Cookbook Club: Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Categories: News and previews

Angela Clutton reflects on the latest gathering of the Cookbook Club which this month focused on Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking

In truth, when we decided to include Julia Child in our programme of Cookbook Club events, I wasn’t too sure just what the members would make of it. I thought many would be cooking the recipes of this icon of American cooking for the first time. I expected some to know her from Meryl Streep’s portrayal in the film Julie & Julia. I hadn’t expected one person to be so desperate to bag a place in the ballot, all kinds of inducements were offered (none taken, I promise); nor the weight of feeling that comes from being an American in London and sharing the dishes of your childhood with a crowd of maybe-sceptical strangers.

Not too sceptical. But we did discover that while the language of food has so much commonality across time and place, there can be such differences of understanding too. These recipes span several pages. They cross-refer back to other recipes for key techniques. There are no photographs of the food, just a few rather beautiful illustrations. All these factors would give a modern publisher cause to scratch their head and wonder if such a book could possibly work.

Never mind the fact these two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking were a labour of love for Julia Child (along with her friend Simone Beck, and also Louisette Bertholle for volume one). It took years for her (them) to write what was to become a landmark book in educating Americans on how to cook French classics. More years than I suspect any publisher would be happy to wait for now.

Nicoise salad

Servant-less cooks
One of the joys of Cookbook Club is it opens up members—and me—to cooking from books we might otherwise consider an interesting read, but not a kitchen companion. That was very definitely the case here. Our cooks pushed themselves into trying all manner of wonderful dishes. Stand-outs included croutes with fondue au gruyere, fricassee de poulet a l’ancienne, and pear and almond tart. Others too, but we decided those dishes together would make for the most wonderful dinner party.

Admittedly, it would be a dinner party you would need to set aside quite a bit of time to prepare for. Julia was writing for “servant-less cooks” and while we agreed that included us, there was a feeling her 1960s and 1970s audiences may have had more time to commit to being in the kitchen than we often do now. Many of the dishes take a good while to do.

Our members talked about how more modern food writers on French food have since simplified some of the classics to suit contemporary cooks. But Julia Child deserves credit for being the one to really open up the hitherto rather mysterious world of French cooking to a larger audience.

She was—and hopefully is—beloved in America. Her fame from TV shows was to some extent based upon her larger-than-life character, but at the heart of that was Julia’s very real desire to help people cook this cuisine with her fail-proof recipes. Her catchphrase became “Bon appetite”, and those are words that lay at the heart of her life’s work: Julia Child wished us all real enjoyment of food.