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40 Years by the Book

Why We Always Come Back To Butter, Cream and Julia Child

By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2001; Page F05

"I think you have to love to eat to be a good cook. And if you don't do either one, life would be terribly dull."

If you recognize that exuberant voice, it's no surprise. It's been 40 years since Julia Child entered our lives with "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I," and soon afterward, with her public television series, "The French Chef." On Oct. 16, the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, is celebrating the book that transformed American kitchens with a special 40th anniversary edition and new introductions by Child, now 89, and her longtime friend and editor, Judith Jones, 77.

Julia Child. (Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)

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"Mastering the Art" has been in print continuously since 1961 and has sold more than a million copies. Countless chefs and home cooks point to its lengthy and highly informative recipes as the way they learned to cook. No one even considered updating or defatting the anniversary edition for today's tastes. And except for incorporating the food processor, none of the recipes has been adjusted for modern equipment, including the microwaves or convection ovens that have attracted so many American cooks. So why a 40th anniversary edition?

"It was completely spontaneous," says Jones. "I realized it was 40 years. You can say, 'Why not the 50th?' But if we'd waited . . . well, neither one of us is a spring chicken."

With its evocative language, the clarity of its instructions and the drawings that illustrated everything from the proper way to slice and dice onions to the techniques involved in boning and stuffing a duck and encasing it in a pastry crust, "Mastering the Art" not only educated American cooks but also changed the way cookbooks were written. Recently, both women talked to Food about the book and their lives as cooks, then and now.

Q Each of you was living in Paris in the late 1940s, Julia, with your husband Paul, who was in the Foreign Service, and Judith, as a young editor who went there on vacation and couldn't bear to leave. And each of you says that experience changed your cooking. How did that work?

A Julia Child: After World War II, I didn't have a job and was just slopping around Washington. I gave some cooking classes -- I don't know how I did that because I didn't know how to cook. But Paul said he'd marry me in spite of my terrible cooking. After we were married I went into it seriously with Gourmet magazine and "The Joy of Cooking" as my guides. But my cooking really began in France -- I'd never made mayonnaise or a cake or a souffle or anything like that.

Judith Jones: What happens in France is that you absorb that love of cooking -- it's a way of life and you want to be part of it. I learned from talking to the butcher and the baker and the fishmonger. That's why I was such a sucker for "Mastering the Art" -- cooking this way didn't seem insurmountable.

What was the biggest revelation to you about French cooking?

Judith Jones: I think it was the subtleness and the genuineness of the taste. When I was young, people said Europeans smothered everything in sauces so you couldn't taste the food. But that wasn't true. French cooking was true to the taste of whatever you were working with -- it brought out the flavor.

Julia Child: Everything was so carefully and lovingly done by people who knew what they were doing. And I loved marketing. None of the Americans I knew in Paris were interested in shopping, but it was one of my greatest pleasures. When you're shopping there, it's very personal, very friendly, and you have to establish a relationship with the person you're buying things from.

And then, Julia, once you knew enough French, you went to the Cordon Bleu.

Julia Child: Paul was used to good food, and there I was. The Cordon Bleu had this regular course, but I wanted something much more serious. I found this group of GIs in the basement who all wanted to go into the business -- they had two years of free education under the GI Bill -- and they allowed me to join them. It was an all-day affair. We got there at 7:30 in the morning, then I'd rush home and make an elaborate lunch for myself and Paul and then go back. I was about 32, or 33, and full of vim and vigor, and it was just fun. I admired the chef enormously -- he made it a real art form. I was completely captivated and dedicated.

What was American cooking like at that time?

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