from Mastering. I had always loved cooking but I knew so little about it that I was frustrated. After spending three and a half years in Paris in my mid-twenties, where I had been exposed to marvelous, everyday French food, I longed to reproduce such lovely dishes. I wanted my food to have the French touch, to taste soigné, not just indifferently cooked. But there was no book that really taught me how—that is, not until Mastering came along. It changed my life, really empowering me as a cook. And I was not alone. After we published this first volume at Knopf suddenly almost everyone I knew in New York was cooking from it—people who had never boiled an egg were giving three-course dinners à la Julia, and loving it.

That’s what I find so inspiring about the current surge of interest in this classic teaching book. I think we’ve had enough of cooking as entertainment and we really want to learn the art of cooking with finesse. I say bless you, Julia, for giving us the tools.

23 Responses to “BLESS YOU, JULIA”

  1. Megan says:

    I asked for mine as a Christmas gift a couple of years ago, and I definitely cook from it. While I don’t use it for everyday meals, I turn to it for special occasions or for advice and comparison for another recipe I’m following. (And I did read it cover to cover when I first got it.) I think the point of that Slate article was so silly. Maybe some people are buying the book as a show piece, but I think plenty actually want to tackle those recipes.

  2. Edie Sousa says:

    Brava, Judith. You hit the nail on the head so frequently that it has disappeared into the plank. And bless you, too, for finding and editing so many extraordinary, truly instructional cookbooks for those of us who really want to learn. Where else would we go? I think there are big changes afoot in the current food life of this country, at all levels, and I think it is to be celebrated. If certain writers need to trot out all the old warhorse nonsense for lack of more original or timely observations, too bad. Thanks for believing and leading the charge for all these years.

  3. Lynn Christensen says:

    After years of making unsuccessful omlets, I finally opened up my Mastering cookbook and learned how to make a successful omlet every single time! I am thrilled beyond belief! How I wish I had started reading her book earlier and not wasted my time!

  4. jackie says:

    i agree and them some on the Regina Schrambling piece. it was a total insult to everyone who wants to learn to cook a new cuisine. if she does not like the book, i hope she does not cook from it, and apparently she does not. this is a teaching book, not just a cookbook, so of course the recipes are long. it is quick to say to prepare something. not so quick to tell how to prepare it. as far as her critisims on things like cooking ingredients separately, and the blanching of bacon- that is how it is done, honey! look it up! btw- yes we do know what a whisk is, and what sole looks like.

  5. Alison says:

    After seeing Julie & Julia I wanted to buy Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but was turned off after cooking Beef Bourguignon from the recipe on Knopf’s website. The numerous steps really got to me. However, your point about Mastering being a “teaching” cookbook is well taken. I may have to buy the book after all.

  6. Darina says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. I have been cooking from MtAoFC during the last few months. I have easily produced meals better than I have ever cooked before and I am sure I will continue to do so as I make my way through its wonderful recipes. I have always been a rather improvisational cook and am often not perfectly happy with my food, but I follow Juila’s recipes to the letter and the results are always perfect. Thank you for posting your response to this silliness in the NY Times.

  7. Carol Egbert says:

    Hello,
    I read the last pages of your wonderful book last night. I read it immediately after reading Julia Child’s My Life in France. I have always given Julia Child credit for changing my approach to food but after reading your book I will give you credit as well. Thank you for your work.

    I live near Woodstock, VT and write a weekly column for the food section of our newspaper the Valley News. After seeing the film, Julie & Julia I wrote an article about my first “Julia” meal, bifteck hatche a la Lyonnais. Except for one very irate vegetarian, who was certain that there was a “Cult of Julia” out to destroy the world with an unhealthy diet, the column was well received.

    Cheers

  8. Elaine Harry says:

    My husband and I love French food and after seeing the movie ‘Julie and Julia’ he bought me a vintage edition of Julia Child’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’. I love it! The recipes are not daunting, they are detailed; perfect for someone who really wants to learn to cook in the French manner. The book is also a great read as you can hear Julia’s voice as you read it. I’m very happy with the book and can’t wait to buy another one of her books.

  9. Jaime says:

    Schrambling apparently doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Julia’s books were inspiring to me as a beginner and possibly even more so now that I am more accomplished in the kitchen. I learn something new each time I make a recipe from her volumes, even ones I have made numerous times.
    Friends who have recently purchased her books amidst this new wave of Julia-mania have already tested out dozens of her recipes.
    She’s inspiring to everyone who loves food and loves to learn about food and cooking.
    Thank God for Julia, I wish I would have known her.

  10. anya west says:

    Judith, I too learned so much from Julia’s book back in the eighties when I bought both volumes on vacation. Born in the south, I tended to cook veggies to a pulp. I learned the most important cooking lesson of my life, which was how to cook vegetables.

    I saw Julie and Julia twice within two weeks and now am enjoying the Masterings again. I am now almost finished reading your Tenth Muse and have pre ordered your book cooking for one from Amazon.

  11. Michael says:

    Well said, Mrs. Jones. And with due respect, I have to disagree with Ms. Schrambling, as I just finished making boeuf bourguignon, clafouti, and hollandaise sauce for asparagus; this is all coming from a person who’s never cooked a real meal before. Or gotten past the microwave level, for that matter. I love what Julia has given us: fearlessness in the kitchen. After my 3 course meal, I’m ready to do more. Thank you, Julia, and to you as well, Mrs. Jones!

