Why you'll never cook from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Aug. 28 2009 5:28 PM

Don't Buy Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking

You will never cook from it.

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Americans have also been taught not to believe in butter, especially not in the quantities Julia lavished on food in true French tradition. Anyone accustomed to glugging olive oil into every sauté pan will have some adjusting to do with dairy: Butter burns; cream can be cloying. Snobs like me may also be amazed that more than a few recipes suggest using frozen or canned vegetables and canned salmon, a nod to the era in which the book was written and edited, when farmers markets were not even gleams in the most forward-thinking cook's eyes, before farmed salmon became the new Chicken of the Sea. Seasonality, another new watchword for smart cooking, is clearly a nonissue, or no one would be making beef stew in August in homage to the masterpiece.

Many cooks will probably react like the woman quoted in a New York Times article who substituted a can of cream of mushroom and a can of French onion soup rather than taking the extra steps to braise both vegetables. And the backlash against Mastering the Art is already beginning: The New York Times also ran an article on a newly translated French equivalent of Joy of Cooking that includes a boeuf bourguignon recipe involving exactly five steps (and a lot less nuance and depth).

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Julia would be spinning 6 feet under if she knew her book had spawned this kind of cooking. Luckily, her subsequent, more relaxed cookbooks appear to be selling again, too. I was scared off, but friends swear by the 1975 From Julia Child's Kitchen because the recipes are not all French and allow for the convenience of that new-fangled food processor. In the introduction, Julia writes that she intended for it to be more "personal and informal" than her masterwork, which was conceived of more as a textbook and was written with collaborators, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.

My cynical side suspects cookbook buyers looking for that old French magic would be much happier with other authors. Patricia Wells and Anne Willan have done great jobs translating classic French cuisine, using one-page or shorter recipes, while some of the better modern-French "instructors" include Jacques Pépin and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and even Jeremiah Tower. Also, never underestimate the late Pierre Franey, the "60-Minute Gourmet." Hardcover editions of his books command a premium online for good reason: The recipes are foolproof and easy but yield sensational results. (You just can't make beef stew in an hour.)

None of this is meant to take away from Julia Child's phenomenal achievement. Her book, and the television series that made the recipes look so doable, really did change how America cooked at a time when housewives (and even restaurant chefs) desperately needed encouragement to move beyond casseroles and TV dinners. But given how arduously she protected her integrity, never endorsing products, it's a little disconcerting to see her masterwork being shilled like a Shrek tie-in at Burger King, with promos wrapped around every copy sold.

Once the mania subsides, Julia Child will still be huge. It will be the movie that looks small.

Regina Schrambling is a longtime food writer in New York who writes gastropoda.com and blogs at both gastriques.blogspot.com and epicurious.com.

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