How Julia Child Mastered French Cuisine and Convinced America to Love It Too
On November 3, 1948, Julia Child and her husband Paul settled down for lunch at La Couronne, a venerable restaurant opened in 1345 in the Norman capital of Rouen. Julia, from California, feared she “didn’t look chic enough” for the venue.
Her husband Paul, a US civil servant from New Jersey, was about to start a new job as an exhibits manager for the US Information Agency, a now-disbanded branch of the State Department. (Julia would later describe the position in her memoirs My life in France as “a kind of cultural/propaganda work”, through which Paul would “help promote Franco-American relations through the visual arts”.) The two had just arrived in France after days on the SS America, an ocean liner . Julia had never been to Europe before.
Paul, who was fluent in French, took over the order duties. The Childs were enjoying half-shell oysters with “a sensational briny flavor and an entirely new and surprising creamy texture,” served with rye bread and butter. They drank Pouilly-Fumé, a dry white wine from the Loire Valley. After the oysters, their starter, the sole meunière: a large Dover sole that arrived “perfectly browned in a crackling buttery sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top.”
Sole meunière is a simple dish. Like a plain croissant or a roast chicken, it leaves no room for the cook to hide: his technique is there. When done right, it can be lavish. La Couronne’s sole meunière, according to Julia Child, was “perfection”. Green salad and baguette followed, then cottage cheese (a French dairy product similar to yogurt that has no equivalent in English) and coffee.
“Our first lunch in France had been absolute perfection,” wrote Julia Child in her memoir. “It was the most exciting meal of my life.”
In the mythology of Julia Child, sole meunière is considered the dish that gave birth to a legend. Two years after her lunch at La Couronne, she enrolled in cooking school, embarking on a path that would see her become one of the most celebrated cooks and connoisseurs of French cuisine in America. She also became a prominent cultural figure; the kitchen she kept at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts (after returning from Paris) is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Her first cookbook Master the art of French cuisine, published in 1961 by Alfred A Knopf, is widely considered a classic and has been credited with shaping both the cookbook industry and American food culture. Julia Child’s Cooking Show, The French cookremains available to stream to this day, six decades after it first aired.
The story of Julia Child, at the crossroads of the worlds of food, publishing, and finally France, has been told many times. There was the 1989 solo play Enjoy your lunch!, in which Jean Stapleton portrays the child herself. On the big screen there was the 2009 movie Julia and Juliabased on both Child’s own existence and that of blogger Julie Powell, who one day resolved to cook all the recipes from Master the art of French cuisine over the course of a year. The latest of its kind is Juliaa new HBO Max series focused on the development of The French cook and Julia Child’s introduction to the world of television.
Born in 1912 and raised in a “comfortable, WASPy upper-middle-class family” in Pasadena, California, Julia Child grew up eating “typically American food”, “delicious but not fancy food”. During World War II, she worked in the Office of Strategic Services (a now defunct intelligence agency, replaced by the CIA and the Office of Intelligence and Research). There she met Paul Cushing Child, 10 years her senior, raised by “a rather bohemian mother” who had herself lived in Paris. Paul had traveled the world, “spoke French beautifully” and “loved good food and good wine”.
Two years after moving to Paris with Paul, Julia enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, a culinary and hotel school founded in 1895. She obtained her cooking diplomaclassical training, in 1951. With two French cooks, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, she wrote Master the art of French cuisine, a complete but accessible bible of French cuisine. The book was originally under contract with publisher Houghton Mifflin, but the project fell through. It was Judith Jones, an editor at Knopf who had lived in Paris after college, who finally stood up for her.
Jones, as she would later recall in her own memoirs The tenth muse: my life in food, had been hired mainly to work with translators of French authors like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. She was disappointed with the state of food in America – the ingredients, she said Eater in 2015, were “hideous”. “It was a tough time in writing cookbooks in America, and there was also the fact that there didn’t seem to be an audience for them,” she said.
The manuscript of Master the art of French cuisine seemed like an amazing gift. ” I could not believe it. It was like someone sent me a gift,” she said. At an editorial meeting, Alfred Knopf, who in 1915 had co-founded the publishing house with his wife Blanche Knopf, said Jones should “have a chance” with the project.
“That was the start,” Jones said. “I mean, it was just magical.”
To master was “the cookbook I dreamed of”, wrote the publisher (then a legendary name at Knopf) in The New York Times in 2004. “He explained techniques, talked about proper equipment, necessary ingredients and viable substitutes; he warned of pitfalls while providing remedies for your mistakes. Also, although there were three authors, it was the voice of the American that came through, someone who was clearly a learner herself, who adored French cuisine and was determined to to break it down and translate it for an American audience.
Almost 50 years after the book’s publication, Hollywood introduced Julia Child to a new generation of fans. Julia and Julia, released in 2009, starred Meryl Streep as Julia and Stanley Tucci as Paul. Amy Adams starred as Powell, the blogger and author whose book Julie & Julia: My Year of Dangerous Cooking provided half of the inspiration for Nora Ephron’s screenplay (the other half came from Child’s Own My life in France). The film resulted in an Oscar nomination for Streep in the Best Actress category (Sandra Bullock won that year for her performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy in The blind side).
Julia Child died in 2004 at the age of 91. There’s a timeless appeal to her story, relived over and over again by her heartfelt love of food. look The French cook and you will see that his appetite for French cuisine was both literal and intellectual. She approached him as a riddle to be solved; she wanted, needed to know how to perfect each dish. She did it with a rare blend of perfectionism and self-forgiveness, graciously acknowledging mishaps on camera.
“If you are alone in the kitchen, who will see? she rhetorically asks viewers in an episode of the cooking show titled The potato show. She just tried to flip a potato pancake without any utensils, with a simple forceful punch. “When you flip something, you really have to have the courage of your beliefs – especially if it’s some kind of loose mass like this,” she tells the camera. When her attempt to flip the crepe only partially succeeds, she doesn’t miss a beat: “You see, when I flipped it, I didn’t have the courage to do it like I should have. … But the only way to learn to flip things is just to flip them. The kitchen becomes a place of both rigor and fun.
“Things happen in life,” Jones said Eater two years before her own death in 2017. “Julia once said to me, and I quoted her on this, ‘Judith! We were born at the right time. And I said, “Yes, Julia, but we had to act on it.” And she said, ‘You’re right!’ »