In 1960, book editor Judith Jones had to convince the Knopfs that Americans really did want to learn how to cook French food. She could not have predicted the impact Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which she edited, would have on young cooks, both immediately and nearly a half-century later. Just two years after the book’s publication, future director, producer, screenwriter, novelist and journalist Nora Ephron came to New York. She was 21, and “That was a thing you did,” she says. “You bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking and you cooked from it. It was part of being a young female college graduate in New York. It was standard equipment for an apartment: a couch and a copy of Julia’s cookbook.” Fast-forward 47 years, and Julie & Julia, a film based on Julia Child’s autobiography and Julie Powell’s memoir about cooking every recipe in MtA in a year, has the chance to make the iconic cookbook a must-have for beginning cooks once again. Says Jones, “I think the film will have a real impact, particularly on young people. It’s almost palpable, the feeling in the audience. Cooking can be fun, and the audience goes away wanting to make a boeuf bourguignon. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is going to be back in everyone’s kitchen again, I hope.”
But does MtA really make cooking easy for beginners? Although it may seem strange to compare Julia Child to someone like Rachael Ray, Ephron says, “I can imagine people getting hooked on Rachael Ray because she does convince you you can do it. And of course Julia did, too.” Ephron also says some of MtA’s recipes can be made in 30 minutes. “The night before last we wanted something to eat in a hurry, and I made the chicken breast with cream, mushrooms and port, which takes like, 30 minutes to make, and you’ve got this unbelievable thing when you’re done.” Ephron also recently made the book's boeuf bourguignon. One of her children ate it and said, “I think this is the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten in my life.” Jones, too, mentions the boeuf bourguignon as a recipe that teaches novices basic techniques: “Julia tells you what cut of meat to use and the size; and that you must dry it before cooking, and why; and that you can’t use all butter because butter burns, so put some oil with it; and that you mustn’t put too many in the pan at once because they steam rather than brown. That perhaps was the most valuable recipe in the book, in that it was imprinted in my brain forever. If I was making a pork, lamb, veal or chicken, I’d use the same technique.”
MtA’s excellent introduction to French cuisine notwithstanding, Jones says Child did not approve of Powell’s cook-every-recipe-in-one-year project. The editor and author read Powell’s blog together (Julie and Julia was published a year after Child’s 2004 death). “Julia said, ‘I don’t think she’s a serious cook.’ ” Jones thinks there was a generational difference between Powell and Child. “Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn’t attractive, to me or Julia. She didn’t want to endorse it. What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt. She would never really describe the end results, how delicious it was, and what she learned. Julia didn’t like what she called ‘the flimsies.’ She didn’t suffer fools, if you know what I mean.”
In any event, Ephron points out that MtA certainly changed Powell’s life. She describes the movie as being “about the books themselves, the creation of the books and the power of a book to affect someone’s life.” Incidentally, the idea to base the film on both Powell’s book and Child’s autobiography, My Life in France, wasn’t Ephron’s idea, but she was thrilled to write the screenplay. “If there was ever something called This Thing Has My Name On It, this was it,” she says.
And if there was ever a cookbook that had the ability to rescue cookbook buyers from what Jones calls the “chef worship, competition and testosterone” currently dominating the American cookbook market, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is it.