Let’s play a literary word association game.
I say “Mastering the Art of . . .,” you say: Soviet Cooking? Long-Range Shooting? Longarm Quilting? Chinese Cooking? Carving Melon Centerpieces? French Eating?
If you’re a classicist, and a cook, there is just one proper response: French Cooking.
And depending on whom you ask, the proliferation of other possible answers is either a very good or very bad thing. The annals of book publishing are littered with titles employing the well-worn phrase popularized by “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” the seminal cookbook by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle whose first of two volumes came out in 1961.
The phrase’s use now spans many genres — all the above are, in fact, real titles — but perhaps none more prominently than cookbooks.
Judith Jones, you edited “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Your thoughts, please?
“I think a cookbook should have its own identity, its own title, its own meaningfulness,” the revered editor, now retired, says from her Vermont home. Rather than come up with something original, she adds, “All you’re doing is riding on a book that’s been successful.”
Jones admits to strong feelings on the topic. She doesn’t want to sound like a “sourpuss,” but we have an inkling she isn’t the only one who feels that way.
Other authors and editors are attuned to the sentiment.
“I was always so intimidated by Julia, by her thoroughness and scholarliness,” says Nathalie Dupree, who with Cynthia Graubart released “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking” in 2012, followed by companion volume “Mastering the Art of Southern Vegetables” this year. “I just wouldn’t have come to it myself, but the publisher wanted it.”
Although she eventually accepted the title, “I didn’t like it at first,” Dupree says.
You might say the same thing about Jones’s boss at the time the original “Mastering” was in the works: the late Alfred Knopf, founder of the publishing company that bears his name. “When I triumphantly showed our title to Mr. Knopf, he scowled and said, ‘Well, I’ll eat my hat if that title sells,’” Jones writes in her 2007 memoir, “The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food.” “I like to think of all the hats he had to eat.”
Jones recalls how she and Child debated the book title via letters that flew back and forth between New York and Oslo, where Julia’s husband, Paul, had been posted by the State Department. Once Jones hit on “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” she relates in her memoir, Child wrote back her approval: “It implies scope, fundamentality, cookbook, and France.”
It also conveys that learning to cook is a “continuous process,” Jones says now. And the “-ing” is key. “It is always improving, always changing. Nobody’s mastered it.”
There were plenty of rejects before Jones struck gold. Among them: “A Map for the Territory of French Food” and “Method in Cuisine Madness.” Not quite the same ring, right?
The cookbook-naming process is “a long and grueling process,” says Maria Guarnaschelli, a vice president and senior editor at publisher W.W. Norton & Co. “Hitting a title is one of the most difficult things in the world.” These days the discussion might reach beyond the editor and author to include a managing editor, a publicity department and focus groups.
Certain key words can work well, Guarnaschelli says. “Classic” is one of them. “Bible” has also come into vogue, though when she was editing Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “The Cake Bible” (1988) at William Morrow, Guarnaschelli was unsure whether it would fly. Now the term is about as ubiquitous as “Mastering the Art of.”
A new cookbook using the latter phrase seems to drop every few months. Next up is “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Bastianich and daughter Tanya Manuali.
“Anything that catches on” is worthwhile, Guarnaschelli notes, but it’s important that the title accurately represent the book.
For “Mastering the Art of,” that means that what’s between the covers should be comprehensive, says Anneka Manning, an Australian cookbook editor and author whose résumé includes “Mastering the Art of Poultry, Meat and Game” (2012) and “Mastering the Art of Baking” (2013).
To live up to the title’s promise, Manning says, she included such basics as frosting and pie crusts in the baking volume and an outline of different cuts in the meat book, plus step-by-step instructions and extensive photography.
Similarly, Dan Shannon says he and his wife, Annie, tried to take an all-encompassing approach to a vegan diet in “Mastering the Art of Vegan Cooking,” published this year. “If you’re calling it ‘Mastering the Art of,’ you have to have more than just a bunch of random recipes,” Dan Shannon says. Page through their book, and you will find money-saving tips, advice on handling jalapeño peppers, a lunchbox guide and recipes for using leftovers.
A cookbook cover and title are important because of the first impression they can make on a potential buyer, Manning says, but as a cookbook author or editor, “sometimes you can overanalyze something.” Although it might draw them in initially, most home cooks probably aren’t going to spend too much time picking apart the title.
What they want to know, Manning says, is whether the recipe will work and the dish will taste good. The book by Child & Co. delivered on that promise. “ ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ is an absolute classic and always will be,” Manning says. If you choose to echo its title, she adds, “you have to be respectful of what it means and what it has meant.”
As Jones says of Child, who died in 2004: “She’s the best teacher I know.”
That reputation means that other authors and readers, consciously or not, see “Mastering the Art of” as shorthand for quality. “You’re setting yourself up for comparison, and once you do that, you’re setting yourself up for pushback,” Dupree says. She said she has gotten some grief about putting Southern cooking on the same level as French. She also worried about positioning herself in a place to be being judged against Child. “It would be one thing if there had been no Julia Child,” she says.
So far, Annie and Dan Shannon say, they haven’t received negative feedback about their book’s name. “I think we tried really hard to live up to the weight of the title,” Dan Shannon says. “Someone else can decide whether we did a good job or not.”
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