Recently I've been reading Bob Spitz's excellent biography, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. It's a massive book (576 pages), exhaustively researched and full of detail, but it's not to be hurried. I'm somewhere in the middle at the moment.
No, this post is not about cooking, although I adore Julia Child. I own three copies of her groundbreaking Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and it has shaped my culinary life. I attended a lunch-hour demonstration she gave in San Francisco many years ago, and I still have the handouts. I was never privileged to run into her on the streets of Cambridge when I lived there, but I did visit her local grocery store, and I kept a picture of her kitchen taped to my refrigerator in my Cambridge apartment. Smith College, which she (and my daughter) attended, holds an annual Julia Child Day.
Many of us who have grown up with Julia Child, either through her cookbooks or from the PBS televisions shows, don't realize the impact that one cookbook had on the way Americans cooked—or how much work went into the making of it. And as I read Spitz's book, I came to view the cookbook as a "book" rather than a tool.
Think back to the distant 1960s, when quick food was the norm and TV dinners were in their heyday. Fast = good. Women didn't want to be chained to the stove. As a result, a lot of women sort of forgot how to cook, and worse, they lost the pleasure of cooking.
I first visited France in 1971, and while my mother was a good plain cook, who (to her credit) used fresh fruits and vegetables and didn't overcook everything, I realized with my first meal in Paris (coq au vin in a small restaurant on the Left Bank) that there was a lot that I'd been missing. I never looked back. When I moved into my first apartment (with a tiny kitchen), the first thing I bought was Mastering the Art of French Cooking, even before I bought a bed.
But to return to the literary side, Julia Child demystified French cooking. She laid out step by step instructions, and explained in simple terms why each step was necessary. Her recipes worked, and turned out exactly as described, with portions sized for people with normal appetites. On occasion she would say things like, this may curdle during this step, but don't worry—it will smooth out later. And it did.
What Spitz makes abundantly clear is the prodigious amount of research and testing that went on in Julia's kitchen (or many kitchens, in different countries, over several years). She could write authoritatively about how to do something because she had done it over and over herself until she knew it worked.
And then she could explain it, clearly and simply. What's more, Spitz points out that there is a story behind the whole book. Julia loved French cooking, and she wanted other people to love it, rather than being scared by it. So her book is a love story, and she gives little anecdotes and comments all along the way, to make us feel closer to the food, and she succeeds admirably. The cookbook is worth reading even if you never pick up a sauté pan, and if you want to know how it achieved its elegant simplicity, read Spitz's book.
(BTW, Bob Spitz is mystery writer Nancy Martin's brother-in-law)