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.