  12. nina says:

    I think there are two kinds of cooks: people who are interested in cooking, and those who want to know how to invite people for dinner without embarrassing themselves. Julia Child is a blessing to the former and absolutely no use to the latter who, in England, are the people who whinge about Elizabeth David’s cavalier attitude to measurements because they aren’t prepared to learn by experiment – they just want it to be easy. Since probably the only joy in life that really is easy is eating, these people are probably wise to watch the butter.

  13. susan wing says:

    Ms. Jones,
    Thank you for your uncommon good sense and perspective on Julia and the recent Julie/Julia matter. The sunny side is that Ms. Child is reminding us all of the pleasures of the table. To that end as well, I am re-reading my dog-eared copy of A Food Lovers Companion. I have pulled it from the shelf more times that I can count and it is still compelling and wonderful to read about roasting sweet potatoes and Madhur Jaffrey’s mango revelations.
    My best,
    Susan

  14. Bronwyn says:

    I find that my skin gets dry if I don’t eat enough butter. I just wanted to tell you that your discussions of food and sharing in “The Tenth Muse” inspired me to start the Cupcake Sociology Project, which can be followed at http://www.casapinka.typepad.com
    I’m definitely not a great baker ( I had to resort to a packaged chocolate pudding after the centers of my first cupcakes caved in) but am inspired to improve, which is worth something!

  15. Kenda says:

    I just read My Life in Paris and fell in love with Julia Child all over again. I always wanted to meet her. She was the first cooking show I ever watched. I grew up on a farm and we ate lots of (unpasteurized) butter and milk products, free-roaming chickens that filled up on bugs and grass-fed beef. Julia brings the reality of real eating to light. I will always lover her.

  16. Nan says:

    Hi – me again! Just had to tell you that I received my copy of your new book (it was my “honorable mention” prize in the Be Like Julie,Cook like Julia contest) and I just LOVE it! I’ve already dog-earred 14 recipes to make immediately and I posted about it on my blog as well. I loved the beautiful pictures and all of your personal notes – thanks so much, I consider this book to be a great addition to my cookbook library! xo, Nan

  17. Dear Judith,
    I just read the article about you in the New York Times and was instantly captivated. After spending the day in a muddy field talking to an organic garlic farmer, I was moved by your your enthusiasm for serious local and sustainable practices-Bravo!
    In 1996, I opened the Oak Room at the Copley Plaza Hotel and was lucky enough to host numerous dinners with Julia Child. She once told me, “John, chefs always want to impress me and I usually go along with thier creations, but the best thing in the world is a medium-rare filet with a large dollop of Plugra. Awesome! Thanks, John in Athens Ohio Pizzagoon.com

  18. Cate (UK) says:

    Saw Julie and Julia at the weekend (newly released in the UK) … wonderful film, so beautifully written and performed. Have now ordered the books (Mastering … and Love ..) and downloaded the BB recipe – what a GREAT idea – thank you so much! I’m a very experienced cook, and save from the lack of pictures, I love the way this book is written. Perhaps a re-release of the book on the centenary of Julia’s birth – with pictures could be considered? In the meantime, I’m looking forward to getting my first copy and making wonderful food, with lots of butter, cream and other so-called bad things! Let’s face it, life is too short, so everything in moderation (including moderation) has to be the way!

  19. Irene says:

    I learned to cook from Mastering: my copy must be a first edition. And while some of the recipes were daunting–thank heavens we don’t make veal Orloff any more–most of them gave me the help I needed if I was to learn. I don’t remember any terrible failures, and we didn’t get fat any more than Julia did.

  20. Olivia says:

    Dear Mrs. Jones

    My name is Olivia Fraga and I work as a journalist at ‘O Estado de S. Paulo’, one of the most important newspapers in Brazil, writing about food and restaurants.
    At this moment I am writing an article about “food for single people”, and I was reading your book in order to get in touch with this subject. I would really appreciate if I could talk to you, by phone or email, about it. Would it be possible?

    I am looking forward to hearing from you.

    Best regards
    Olivia Fraga
    Paladar
    O Estado de S. Paulo
    http://www.estadao.com.br/paladar/

  21. Mark Ungemach says:

    Dear Ms Jones,

    I confess that I bought a two volume set of Mastering only after seeing the movie “Julie and Julia.” I also bought the DVD, plus “My Life In France.” I immediately made coq au vin for our New Year’s Eve, and then the boeuf bourguinonne for my partner’s birthday gathering. And then went on from there! And this while we have our own chef, who cooks for us at home!

    I am grateful for Mastering’s introducing me to new (new to me) techniques and approaches to flavor. And I must add that this exercise made me realize that my mother fed her family with recipes taken from Mastering. I vaguely recall seeing Mastering on my mother’s shelf, as well as the shelves of some of her best college friends from Manhattanville’s class of ‘46. I had never discussed approaches to cooking with my mother, and her Alzheimer’s in the late 90’s and her death in 2003 made any discussions impossible as soon as I had any mind to talk about it. This experience allowed me to commune, in a way, once again with my late mother!

    Additionally, this experience has inspired me to plan a trip through France for my partner and me.

    Finally, through this, I gather that you have been responsible for helping to introduce so many important cultural icons to all of us, including the Diary of Anne Frank! Thank you! I am deeply grateful!

    -Mark Ungemach
    Landenberg, PA

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