Julia Child
Julia Child; drawing by David Levine

Probably the lives of cooks are never very interesting except to themselves—the métier of cook is too healthy and gregarious, too much the embodiment of a selfless ideal of service, too filled with the Taurean pleasures of root vegetables to indulge itself in suffering. And the biographer of such a fortunate life as Julia Child’s is at a special disadvantage. Gone the early poverty, parental neglect, sexual abuse, physical handicaps, geographical isolation, insensitive peers, and worldly indifference that form the themes of more literary lives. The reform of American cookery might have provided a riveting subject in itself, but in Noël Riley Fitch’s biography instead we have Child’s prosperous ancestors, cheerful parents, privileged circumstances, normal schooldays, brief adventures in the OSS, exotic travels in Ceylon and Singapore, successful marriage to Paul Child (a sophisticated and talented painter, diplomat, traveler, and gourmet), and her hugely successful career as the queen of American cooks.

Pass over the embarrassing references to their dawning sexual passion, not what we want to know about the cook, who is, after all, more mother figure than Magdalene. Her publishers, for once overestimating reader prurience, have chosen a jacket photo of a sultry Julia in her twenties, nothing to do with the large, funny, goofy, and endearing television personality we are familiar with, though, to paraphrase Jane Austen, there should be no natural contradiction between physical size and the flutterings of desire.

No doubt the life of Julia Child has much to teach us about persistence and integrity. In the tradition of privileged California women of her generation, lacking a profession she took up an approved female pursuit; aided by a good digestion and a sympathetic husband (who, as a good man would, supported his wife in her agreeable experiments), in the course of a lucky sojourn in France, she found French food and made it her own. In another age she might have been Florence Nightingale or Jane Addams. To take nothing away from Child’s character and talent, her fame also owed something to historical events and technology, especially the arrival of television.

The historical moment was right for food. People setting up housekeeping in the Sixties, when the first Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published (1961), usually had The Joy of Cooking or The Good Housekeeping Cookbook at their side, but a yearning for more sophisticated cooking was felt by a small, or perhaps a largish, segment of people, especially women who, seeing the ennui of decades of plain cooking stretching out before them, felt that the casserole, however creatively assembled, did not perfectly consort with newly raised ideas of personal fulfillment. Gourmet challenges were in the air for men too, who now took up cooking with enthusiasm. Many already had Gourmet magazine’s two volumes of rather cryptic “classic,” mostly French, recipes, and were puzzling out the preparation of Crêpes Suzette and Poulet de Bresse aux Truffes all by themselves. Child herself must have been influenced by whatever elite forces were afoot planting the subversive notion that a Duncan Hines cake mix was not all there was to cooking. She got that idea across to a nation; Mastering had sold more than a million copies by 1970, and her television audience, beginning in 1962, was millions more.

Unfortunately, Fitch tells us too little about the nature of American eating habits at the beginning of Julia Child’s reign; instead of the big picture, she renders in loony detail the recollections of friends, press clippings, and the content of her engagement calendars, barely differentiating between the days when

Charlie, Freddie, and their three children arrived in St.-Malo, Brittany, where Julia and Paul drove to meet them. By Bastille Day on July 14 the Child clan was cooking a big dinner together in Paris, including the Bicknells, who had come from Cambridge…. Julia served a huge stuffed breast of veal poached in wine….

and the death of her husband—the center of her life and one of the most appealing characters in the book. Nor does Fitch talk in any detail about food or recipes. Instead, we are given travel itineraries and elaborate genealogies of Julia’s family friends:

[Erica’s] wedding to Hector Prud’homme (Rachel Child married Anthony Prud’homme several years later) was indeed a family matter, for now the Childs were connected by marriage to the Bissells (Marie and Richard Bissell’s daughter Anne Caroline was married to Hector Prud’homme, Sr.) and to the Kublers (the elder Bissells’ son Dick Bissell was married to Betty Kubler’s sister)….

Five hundred pages of this is only occasionally enlivened by cookery gossip—Child and fellow California food icon M.F.K. Fisher disapproving of Craig Claiborne for being too commercial, and of Michael Field because he had a “cooking block” and “snacked” from a virtually empty refrigerator. Eventually all this minutiae develops a kind of comic quality not unlike Julia’s own; but one could have wished for common sense, or, at least, an editor. Above all, one wishes Child would write her own memoirs. She has been a lot of places, met presidents and kings, and has a shrewd and witty take on them, to judge from the times she is quoted in this biography.


