Clotilde Dusoulier, who writes the blog Chocolate & Zucchini, was in town from Paris for a few days recently, and met me for coffee to talk about her newest project, the translation and adaption of the French classic I Know How to Cook by Ginette Mathiot. The cookbook, first published in 1932, has more than six million copies in print in France, one of which belonged to Dusoulier’s grandmother and is still in use in Dusoulier’s kitchen, despite its decrepit condition. As holiday shoppers snap up the just-out DVD of Julie & Julia, Dusoulier talked about I Know How to Cook versus Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
PW: What was your initial reaction when you were presented with the project of helping translate this massive French cooking bible into English?
CD: I was really happy. It’s a very well-loved and well-used book in France. I feel proud to be on the team that helps make it available to a wider audience, because it’s so valued. I knew it was going to be a challenge but I knew I wasn’t going to have to do it all myself. The was a translator, myself, three copyeditors, a recipe tester, and the editor at Phaidon.
PW: What sorts of things did you change for American readers?
CD: The instructions were very concise in the French edition—sometimes too concise. American recipes instruct the reader to preheat the oven at the beginning of the recipe. In France, it’s quite frequent that it will say, “Insert into a warm oven.” They don’t tell you at the beginning, so it’s less practical. But at the same time, it means the French reader is used to actually reading through the recipe before they begin—which is not a bad thing.
PW: Where does I Know How to Cook stand in the canon of French cookbooks?
CD: It’s very well-known. Mathiot doesn’t really hold your hand; rather, she’s kind of telling you, “This is how you’re going to do it and I’m pretty sure you can do it.” It’s empowering. She takes the simplest things—how to cook green beans—and teaches you how to steam and add butter. And then she builds on those building blocks so that whether you’re a beginner cook or a seasoned one, you will find an entry level that speaks to you.
PW: Can you compare I Know How to Cook to Mastering the Art of French Cooking?
CD: To me, they’re very complimentary books. Julia Child had a professional training. So she was taking those techniques and trying to teach them to the American home cook. Whereas Ginette Mathiot was a home economics teacher; her recipes were home cooking recipes. There wasn’t that need to spell out complicated techniques, because they were recipes meant to be made at the end of a long day. It had to be dinner on the table without too much fuss but still great results. Julia Child doesn’t really wonder how much her recipes cost—it’s not really an issue. Then again, hers are really solid techniques, and if you make that Boeuf Bourguignon once in your life, it has great value.
PW: Do most French people know who Julia Child is?
CD: No, not really. I only learned about her when I lived in the U.S. I don’t know if it’s the French self-centeredness, but there isn’t a lot of credit given to those who advocate the French values abroad. Even Jacques Pépin, for instance—no one knows about Jacques Pépin in France. Daniel Boulud? No one knows about him. We’re a little oblivious.
This story originally appeared in Cooking the Books, PW's e-newsletter for cookbooks.