Can one Master the Art of French Cooking?

Regina Schrambling’s Slate article “Don’t Buy Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, you will never cook from it” is a reaction to the 2009 movie Julie & Julia by Nora Ephron and the subsequent arrival of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

She claims that “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.” She admits that “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.”

She finds the book to be anachronistic and overwhelming. It does not curb her admiration for Child but she finds the book has no place in the world of Rachel Ray and microwave entrees. But does it have to be that way? Perhaps. Classic French cooking was never meant to be the province of the masses but Child’s populist style and approach was intended for a large audience, not merely the professional chef.

To call a book anachronistic because it does not anticipate the foodways of half a century into its future is a bit odd. However, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is certainly a product of it’s time. The book is not written for today’s home chef accustomed to “recipes” like Spicy Lemon Pesto where you add red pepper flakes and lemon juice to prepared, packaged pesto sauce.

“This is a book for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children’s meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.”
Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle & Simone BeckMastering the Art of French Cooking (1961)

Child’s masterpiece embodies the American “Do-it-youself” spirit of the suburban, space age, sixties. It was based on Auguste Escoffier’s 1903 Guide Culinaireis, itself a masterwork of information design. It was used to remind a trained professional chefs of steps or ingredients in a process that is familiar and well-practiced. It is really more of a reference book than a cook book. Not for the faint heart, his instructions for #1906 Cailles Glacées Maryland (Glazed Quails Maryland) are terse and deceptively simple: “Set them round a rock of Granité made with pineapple.” However to fully prepare “them” requires various steps and techniques for cold quail preparations which in turn reference additional steps each with there own sequence of referenced sub-steps and techniques including gratin forcemeat (#202) made from Sauce Espagnole (#22) Roux brun (#19), Estouffade (#7), Mirepoix (#228) and Chaud-froid (#34) made from Demi-glace (#23) Estouffade (#7) and Fumet Blanc de Poisson (#11). The Granité references several steps of Sorbets (#2926, 2927 & 2928) and Sirops Liés (#2418). Translating these interlocking cross-referenced processes into a simple collated set of instructions made the complex and technical art of Haute Cusine possible for the American home cook with little or no training.

“…the recipes are as detailed as we have felt they should be so the reader will know exactly what is involved and how to go about it. This makes them a bit longer than usually, and some of the recipes are quite long.”
Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle & Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961)

The need for manageable step-by-step instructions is a large part of the reason she leaves out items like croissants which require a more kinesthetic understanding. She honestly believes that anyone can do it (given of course enough time, money, patience and tenacity—not to mention, a large well-furnished kitchen might also come in handy).

My copy was printed in Sept 1983 and I’m sure that I acquired it with a year or so of the printing so I have lived with these books for at least a quarter century. There is much to be learned from them even if you never boil an egg. Love of craft, attention to detail, delight in the tactile experience of eating, an appreciation of food well-prepared and life well-lived.

“…the same general processes are repeated over and over again. As you enlarge your repertoire, you will find that the seemingly endless babble of recipes begins to fall rather neatly into groups of theme and variations… Eventually you will rarely need recipes at all, except as reminders of ingredients you may have forgotten.”
Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle & Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961)

The purpose of any great cookbook is to render itself unnecessary. And this book seems to have done it’s job. I refer to it much less today but still appreciate it’s ability to clarify concepts or techniques that I have never tried or can’t seem to get right. Should one buy a copy? If you want to take the time and effort to experience first hand the elaborate art of classic French cooking practiced for centuries or to get a sense of the American determination to be able to do anything by yourself in your own home no matter how elaborate or difficult,  then this book will be a delightful companion. If you are looking for a quick way to make Spicy Lemon Pesto, probably not.

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~ by severalfourmany on November 6, 2012.

2 Responses to “Can one Master the Art of French Cooking?”

  1. we can certainly try!

    • Have you tried preparing any of the classic french dishes from either Childs or Escoffier? Which ones? What did you think? Is there room for this style of cooking today or is it an art form better left to large professional staffs and ancien régime cuisiniers?

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