Julia Child would have been 100 on Aug. 15, and the occasion is being marked by a flurry of published works honoring her as a woman, a cook, a television legend and even a cat fancier. But what about Child as writer? After all, her inaugural cookbook revolutionized recipe writing, became a gin-ormous best-seller, and led to her ending up, famously, before the television camera. That book, of course, was "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in 1961.
"She changed forever the way cookbooks are written,'' said Judith Jones, the legendary Knopf editor who shepherded "Mastering" to publication. "This was a time when cookbooks were full of box-top recipes and shorter the better was the byword. Julia understood a basic thing: To cook well you had to know what you were doing. You had to know the right technique and the right ingredients. You had to know what to do ahead."
But Child was not a born cook, nor a born writer. The eldest child of a well-to-do family living in Pasadena, Calif., she found herself drifting through the 1930s holding down rather forgettable jobs, volunteering or caring for family.
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"Julia left Smith College determined to be a great woman novelist,'' said Bob Spitz, author of the new biography, "Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child." "She applied for jobs at Newsweek and The New Yorker; she submitted short stories to The New Yorker. She wasn't great."
Then came World War II. She went to work for the OSS, the nation's intelligence agency, and got a posting to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where she met the love of her life, Paul Child. They married in 1946 and, two years later, found themselves in Paris where Paul served as cultural attache at the American Embassy.
It was in Paris that Julia Child got her groove on at last. She had always loved eating; now she discovered she loved cooking — a lot. She took courses and began conducting small classes alongside two French women who wanted to produce a French cookbook for Americans. Child signed on to provide the book with the needed American perspective. It took nearly a decade, and numerous revisions, rejections and recipes, before the book was finally born.
In her posthumously published memoir about those days, "My Life in France," Child recalled what the women wanted the book to be: "We'd write in an informal and humane tone that would make cooking approachable and fun. But the book would also be a serious, well-researched reference work. Our objective was to reduce the seemingly complex rules of French cooking to their logical sequences, something never before attempted either in English or in French."
"Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was certainly different from what was out there. As Child had promised a would-be publisher in 1952, the book went beyond the cut-and-dried "how" of cooking into the far more exciting realm of the "why." Recipes were presented in an innovative and influential two-column format: Ingredients and equipment were listed on the left-hand side of the page and placed where you needed that at that point of the recipe; instructions ran down the right-side of the page. There were head notes or introductory passages explaining the dish and offering context. So-called master recipes were followed by a number of variations. Vegetable side dishes and wine pairings were suggested. And the illustrations showed the action from the cook's point of view.
Buoyed by enthusiastic reviews, especially from Craig Claiborne in The New York Times, sales of "Mastering" were strong from the start. Then Child appeared on a book discussion show aired by Boston's public television station. To liven things up, she whipped up an omelet on camera. The response was so enthusiastic, WGBH asked her to do some pilot cooking episodes for a series called "The French Chef." The rest? Well, that's American cultural and culinary history as a generation or two of Americans eagerly followed Child to the stove.
The success of "Mastering" and Julia Child seems a foregone conclusion in hindsight all these decades later. But progress was, at times, non-existent or circuitous. Child worked really, really hard at making it look so easy.
"Julia was a cooking teacher first, a recipe writer second,'' Spitz said. "She spent long hours at the typewriter, making draft after draft after draft. And it wasn't just the recipe, she was trying to get the style right in order to be clear."
Jones said a hallmark of Child's style was that she wrote as she spoke, both in person and, later, on television.
"She used gutsy words. She plopped things in a bowl and squished them with her fingers,'' Jones said, noting Child's "voice" became even more personal when Child started writing such solo books as "From Julia Child's Kitchen" in 1975.
"Working with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, it had to be more of a 'we' voice, the voice of three,'' Jones explained, referring to Child's "Mastering" co-authors.
Voice is vital for Jones, who said "language makes a good cookbook." She has never been a supporter of the simple "Add this, add that" school of recipe writing. Instead, Jones championed authors who connected to readers as a friend and mentor, authors who wrote as if they were in the kitchen with you.
"People aren't learning at their mother's knees,'' Jones once told me, adding dryly, "I don't know where all those mothers are. They disappeared."
