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40 Years by the Book

Julia Child: People didn't know how to use a knife or the right techniques of dicing an onion or making a hollandaise sauce. And if something happened, we didn't know how to fix it. I did take one series of cooking classes in Beverly Hills -- mostly things like how to make waffles and pancakes and popovers and probably white sauce.

Judith Jones: American cooking had fallen into a very bad state. We were being told it was demeaning to cook. And cooking methods were at an all-time low. But I did love cooking -- even though I didn't know the difference between the broiler and the oven. We had a wonderful woman from Barbados who cooked for us [at home in New York]. She would tell me about the things she made for her boyfriend, and I started going to French restaurants, and I got dazzled by this food.

Julia Child. (Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)

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The book stresses technique rather than following recipes to the letter and urges us on by saying, "Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere, with the right instruction." Do you still stand by that?

Julia Child: Very definitely. It's just a matter of technique, The exact ingredients don't make much difference. If a recipe calls for a shallot and I don't have it, I just use a little onion.

Judith Jones: If you have the right technique, you can substitute. When that book came out, nobody had heard of a shallot in America. It's all those explanations of the why you do things that made a difference.

Julia, "Mastering the Art" evolved from your friendship with Simone [Simca] Beck Fishbacher and Louisette Bertholle, first at Le Cercle des Gourmettes, a club where French women interested in gastronomy met every other Tuesday to cook and eat lunch, and then in 1950 at your English-language French cooking school, L'Ecole des 3 Gourmands [the School of the Three Hearty Eaters]. What made you want to write a book as well?

Julia Child: Having started the school, we had to do the recipes, which we did in very detailed form. (When I started cooking, I needed to know why -- exactly how to do something.) Simca and I had been talking about a book of French cooking for Americans, so with no aspirations other than we thought we'd like to have our work published somehow, we thought we'd do a book.

I sent around a little brochure of sample recipes to various friends in the States to see how they liked it . . . We wanted them to take it seriously and wanted to know if they liked that style of recipes. It got very detailed. Among [the recipes] was one on how to make pressed duck. And to make it in a real way, you have to have to have a strangled duck so the blood remains in the carcass, and if you don't, you have to go get some fresh blood from the slaughterhouse. . . . It was more than Americans wanted.

Judith, after the first publisher that was interested in "Mastering the Art" declined, the manuscript ended up on your desk at Knopf, and you pushed for its publication. Did you think there was a market for it?

Judith Jones: Before "Mastering the Art," cookbooks had become "How many recipes can you get in a book" with very few succinct formulas. But here were these meticulous explanations written in crystal-clear prose. The manuscript seemed like a miracle -- so full of the detail and the explanations of why you did something. It was like having her right there with you. I went home and tried these recipes and realized it made all the difference, and I thought well, if I am this enthusiastic, other people will be. And Alfred [Alfred A. Knopf, the book's publisher] was willing to take a chance. We printed 10,000 copies in October -- and that was a substantial number then -- and even before Christmas we had to go back to print more.

Why do you think it was a success?

Judith Jones: There was [Julia] who translated French cooking to Americans. It's not enough to say braise the beef -- you have to know what braise means. You have to know about drying the meat, and the kind of fat you browned it in, and not crowding the pan. The time was right too. In the past, we'd been too isolated. Only the rich and elite traveled, but after the war, the GIs came back and were more open to new experiences, people were traveling much more, and we were told it was okay to love cooking again too. And, of course, it was a servantless world, so you needed Julia's teaching cookbooks.

Julia Child: We came out at the right time. People were going abroad and eating some of this wonderful food. And then the Kennedys were in the White House: Their food was always discussed, and they had a French chef. Besides, the recipes don't take too much time if you know what you're doing.

Judith Jones: And then everything followed. The markets had much better produce.


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