Julia Child would have been 100 on Aug. 15, and the occasion is being marked by a flurry of published works honoring her as a woman, a cook, a television legend and even a cat fancier. But what about Child as writer? After all, her inaugural cookbook revolutionized recipe writing, became a gin-ormous best-seller, and led to her ending up, famously, before the television camera. That book, of course, was "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in 1961.
"She changed forever the way cookbooks are written,'' said Judith Jones, the legendary Knopf editor who shepherded "Mastering" to publication. "This was a time when cookbooks were full of box-top recipes and shorter the better was the byword. Julia understood a basic thing: To cook well you had to know what you were doing. You had to know the right technique and the right ingredients. You had to know what to do ahead."
But Child was not a born cook, nor a born writer. The eldest child of a well-to-do family living in Pasadena, Calif., she found herself drifting through the 1930s holding down rather forgettable jobs, volunteering or caring for family.
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"Julia left Smith College determined to be a great woman novelist,'' said Bob Spitz, author of the new biography, "Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child." "She applied for jobs at Newsweek and The New Yorker; she submitted short stories to The New Yorker. She wasn't great."
Then came World War II. She went to work for the OSS, the nation's intelligence agency, and got a posting to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where she met the love of her life, Paul Child. They married in 1946 and, two years later, found themselves in Paris where Paul served as cultural attache at the American Embassy.
It was in Paris that Julia Child got her groove on at last. She had always loved eating; now she discovered she loved cooking — a lot. She took courses and began conducting small classes alongside two French women who wanted to produce a French cookbook for Americans. Child signed on to provide the book with the needed American perspective. It took nearly a decade, and numerous revisions, rejections and recipes, before the book was finally born.
In her posthumously published memoir about those days, "My Life in France," Child recalled what the women wanted the book to be: "We'd write in an informal and humane tone that would make cooking approachable and fun. But the book would also be a serious, well-researched reference work. Our objective was to reduce the seemingly complex rules of French cooking to their logical sequences, something never before attempted either in English or in French."
"Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was certainly different from what was out there. As Child had promised a would-be publisher in 1952, the book went beyond the cut-and-dried "how" of cooking into the far more exciting realm of the "why." Recipes were presented in an innovative and influential two-column format: Ingredients and equipment were listed on the left-hand side of the page and placed where you needed that at that point of the recipe; instructions ran down the right-side of the page. There were head notes or introductory passages explaining the dish and offering context. So-called master recipes were followed by a number of variations. Vegetable side dishes and wine pairings were suggested. And the illustrations showed the action from the cook's point of view.
Buoyed by enthusiastic reviews, especially from Craig Claiborne in The New York Times, sales of "Mastering" were strong from the start. Then Child appeared on a book discussion show aired by Boston's public television station. To liven things up, she whipped up an omelet on camera. The response was so enthusiastic, WGBH asked her to do some pilot cooking episodes for a series called "The French Chef." The rest? Well, that's American cultural and culinary history as a generation or two of Americans eagerly followed Child to the stove.
The success of "Mastering" and Julia Child seems a foregone conclusion in hindsight all these decades later. But progress was, at times, non-existent or circuitous. Child worked really, really hard at making it look so easy.
"Julia was a cooking teacher first, a recipe writer second,'' Spitz said. "She spent long hours at the typewriter, making draft after draft after draft. And it wasn't just the recipe, she was trying to get the style right in order to be clear."
Jones said a hallmark of Child's style was that she wrote as she spoke, both in person and, later, on television.
"She used gutsy words. She plopped things in a bowl and squished them with her fingers,'' Jones said, noting Child's "voice" became even more personal when Child started writing such solo books as "From Julia Child's Kitchen" in 1975.
"Working with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, it had to be more of a 'we' voice, the voice of three,'' Jones explained, referring to Child's "Mastering" co-authors.
Voice is vital for Jones, who said "language makes a good cookbook." She has never been a supporter of the simple "Add this, add that" school of recipe writing. Instead, Jones championed authors who connected to readers as a friend and mentor, authors who wrote as if they were in the kitchen with you.
"People aren't learning at their mother's knees,'' Jones once told me, adding dryly, "I don't know where all those mothers are. They disappeared."
Child, of course, came to represent for millions of Americans that maternal kitchen figure through her many cookbooks, newspaper articles, public appearances and television shows over 40 years before her death, two days shy of 92, in 2004.Recipes were key to creating that feeling. Child made sure they were successful, countlessly testing and experimenting to ensure perfect results.
"She was so angry with recipes that didn't work,'' said Dorie Greenspan, who wrote the companion cookbook to Child's "Baking with Julia" television series. "She would call me at the end of the day on the book tour to report who had made what recipes. It was high praise from her when she said the recipes worked. It was important to her."