Child, of course, came to represent for millions of Americans that maternal kitchen figure through her many cookbooks, newspaper articles, public appearances and television shows over 40 years before her death, two days shy of 92, in 2004.Recipes were key to creating that feeling. Child made sure they were successful, countlessly testing and experimenting to ensure perfect results.
"She was so angry with recipes that didn't work,'' said Dorie Greenspan, who wrote the companion cookbook to Child's "Baking with Julia" television series. "She would call me at the end of the day on the book tour to report who had made what recipes. It was high praise from her when she said the recipes worked. It was important to her."
Child kept copious notes of her work, so much so that the loose-leaf reference guide she kept of her trials, successes and mistakes became fodder for her last cookbook, 2000's "Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime in Cooking."
Greenspan was always struck by Child's habit of asking questions of other chefs while working together in the kitchen for the shows.
"She would ask such great questions and she would ask them like a knowledgeable home cook,'' Greenspan said. "What was it like to work in a kitchen? What might be a problem? What might be a visual cue in making the recipe?"
One time, in order to make sure she had it down exactly right, Child asked Jones to make puff pastry by reading and following a recipe under development.
"It was tricky to make,'' Jones said. "She watched me do it. She saw where I stumbled. She carefully observed my body language."
Some readers — home cooks and pros alike — complained Child's recipes were too long. Some recipes do seem to go on forever, like the 19-page treatise on French bread in 1970's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II." Jones defends the length of the recipes, saying Child wanted the space to explain things properly so all cooks, regardless of training, could make the recipe correctly. (And, honestly, didn't making French bread right leave you wanting to open a boulangerie?)
Alex Prud'homme worked with Child, his great-aunt, on her memoir. A New York City-based author and journalist, Prud'homme thought at first that her recipes from that time tended to "go on a bit."
"Then I began to think of the recipes as short stories, distilled tone poems of her experience,'' he said. "It was her way of getting a grip on the reality of living in France and learning about its wonderful customs and foods."
Later, Child began to move away from the classic French cuisine of the "Mastering" books toward a more personal style of cooking. Spitz, like Jones, believes Child was able to "step out" as a writer beginning with "From Julia Child's Kitchen."
"She loosened up a bit, she offered more personal stories, she became more used to talking to the reader,'' he said. "Her writing became less academic. 'Mastering' is a difficult book to use. The recipes are very long and complex; there's no excuses for the home cook who wants to cook quickly. It's a little stiff."
Greenspan, however, came to have a renewed respect and admiration for "Mastering" by working with Child on the "Baking with Julia" project.
"I had read the book, but going back to it after getting to know her I felt her in every page. 'Mastering' is very straightforward, she's getting a lot of information in every line, but there's a little humor here and there that's typically Julia,'' she said. "Julia had a way of bringing you into the recipe, to make it attractive enough for you to want to do it."
"The best part of her writing is that she is right there with you, working with you," Greenspan added. "Read her and you can practically hear her breathing. It just startled me."
Paul Child played a key role in Child's writing. According to Prud'homme, he nurtured her intellectual curiosity and served as an important reader and "first editor" for her writings. Jones, of course, gets rightful credit in helping to shape Child as a writer by editing the books, from "Mastering" in 1961 through "My Life in France" in 2006.
Did the editor and the writer ever butt heads? Not really, she said, in a telephone interview from her Vermont summer home.
"The one time we really disagreed was when I said, 'Julia, you are using so many pots' and she said, 'Judith, you can never be a good cook if you worry about the pots you have to clean,' '' Jones recalled.
What was the outcome of that dispute? Well, Jones added with a chuckle, "It is very important to put that pan in to soak if you can't clean it right away."
Bill Daley is a food and features reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
Listen to Julia talk about food and literature
People have long been able to read Julia Child in books and watch her on television and in videos. But how many of her fans know they can listen to her too? And on the theme of food in literature, too.
"Hungry: The Literary Julia Child" was the name of a public radio series produced in 1997, but never broadcast then because of lack of funding. Tapes of the eight shows Child narrated can be heard for free at prx.org, the Website of Public Radio Exchange.
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