Her friend M.F.K. Fisher was never a cooking professional, but a sensuous food writer in the style of Colette: “I see the children curving up into the spiritual air like fern-fronds, shaped by their own mysterious natures and the winds and the worms….” After some initial mistrust—Child at first found Fisher too self-absorbed—the two took the same side of many culinary issues: for instance, they despised the Time-Life cookbooks for being commercial, inauthentic, and untested, and loved the gregarious and imposing fellow Westerner James Beard. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher has been deeply revered, probably because she had a liberated lifestyle much admired by younger women for its three husbands, child out of wedlock, racy expat friends, and because of her passionate prose relating food to her own life of the heart: “I eat a lot of salad, on which I put a spoonful of meat juice with a strange voluptuous solemnity. I am interested in this slowness and this solemnity.”

Dominique Gioia’s new photo-biography of Fisher presents a jacket picture of its subject looking like a siren of the Forties cinema. The backgrounds of Child and Fisher are not dissimilar, shown here in old snaps of handsome California parents in turn-of-the-century clothes, schooldays, beach life in France, smiling men whose presumed vigor is vitiated by the camera. Again, there is very little mention of food. You might wonder who would buy a coffee-table book of annotated photos of a moderately well-known cookery essayist, however extravagantly admired she might be in the food world. On the other hand, after the Child biography, you might be tempted to think Gioia has hit upon a biographical form more appropriately succinct.

The grandmotherly Marcella Hazan, gray-haired and plump, beaming from the cover of her new Marcella Cucina is in notable contrast to the sexy, provocative gazes of Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher. Hazan’s new cookbook follows her two volumes on classic Italian cooking, analogous to Child’s French ones, and other more recent books. Marcella Cucina is described on the jacket as “inspirational” and “her finest book yet,” and it does seem to be full of good-sounding, contemporary, simple recipes emphasizing vegetables and pasta sauces—more than 120 pages of pasta and risotto recipes alone in combinations you may not have thought of (goat cheese, chive, and chili pepper; or savoy cabbage and sausage). Besides the healthy recipes, her chatty, informative first-person tone reminds one of the great English cookery writer Elizabeth David: “I had this sauce, in which pancetta is featured, many years ago at a trattoria near the Chiantigiana, the picturesque road that bisects the Chianti Classico zone between Florence and Siena.” In today’s busy world, many more people are reading cookbooks than are cooking the dishes. They are savoring the complex seasonings, the voluptuous stirrings and siftings, with an enjoyment formerly reserved for novels.

Mistrust of dangerous ingredients has contributed generally to a decline in the passion for French cooking in America; the supposed superior healthfulness of Italian food lies in its low content of animal fat. Poor Dr. Pritikin, said Julia Child, on hearing of the influential diet doctor’s abstemious anti-fat habits and early death, “I have often wondered if a good meal once in a while might have kept him going a little longer.” The undisputed doyenne of American cookery had hit upon a phenomenon that at the time had not yet been named, the French paradox, wherein the French, eating foods deemed by Americans to be fattening and fatal, are thinner and live longer than Americans, while we, growing ever more obsessed with “healthy” low-fat foods, are as a nation growing fatter—the American paradox.

Societies as a whole seem to have one of two basic ways of looking at food: either “if it’s good it must be good for you,” or “if it’s good it must be bad for you,” the puritanical American view, which Julia Child tried, and mostly failed, to refute. Having created or at least represented and codified the gourmet stirrings of the Fifties, Child has found herself, ever since the Sixties, in the position of someone attacking an excess of piety, deploring our tendency to connect eating to health and political correctness. Whereas once she supported the exacting form of discipline that French cookery exemplified, now she has had to argue for the use of butter and cream or for veal against health apostles on the one hand, and on the other the people who would make sure that calves will lead their short lives gamboling alongside their mothers. According to cookery historians, the recipe was originally indistinguishable from the medical prescription,1 and all cookery directions had as their aim the improvement of health. Thus the doctor has always had a privileged place in the eating pantheon, even more important than Mother, that supposedly benign functionary of dietary correctness.


When, in America, did the forces of health and good eating diverge? Noël Riley Fitch brings up the reasonable question of whether Americans are actually eating better at the end of the twentieth century than in earlier times. If it is true that our level of food sophistication has gone up, so also has our consumption of fast food and takeout, and our average weight. Have we always been mired in the contradictory impulses to pleasure and health, as in all societies where pleasure produces guilt?

