Anyone weary of the nonstop hype over Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia this summer had to be happy with this week’s news that the fuss has not all been in vain: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking has finally hit the top of the best-seller list, almost 48 years after it was first published. Unfortunately, that will probably send even more Meryl Streep wannabes straight to bookstores looking for food porn. And they will be sold bibles.
The inconvenient truth is that although the country’s best-loved “French chef” produced an unparalleled recipe collection in Mastering the Art, it has always been daunting. It was never meant for the frivolous or trendy. And it now seems even more overwhelming in a Rachael Ray world: Those thousands and thousands of cookbooks sold are very likely going to wind up where so many of the previous printings have—in pristine condition decorating a kitchen bookshelf or on a nightstand, handy for vicarious cooking and eating.
Thanks to my consort, I have owned the two-volume set of Mastering the Art since 1984, the year after I graduated from restaurant school, but even I have never cooked from it. My copy of Volume 1 is tattered, but only because I’ve used it for reference over the decades—it is infallible as a sourcebook. I would think the problem is my short attention span, given that I grew up cooking from my mom’s 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook and was trained professionally using recipes that had been distilled to their essence so that technique could be taught fast. But Julia’s recipes were written for a rigorous cook with endless patience for serious detail.
Consider the boeuf bourguignon depicted so romantically in the movie, which has had restaurant chefs and amateurs alike breaking out their “9- or 10-inch fireproof casseroles” in the hottest month of the year. The ingredients and instructions for its recipe span three pages, and that is before you hit the fine print: The beef stock, braised pearl onions, and sautéed mushrooms all require separate procedures. Step 1 involves making lardons and simmering them for 10 minutes in a precise amount of water; seven steps later, the fat is finally skimmed off the sauce, which is either boiled down to thicken or adjusted with liquid if it’s too thick.
And this is considered an entry-level recipe. Everything in the tome looks complicated, which of course guarantees the results will work but also makes cooking feel like brain surgery. Even simple sautéed veal scallops with mushrooms involve 18 ingredients and implements and two pages of instruction.
If after 26 years of cooking for a living, I am worn out just reading those recipes, I can only imagine how a newbie who can barely identify a whiskwill do, let alone how someone who has never seen Dover sole in his supermarket could cook sole meunière, the other iconic Julia dish that restaurants and home cooks have been reflexively celebrating since ogling it in the film. It’s a plot point, and the recipe is not in the book, although others for sole are, helpfully indexed under “poisson.”)
Beyond the careful fussiness, the book has a preserved-in-aspic feel to it. For good or for bad, not many people I know want to sit down most nights to fricassee of chicken or shoulder of lamb stuffed with kidneys and rice. Even for a dinner party, these might seem anachronistic in an age when guests are perfectly frank about sharing their food issues (lactose-intolerant, vegan, gluten-free, etc.).
Americans have also been taught not to believe in butter, especially not in the quantities Julia lavished on food in true French tradition. Anyone accustomed to glugging olive oil into every sauté pan will have some adjusting to do with dairy: Butter burns; cream can be cloying. Snobs like me may also be amazed that more than a few recipes suggest using frozen or canned vegetables and canned salmon, a nod to the era in which the book was written and edited, when farmers markets were not even gleams in the most forward-thinking cook’s eyes, before farmed salmon became the new Chicken of the Sea. Seasonality, another new watchword for smart cooking, is clearly a nonissue, or no one would be making beef stew in August in homage to the masterpiece.
Many cooks will probably react like the woman quoted in a New York Times article who substituted a can of cream of mushroom and a can of French onion soup rather than taking the extra steps to braise both vegetables. And the backlash against Mastering the Art is already beginning: The New York Times also ran an article on a newly translated French equivalent of Joy of Cooking that includes a boeuf bourguignon recipe involving exactly five steps (and a lot less nuance and depth).
Julia would be spinning 6 feet under if she knew her book had spawned this kind of cooking. Luckily, her subsequent, more relaxed cookbooks appear to be selling again, too. I was scared off, but friends swear by the 1975 From Julia Child’s Kitchen because the recipes are not all French and allow for the convenience of that new-fangled food processor. In the introduction, Julia writes that she intended for it to be more “personal and informal” than her masterwork, which was conceived of more as a textbook and was written with collaborators, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.
My cynical side suspects cookbook buyers looking for that old French magic would be much happier with other authors. Patricia Wells and Anne Willan have done great jobs translating classic French cuisine, using one-page or shorter recipes, while some of the better modern-French “instructors” include Jacques Pépin and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and even Jeremiah Tower. Also, never underestimate the late Pierre Franey, the “60-Minute Gourmet.” Hardcover editions of his books command a premium online for good reason: The recipes are foolproof and easy but yield sensational results. (You just can’t make beef stew in an hour.)
None of this is meant to take away from Julia Child’s phenomenal achievement. Her book, and the television series that made the recipes look so doable, really did change how America cooked at a time when housewives (and even restaurant chefs) desperately needed encouragement to move beyond casseroles and TV dinners. But given how arduously she protected her integrity, never endorsing products, it’s a little disconcerting to see her masterwork being shilled like a Shrek tie-in at Burger King, with promos wrapped around every copy sold.
Once the mania subsides, Julia Child will still be huge. It will be the movie that looks small.