Bon Appetit! 60 years after its publication, the legacy of Julia Child's classic French cookbook endures

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Oct. 10—Judith Jones' words would prove prescient.

"I think this book will become a classic," the visionary editor wrote of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, summarizing its virtues for the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house, fully recognizing its potential and predicting its destiny.

The seminal work, by the legendary Julia Child along with her colleague Louisette Bertholle and dear friend Simone Beck, was a tough sell at first. Massive — an 850-page manuscript — and inordinately detailed, it prompted one proposed publisher to question, "Why would any American want to know this much about French cooking?" Alfred Knopf himself proclaimed that if anyone bought a book with such an unwieldy title, he would eat his hat.

One has to wonder which of the sauce recipes he chose for that dish. Chapeau à la Chantilly, anyone?

Published in October, 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking "could well be titled 'French Cooking from the American Supermarket,'" the authors wrote in the foreward, as it required no unusual ingredients and fully explained every technique.

"Here was the cookbook I had been dreaming of," Ms. Jones, who'd lived in Paris after college and while a newlywed, once wrote for the New York Times.

But "It's amazing it ever got done," said Ann Sanford, bailli honoraire (past president) of the Toledo chapter of La Chaine des Rotisseurs, the world's oldest international gastronomic society of which Mrs. Child was a member.

"When you read her memoir" — My Life in France, written with her great-nephew Alex Prud'homme — "you read about how they would make these recipes over and over," she said. "There was no Google Doc to share — you would mail these things back and forth. It was so laborious!"

In fact, it took nine years of research, testing, and editing before that first volume (of two) of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was finally published.

But once it was published, its impact was tremendous.

For one thing, it changed how cookbooks were formatted. Mrs. Child developed "an original recipe style in which the ingredients and equipment were singled out in boldface type on the left-hand side of the page, and method instructions on the right," wrote culinary historian Anne Willan in Women in the Kitchen: Twelve Essential Cookbook Writers Who Defined the Way We Eat, from 1661 to Today. And a "generous opening paragraph put the dish in context."

Mastering the Art of French Cooking also did not presume knowledge on the part of the cook, instead offering education in technique via far more specific step-by-step instructions than a similar work, Joseph Donon's The Classic French Cuisine, which Knopf itself had published only two years earlier in 1959.

There was "an enormous gulf ... between that book and Julia's," wrote Bonnie Slotnick, owner of an eponymous shop in New York City devoted solely to antiquarian and out-of-print cookbooks, in an email.

Mrs. Child's book, for example, offers a full page recipe for Sauté de Boeuf à la Bourguignonne, even referring back to a master recipe for trimming and preparing a particular cut of meat. Mr. Donon simply calls generically for beef in his simplified two-paragraph version of the famous dish.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking also influenced what people prepared and ate at home, steering clear of the mixes and canned goods many homemakers had come to rely upon.

Cuisine à la Camelot, an essay for the International Food And Wine Society, noted the confluence of the cookbook with then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's passion for French culture, including her having hired Parisian chef René Verdon to work at the White House. Homemakers were longing to undertake these sophisticated and aspirational dishes, as casseroles "of the 1950s [were] clearly out-of-style and the ration books of the 1940s [were] a distant memory," wrote author Joseph Temple.

Today's glut of food media — the Food Network, cooking-themed YouTube channels and competition shows, Netflix and Amazon series, podcasts, and many more variations on the theme — even owe a debt to Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

As Mrs. Child was promoting the book in 1961, she appeared on her local Boston PBS station, WGBH.

"She arrived with a hot plate, giant whisk, and eggs and made an omelette on the set," according to the station's website. The segment proved to be so popular that The French Chef — her iconic cooking show that ran for 10 years, and the first of many series she hosted — was created.

"Television insiders," the WGBH site continues, "credit Julia with giving birth to the 'how-to' genre and carving a path for a cadre of successful TV chefs — and indeed, an entire cable channel devoted to cooking."

Therefore, it's important to recognize and celebrate the 60th anniversary of a work that the Julia Child Foundation, dedicated to preserving her legacy, has called "one of the best and most important cookbooks of all time ... [and] an essential part of every cook's library."

More than 3 million copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking have been sold in the past six decades. But while it "went into a second printing before Christmas" of 1961, after only two months, Ms. Jones noted, it was not a runaway bestseller.

It wasn't until 2009 that the book received an enormous boost from the movie Julie and Julia, which intersperses scenes of a blogger's attempts to cook her way through the tome with scenes portraying the efforts to write and publish the book. According to the Foundation, following the movie's release, "over 300,000 copies [were] sold in one month alone."

But back when it was first published, Mastering the Art of French Cooking offered a grand departure for cooks "who made pork chops with Campbell's soup," Ms. Sanford said, which was "what a lot of us grew up with."

While some of the recipes can be intricate (or, to put a more positive spin on it, illustrative and instructive), others are very approachable and support Mrs. Child's belief that, "You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces, just good food from fresh ingredients."

But there is one tenet that holds true for all 524 of the dishes in this classic cookbook, Ms. Sanford insisted:

"If you can read Julia's recipe, you can make anything."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting