EDITOR'S NOTE: Throughout the fall season, Taste will bring you stories of notable cookbooks — and their authors — of the 20th century. A cookbook that was, in some way, influential to American home cooks of the 1900s will be highlighted on the first Wednesday of each month.

It would be difficult to begin a series of notable cookbooks without first focusing on Mastering the Art of French Cooking. During a time when home cooks were happy with modern conveniences like TV dinners and canned food, the 524 recipes included in the cookbook introduced French cooking techniques to America.

Published in 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a 9-year labor of love written by Julia Child along with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, both of France. Initial sales were slow, partly due to the limited promotional effort by the publisher, Alfred Knopf, and that Child could only afford to print 3,000 copies in the initial run.

A bit of fortune struck in 1963 when, after a cooking demonstration on a WGBH talk show in Boston, The French Chef debut starring a relatively unknown Julia Child. Her signature style and unique voice paired with her knowledge of gastronomy made it easy for viewers to watch and learn how to prepare French dishes.

Before long, housewives and home cooks all over the country were glued to their TV sets to watch Child cooking fabulous French food. Because of the show’s budget, Child was live for 30 minutes uninterrupted, which also meant America saw every kitchen blunder as it happened. That ultimately made the show more endearing — if Julia Child could mess up and move past it, so could each and every one of us trying to master the art of French cooking.

Child became a celebrity chef before we knew what that meant and viewership and cookbook sales grew quickly. By the end of 1964, 4,000 copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking were selling each month. As a result, volume two of the cookbook was published in 1970. The French Chef aired for 10 years on public television and Child went on to publish many more cookbooks.

Cookbook or encyclopedia?

Mastering the Art of French Cooking did not have the greatest of beginnings. The first publisher Child signed a contract with, Houghton Mifflin, grew tired of the project. In her book, My Life in France, Child indicates their reasoning was that Americans did not want “an encyclopedia” and preferred to cook simple meals with convenience foods.

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Focusing on the basics of French technique, volume one is daunting. The recipes are labor-intensive and time-consuming. Thirteen pages are devoted to omelettes while 19 pages and 7 hours are devoted to making French bread.

The first edition does, however, provide alternative instructions for cooks who preferred modern convenience appliances like mixers over the traditional French methods. With more emphasis on French baking, volume two may be more daunting. While many of the recipes might send today’s home cook running toward the hills, recipes like the French Onion Soup and Boeuf Bourguignon are relatively simple albeit a bit time intensive.

How influence shaped a blog

On August 25, 2002, a Long Island City secretary published her first post on her blog, The Julie/Julia Project. Julie Powell dedicated the next year to cooking all 524 recipes in volume one of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In that year, and in the early days of blogging as we now know it, she amassed nearly 400,000 page views a month. Her project had a large following from the beginning.

Powell’s first meal from the cookbook was Bifteck Saute au Beurre, Artichauts au Naturel avec Beurre au Citron, and Riz Naturel. That is to say, pan-broiled steak, whole boiled artichokes with lemon butter, and rice. Powell indicated how easy these were in her second blog post. As the year would progress, however, so too would the skills required to complete the 524th recipe.

All said, Powell completed her task on time and later published a book which was turned into a movie in 2009 — Julie and Julia. The project was a nod to the woman who “taught America to cook, and to eat”, as Powell wrote in her first blog post.

A culinary icon

Nearly 60 years have passed since the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published and it is still teaching us how to cook French food. Julia Child empowered women and taught them that cooking could be more than simply putting dinner on the table each evening. The recipes are timeless — and many. While you may not want to try your hand at Ris de Veau Braisés (braised sweetbreads) or Clafouti (cherry flan), you might find the recipe for oeufs brouillés (scrambled eggs) life-changing.

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Niki Davis can be reached at rootedinfoods@gmail.com. You can find more recipes and food history on her blog Rooted In Foods at www.rootedinfoods.com.


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