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Monday, February 22, 2010

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Part One

Simca and Louisette asked Julia for help with their cookbook in late August, 1952. They'd just heard that the editor their publisher had hired, Helmut Riperger, had quit in the middle of the project. Now the two friends were on their own, with no idea of their audience and nowhere to start. So, they turned to Julia.

The first thing Julia did was to read what they had so far. At over 500 pages, it was huge, and full of problems. Were the recipes exact enough, she asked herself? Were they too complicated? Were the instructions clear and comprehensible? The answer was no. The level of detail was inconsistent, often way too complex, and the book "was not well suited for the American home kitchen." In other words, the best thing about the massive amount of work Simone and Louisette had done so far was the idea. Julia decided, with her friends' approval, to "strip everything down to the bones". She'd start over from the beginning. And so, Julia Child plunged headfirst into the gigantic project of writing a French cookbook for Americans. 

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Julia's system was to test each and every recipe in the manuscript, using around four sources, including Louisette and Simca's method. She'd read through all of the ways, then made the recipe a few different ways. "...should the cabbage be blanched? Should I use a different variety of cabbage? Would the pressure-cooked soup taste better if I used the infernal machine a shorter time?" Julia was methodical and relentlessly precise. 

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This period of working on the cookbook was full of little setbacks and victories. For example, after a few weeks of thinking about sauces with butter, Julia and Paul ate dinner at a restaurant famous for it's beurre blanc, a wonderful sauce for which no recipe could be found. The Childs hung around after their meal, and were rewarded when the chef made buerre blanc. Julia watched intently, and took mental notes for when she made the sauce back in her kitchen. At home, she wrote what she thought "to be the first clear and comprehensive recipe for the sauce." She tested it on some friends a while later, and proclaimed it perfect.

Simca was proving to be a very good, productive worker. She tested recipes and took notes at a furious pace, sometimes for nine to ten hours, according to My Life in France. Louisette wasn't around much for this stage of the work, though. She'd lost a lot a lot of interest when she saw how meticulous the work was going to be, as well as the fact that she was going through a divorce. Julia and Simca intended to finish their cookbook the way they were working on it, however-- they wanted the it to be well-written and complete.

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The Book, as it was called at Roo de Loo, was having problems with its publisher, Ives Washburn. Julia got a letter from the head of the publishing house saying that "After a year of frustration, we are still a long way from a completed book... The American woman who buys French Home Cooking will probably resent advice on how to arrange her kitchen, set her table, handle a skillet or boil an egg: she learned those things from her mother or Fannie Farmer, don't you think? She expects a book that will show her how she can give her cooking the French touch.... If the recipe... can't be easily used by the stupidest pupil in your school, then it is too complicated." The date was November 1952, and Washburn was expecting a mostly complete book by March 1st, 1952. Simca and Louisette opted for staying with the current publisher. They didn't believe they had much chance of finding another publisher-- they were completely unknown, and "Mr. Putnam was a nice man who like our book." Julia, however, believed that the book was going to be a masterpiece. She didn't see any reason to be pushed around by the publisher. The three Gourmandes decided to stay with Washburn for the time being. 

As for the part about "the American woman" who would "resent advice" and just wanted to "give her cooking the French touch", Julia replied to Mr. Putnam a while later. She explained to him that they weren't just writing a collection of recipes, they were writing a cooking manual. "It is not enough the 'how' [of making hollandaise or mayonaise] be explained." The three friends were writing a book that would enable you the full experience of French cooking--table setting and egg-boiling included. They were going to write a book that showed you how to cook the French way.

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