Julia Child had a problem in 1960. After spending much of the previous decade wrestling a book of French recipes for Americans into shape, she was stuck on what to call it. Suggestions, 45 or so, came and went without a winner. Finally, Judith Jones, her editor at Knopf, struck proverbial gold with "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," and the book was published in 1961.
Fast-forward about 50 years. Nathalie Dupree was wondering if she had a problem. It wasn't that her new cookbook lacked a name; it had one: "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking."
"It was terrifying," Dupree recalls of the choice.
Now, the Charleston, S.C.-based Dupree is no newbie. She's the author of 12 books, a seasoned television cooking show host, a kitchen pro. But her response reflected the fact that "Mastering the Art" as a cookbook title is a phrase charged with meaning. For as Russ Parsons wrote in a Los Angeles Times story shortly after Dupree's book debuted in November, "It takes a lot of chutzpah to name a cookbook 'Mastering the Art of … .' After all, Julia Child pretty much has the rights to that phrase in perpetuity."
No more, apparently.
"Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking," co-written by Dupree and Cynthia Graubart, will be joined on bookstore shelves this fall by "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing," by Anya Von Bremzen, the Queens, N.Y.-based author and food writer, and Ann Mah's "Mastering the Art of French Eating." In 2014, expect "Rococo: Mastering the Art of Chocolate," by Chantal Coady, a London chocolatier.
Mah says her title is meant as a sort of a joke — after all, how can one master eating? — but it is also a homage to Child, who was, like Mah, a diplomat's wife in Paris. The Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer describes her book as culinary tour of France using Child's book as a guide.
"Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is such a universally recognized title that prospective readers of Mah's book should immediately get the playful title spin. It might be what gets them to buy it, and that's the point.
"Every publisher's goal is to get his book attention, and the most important thing to get right is the title," says Bill LeBlond, editorial director of food and drink at Chronicle Books. Crafting a variation on "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is one way get attention, he says, because it is a title that "resonates with people who are cooks."
Book titles aren't copyrighted, Jones says. Publishers used to steer clear of similar-sounding titles, especially successful works like "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," as a courtesy.
"There's not much of that around today," Jones added dryly.
Perhaps, but use of "Mastering the Art" as a main title for a non-Child cookbook in the American market was relatively infrequent. An Amazon.com search turned up: "Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking," by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo in 2009; "Mastering the Art of Florida Seafood," by Lonnie T. Lynch in 1999; "Mastering the Art of French Pastry," by Bruce Healy and Paul Bugat in 1984; and, my sentimental favorite, "Mastering the Art of Outdoor Cooking on Your Gas Grill," published in the 1970s for Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Dan Rosenberg, editorial director of Harvard Common Press, believes publishers were generally unwilling to use "Mastering" as the main title for a food book in the American market before Child's death in 2004 at age 91. He cautions that publishers and authors need to take care now if they choose the "Mastering" route for naming books.
"You are heightening expectations on two fronts," he says. "You're going out on a limb that the cuisine approaches French cuisine in importance and, even more risky, you are going out on a limb and saying you write cookbooks at the level of Julia Child and Simone Beck. Either way, you are taking a risk."
Lo was not nervous when Chronicle published her "Mastering" book. The Montclair, N.J., resident, who has been called the Cantonese Julia Child, says her book attempted to do for Chinese cooking what Child's book did for French.
"We were never worried," recalls LeBlond of Lo's book. "In some ways, it was a homage, but we were certainly perfectly confident our book was strong in the same way."
For Jones, using "Mastering" in a title ups the ante. "You are sort of inviting people to jump in and look at it critically," she says.
T. Susan Chang zeroed in on that in her Boston Globe review of "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking." It is an "ambitious title" for an "ambitious book" that "aims to be authoritative," she wrote. While the book delivers "an education in cooking from an experienced cook," the Leverett, Mass.-based writer wrote, she found it "less a definitive work than a personal statement, adorned with vignettes from Dupree's own rich life."
Reaction to the book has been generally positive. Parsons wrote that if Dupree "hasn't earned the right to call her new book … 'Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,' who ever will?" And the book this month won a James Beard Foundation award, the Oscars of the food world, in the prestigious — and competitive — American Cooking category.
"I didn't get knocked as much for it as I thought,'' Dupree says of the title, which she explains in the book was meant as a tribute to Child, who had suggested "off-handedly" that Dupree write "a book about Southern Cooking techniques one day."
"So here I am, more than 30 years and 12 books later, with that book she told me to write," Dupree tells readers. "She didn't tell me to use the 'Mastering the Art of' part of the name of her book, but out of reverence, I feel I must. It was her idea, after all."