There is a new Joy of Cooking, a work first introduced by the most prominent American cooking maven, Irma Rombauer, in 1931, then republished in many editions, first assisted by her daughter Marian Rombauer Becker, and now revised in part by her grandson Ethan Becker. If Joy has lost its preeminence to more fashionable and exacting authorities, like Julia or Marcella, or Alice Waters—though many people have always continued to swear by it—the new revision of this mighty work attempts to regain lost ground.

Irma Rombauer was, like Mrs. Beeton and other genteel lady cooks before her, a widowed gentlewoman (from St. Louis) who in 1931 privately printed a collection of recipes that, expanded and revised numerous times, has become the basic cookery reference of millions of American cooks. Its virtues were its compendiousness, its useful tables and explanations, its pragmatic, clear directions, and a certain sprightly and encouraging tone. Its defects were a rather uncritical acceptance of processed ingredients—the condensed mushroom soup mentality that Julia militated against—and, generally, a failure to incorporate the newly available ingredients (radicchio, sundried tomatoes) that Americans were including in their diet. The last revision was in 1975, with the goat cheese/frisée elements of the food revolution yet to come.

A battery of editors and cooks have addressed these failings, it would seem successfully, though a work of more than a thousand pages will no doubt have some things to complain of. The table of equivalents is not much help for the cook hoping to adapt European recipes, which are expressed in deciliters and cuillères à soupe, measurements not treated in Joy at all, while mysterious defunct units of measurement like “gills,” and “drams” are still mentioned. Do we care that an ounce is 437.5 grains? Why do the tables assume we might be using British recipes (unlikely) and not French or Italian? But the table is a masterpiece in some ways—where else would you learn how many bananas it takes to make a cup of mashed bananas, or about the measurement of gum tragacanth? That a serving size of Braunschweiger is one ounce? (The work has not lost its tilt to the German, Mrs. Rombauer’s heritage, strengthened by a stay in Germany while her father was a diplomat there. Indeed, many of our influential native cooks have been formed abroad.)

Many recipes have been discarded, added, or changed. The famous mystery cake made from tomato soup is gone, so too the fascinating “quick tomato tart” made from fresh tomatoes, canned cream of chicken soup, tomato puree, olives, basil, sugar, and 1/4 cup softened liver sausage. But there are recipes for everything from a grilled cheese sandwich to a coq au vin that is more like Julia Child’s than like its own 1975 version. (In both, Joy leaves out the garlic.) Versions tend to be lighter—the new chicken Kiev uses less butter and is sautéed instead of deep-fat-fried—and demand a little more of the cook. Gone, for the most part, are those condensed-soup sauces that were the staple of American cookery through the Sixties, but, yes, tuna casserole is still there. A certain philosophical dispute may have raged at Scribners, the publisher of the new Joy, around this venerable dish, for the advance publicity material, showing the evolution of some of the recipes, announces a tuna casserole “conveniently made with condensed soup”; the actual cookbook, however, sternly reminds us that the recipe, which now dictates that you make the sauce from scratch, “takes very little more time than the canned-soup variety.”

The rejection of canned soup as a national cookery staple owes a lot to Julia Child. If we imagine ourselves back into the time when we made tuna casserole, was it because we had no money? No time or frozen food alternatives? No idea it wasn’t good? Or was it good, after all? It was decades ago, the Sixties, a dim time of cultural innocence (entertainingly detailed in Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America).2 Many will remember, for example, a famous recipe calling for canned onion rings combined with cream of mushroom soup, string beans (canned or frozen), some kind of cheese topping, and cornflakes or cracker crumbs. Some of the recipes in the 1963 Good Housekeeping Cookbook instructed the cook to open as many as six cans (which perhaps explains the ubiquity of that strange appliance, the electric can opener), mostly the condensed cream soups (mushroom, chicken, and celery) that are the most striking feature of our national cuisine, followed by packaged pudding mixes, which the reader may have perhaps forgotten.

