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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Between the Lines: Les Trois Gourmettes

In November 1951, a woman named Simone Beck came to dinner at Julia Child's house. The two women had met through a women's eating club, and would become fast friends. They would spend years working on perhaps the most famous cookbook after "The Joy of Cooking". Although their personalities were almost opposite, they shared a love and appreciation that would keep them together through all their arguments. They both loved French cooking.
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Simone Beck Fischbacher, or Simca, grew up in a rich family in France. Although the household kept servants, she could frequently be found experimenting in the kitchen. She soon proved to be a natural cook, and was self-taught except for a few classes at the Cordon Bleu. Julia and Simca were instantly fast friends, united by their love of France and food. 

Simca was a member of one of the only female gastronomical clubs in France at the time. Called Le Cercle des Gourmettes, the group had begun in 1927 to protest the traditionally male world of food clubs. Simca introduced Julia to one of her friends, who was also a Gourmette- Louisette Bertholle. Louisette, who was, according to Paul Child, "a charming little nincompoop", wasn't as enthralled with cooking as Julia and Simca, but still "bright and chic and full of enthusiasm". The three had a vague idea of starting a cooking school together, but before they had had time to do anything but talk, their first student-to-be presented herself. A friend of Julia's from Pasadena, named Martha Gibson, was coming to visit, and could they please give her cooking lessons? 

L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes (roughly "The School of the Three Food Lovers)") opened its doors January 1952. The three new friends placed a notice in the American Embassy's newsletter, telling of "[a] small informal cooking class, with emphasis on the 'cook hostess' angle... is open for five pupils... The meetings are Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10:00 a.m. through lunch, in the home of Mrs. Paul Child. The fee is 2,000 francs including lunch, which is prepared and served by the group. There are three experienced instructors, who teach basic recipes, bourgeoise or haute cuisine." The ad was not quite accurate-- the "instructors" were indeed experienced, but in cooking, not teaching.

Although the new school was not perfect, it was pretty good. For each lesson Julia typed a script for each of the teachers; "Prof. Julia, Prof. Simca, and Prof. Louisette". One would be chopping onions and carrots while the other was explaining the proper method for basting chicken legs, and a third was heating up stock. Prof. Louisette was often absent, as she was going through a divorce. However, the school's aim, to teach French cooking without the frills, was accomplished.

While Julia provided the lesson plan for des Trois Gourmandes, Simca and Louisette supplied the recipes. They drew from a cookbook they’d been writing for years; the finished cookbook-they hoped- would provide an “authentically French” cookbook for Americans. They’d gotten a publisher, Ives Washburn, but he didn’t know about the market for the type of product Louisette and Simca were working on. Ives did hire someone to translate the skinny manuscript into English and make a “teaser” for the book. Called “What’s Cooking in Frances”, it hadn’t been shown to Simca and Louisette before distribution and was published full of errors. The whole project was turning into a disaster. So, in 1952, the two friends asked Julia for help. Although she probably didn't realize it, this would prove to be an enormous event in her life.

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