In the beginning there was the book. Before Julia Child became TV Julia, Julia of the warbling voice and towering stature, fearless and flamboyant with the boning knife, there was Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the ambitious 1961 volume she co-authored with French friend and fellow cooking teacher Simone Beck (and officially, with Louisette Bertholle, whose contribution, it seems, was slim). Most of the recipes in the first volume of MTAFC came from the French Beck but were rewritten by Child after she'd tirelessly vetted them on electric stoves with American cuts of beef and high-gluten American flour, and even American frozen vegetables. They ended up with a book "for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children's meals, the parent-chaffeur-den-mother syndrome or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat." For the readers of MTAFC, cooking was an avocation, not a chore. (The cookbook never assumes that there's a woman in the kitchen.) In many ways, Julia's greatest contribution to cooking was not bringing French food to America—although she did that, with help from restaurateur Henri Soule; René Verdon, the Kennedys' French chef; and later Jacques Pépin and Madeleine Kamman—but in freeing Americans from the necessity of cooking for a purpose other than pleasure.
Although Child demystified French cooking, she and Beck refused to dumb it down. (This is one reason the book was rejected by their first publisher, Houghton Mifflin, who wanted something that wouldn't intimidate busy housewives.) The book, eventually published by Knopf, has few "easy" recipes. Mushrooms are fluted, lettuce is braised for hours, and chickens are boned out, then filled with pâté and sewn back together. MTAFC also has a rhythm rather different from that of the cookbooks that preceded and followed it. Ingredients are not sequestered at the top of each recipe, but rather printed in the left column at the point in the procedure when they are introduced. Recipes flow into one another as a master recipe is elaborated into multiple variations. The format can be a little disorienting and is sometimes downright frustrating. In a review of the second volume of MTAFC, which first came out in 1970, New York Times book reviewer Nika Hazelton wrote that the elaborate recipes would appeal to those people "who learn to drive a car by having the workings of the internal combustion engine explained to them in full detail." Contemporary cookbooks generally shy away from this theme-and-variations approach, presenting readers with more fully realized dishes and less technique. (One very successful exception is Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking, which rekindles the master recipe format.)
But even today, MTAFC is a very workable book—and it's the exacting details that make it so well worth revisiting. Here are six recipes to start with.
Page 126: Omelets
Omelets are simple to make but easy to screw up, and omelet recipes, correspondingly, are notoriously difficult to write. MTAFC presents a 13-page treatise on the subject, helped along by Sidonie Coryn's line drawings (based on Paul Child's lovingly observant photographs of his wife's hands). The chapter makes one desperate to achieve the desired "smooth, gently swelling, golden oval that is tender and creamy inside."
MTAFC's omelet-making directions are almost comic in their precision, but they bring great clarity to the whole operation. How much should one beat eggs before cooking? Thirty to 40 vigorous strokes with a large table fork should be sufficient. When a utensil-free omelet-rolling technique is described as difficult but "the most fun of any method," the book offers a training regime to help you master the necessary movement: Go outside and practice tossing a cupful of dried beans in a pan until you can flip them all at once with a flick of the wrist. Then you may come back inside and make your omelet.
Page 84: Béarnaise Sauce
When Julie Powell, the Long Island secretary who cooked every recipe in MTAFC, was planning a celebratory visit to the Smithsonian, where Child's kitchen is installed, she hoped to leave behind a stick of butter as an offering. The 1961 recipes are definitely pre-nouvelle cuisine, unafraid of butter, eggs, or other nutritional bugbears. (The first draft had been an 850-page volume on rich sauces and poultry alone.) Sometimes, it's hard to remember just how good those war horses of la cuisine bourgeoise are, and a good béarnaise sauce, the emulsified butter and egg yolk flavored with tarragon and shallots, makes a great refresher. Although the gadget-savvy Child, et al., have a blender version available, they prescribe trying it by hand at least once, "for part of every good cook's general knowledge is a thorough familiarity with the vagaries of egg yolks under all conditions." The recipe for the temperamental sauce comes ready with solutions for common problems—if it won't thicken, if it curdles, if it is too thick. The béarnaise recipe comes from the subchapter on hollandaise sauce, but its slightly more aggressive flavor seems more modern than plain hollandaise. Try it spooned on steak (which, of course, has its own detailed chapter).
Page 436: Aspèrges au Naturelle
Child and Beck helped teach Americans that vegetables are not "purely nutrient objects" but things of pleasure. They devote 100-odd pages to vegetable dishes and crusade against the American tendency to overcook them. In MTAFC, vegetables are highly manipulated—whittled and carved to cook evenly and quickly. Even asparagus gets some serious treatment; it is peeled and tied into bundles before being blanched. (Although Julia says they must be stripped with a knife, I disagree; today's sharper peelers do just fine.) Whether you then douse the cooked spears in hollandaise (or béarnaise!) is a matter of how much pleasure you can handle.
Page 559: Mousse de Foies de Volaille
Child was a gadget fiend, as a pilgrimage to her kitchen will attest. She carefully examined modern conveniences, noting which were worth embracing and when traditional hand methods were imperative. (Contemporary readers might even be a little alarmed by MTAFC's pragmatic and relatively uncritical use of clam juice, canned pineapple, and frozen spinach.) The blender was one technology that passed muster—although, according to the book, it was not up to the delicate task of grinding fish fillets for quenelles. Thanks to the blender, this chicken-liver mousse is one of the simplest, but most effective, recipes in the book. Naturally, the authors give readers the option of making it more complex, suggesting that it might be packed into an aspic-lined mold before serving.
Page 223: Homard à L'Americaine
Child had a natural sense of the theatrics needed to make entertaining television, whether it involved dropping food, carving meat with a big sword, or executing lobsters, as she did to make homard a l'americaine. The latter was first detailed in MTAFC as a humane alternative to steaming the creatures to death: The lobster "may be killed almost instantly just before cooking if you plunge the point of a knife into the head between the eyes, or sever the spinal cord by making a small incision in the back of the shell at the juncture of the chest and tail." For cooking exhibitionists, there are few recipes that pack as much drama as this classic: After you assassinate several live lobsters, you light them on fire as they simmer in cognac.
Page 646: Tarte au Citron et Aux Amandes
Many of MTAFC's desserts are all-day kitchen odysseys and, frankly, a little oversweet and dated: charlottes made with homemade ladyfingers and lots of orange liqueur, rice pudding with glacéed fruits, and jellied Bavarian creams. This tart, by comparison, lets two big flavors—lemon and almond—shine without much fuss. My only improvement: Toast the almonds before grinding them. But just to make sure it feels like Julia, there is a fiddly but flavorful bit of candied lemon zest to garnish the tart.
If you make it through these six recipes, consider turning to the second volume of MTAFC, in which Child and Beck approach even more complicated preparations, including a 20-page method for a great French baguette made entirely with American ingredients. As ever, in the world of Julia Child, there was pleasure in taking pains.