The new American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century provides a readable and fascinating compendium of American cookery history, with recipes fashionable at various periods, in their original and perfected versions—the real story of Caesar salad, key lime pie, Grape-Nuts pudding, or the tomato soup cake (which the author, Jean Anderson, tells us was liked by M.F.K. Fisher). There’s caviar pie, there’s the green bean casserole. Mrs. Anderson has an unsnobbish and scholarly flair for all this nostalgia. Crisco first came out in 1911, Jell-O in 1900. The oat bran craze began in 1990. She reprints excerpts from original advertisements and recipe leaflets put out by Campbell’s or Kellogg’s, or the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas. A long-time cookery writer and collector, Anderson gives many of her own recipes, in the best tradition of Rombauer and Fannie Farmer, and reprints those of many famous cooks. You may not be ready to go back to marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes (if you gave them up), but there are definitely foods from childhood here that may make you want to look at casseroles again.

This writer suspects she may not be the only cook to have put Mastering the Art of French Cooking back on the shelf, lessons learned, and turned to simpler recipes. The reputation of Marcella Hazan may owe something to such widespread culinary backsliding: Italian food, as delicious and as reassuringly sophisticated as French food, and thought to be healthier, is also much easier to cook. The trend to simplicity—not the same as nouvelle cuisine, which was complicated—is seen in French cooking too. Witness the success of Dr. Jean-Philippe Derenne’s massive L’amateur de cuisine,3 a bestseller in France, featuring straightforward recipes emphasizing good ingredients, grills, and simple combinations in the style of “California” cooking, with the imprimatur of medical authority.

Where Julia Child wanted us to make, say, a Grand Marnier Soufflé (“Use the master soufflé formula. Before making the bouilli sauce base, rub the sugar lumps over the orange to extract the oil. Mash the sugar lumps, grate the orange part of the peel, add to the saucepan with the granulated sugar, and proceed with the sauce base…”), Marcella Hazan says, “It is likely that even an enterprising Italian cook will produce no more than one cake or batch of cookies during a whole year.” (Paradoxically, one notable authority on Italian baking is an American, Carol Field, whose latest book, In Nonna’s Kitchen: Recipes and Traditions from Italy’s Grandmothers,4 like Hazan’s combines food history, travel, and treasured recipes from Italian grandmothers.)

Americans go through mood swings where dietary habits are concerned, yet certain constants remain, and one is indolence, or an obsession with time-saving, qualities which, on balance, Julia Child, for all her virtues, has failed to alter. Our unreflective national approval of “convenience,” never mind how inconveniently we organize our cities, obtained even in the mind of the Duchess of Windsor, that notable American housekeeper, who reproved her French cook for not making use of innovations such as the newly available freezer (“Why, Madam? I have only to walk six blocks to get something fresh”) and served the Duke a sauce made of mayonnaise, ketchup, Worcestershire, cream, lemon juice, and gin. One would not be surprised to learn that she had cans of cream of mushroom soup shipped over to her house in France.

The Duchess was not alone, was very American in attributing to the packaged, the frozen, the bottled, the canned, some properties of virtue the fresh did not have. The transformation of ingredients by industrial processes affirmed our American ingenuity, validated the time we saved—and not incidentally supported the various giant food-processing corporations. Cookbooks like the earlier Joy and Good Housekeeping often specified canned or frozen ingredients as if these were to be preferred.

It is not certain that things have changed, or that they aren’t going backward. The magazine Taste of Home, first published in 1993, is put out by practical cooks, who contribute the recipes and are also the editors. Here is a real populist response to elite faddish cookery. The masthead says:

These common-sense cooks aren’t “professionals” who test food in high-rise office buildings. They practice their trade at home, day in and day out. They are probably a lot like you—friendly, down-home practical and real.

Some of the recipes would send Julia Child into shock—Layered Pudding Dessert containing packaged vanilla wafers, vanilla pudding mix, strawberry gelatin, “whipped topping,” and two real bananas. Another: halibut baked in Diet Mountain Dew. Usually there’s no concession to cholesterol—one recipe for hash brown potatoes tells you to add, to 2 pounds of frozen hash browns, a pound of Velveeta, 3/4 cup of butter, 2 cups of sour cream, and, yes, condensed soup. (I tried this, and, of course, with all that fat it was delicious.) Almost all the salad dressings have sugar in them. There is an incursion of Mexican, Oriental, Hawaiian, and Italian recipes, and French words: pineapple “au gratin,” “quiche,” asparagus “Mornay.” But the ethnic food is Americanized—the chicken tortilla casserole has you open five different cans, including one of condensed mushroom soup. The hegemony of canned condensed soups has not been broken. It remains only to add that Taste of Home has more than four million subscribers.

This Issue

December 18, 1997