An afternoon with Judith and Julia
Julia Child's letters about "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," now on display at the Ransom Center, give us an inkling of why she became America's best-known cook. (Hint: It wasn't the cookbook.)
“We think you’ve got it.”
With those words, Julia Child signed off on her masterpiece.
“Mastering the Art of French Cooking” had been in the works for more than a decade, and for months, she’d been corresponding with Knopf editor Judith Jones over the final edits, including the title.
They went back and worth with more than 45 suggested titles and finally landed on this one, which Jones had offered in her previous letter.
"Implies scope, fundamentality, cooking, and France,” Child wrote on Nov. 23, 1960 from Oslo, where she and her husband Paul, had been sent. “You hereby have our approval — and I am empowered to act for my two French colleagues on such matters, as it is only the American ear which can catch the subtelties (sic) of American language.”
The letters that shaped one of the most influential cookbooks in American history are on display in an exhibit called “Stories to Tell” at the Harry Ransom Center through January 30.
In 2011, the letters were the subject of an educational session at the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ annual conference, which was taking place in Austin that year.
I received permission from the Ransom Center to pore through the Julia Child letters for this Austin American-Statesman column that originally ran on May 10, 2011.
Here’s a snippet:
Child and her colleagues had already spent 10 years working on “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” but there was still much editing to do, so she and Jones would mail updates to the manuscript back and forth, and at least once, Jones had to recommend to Child that she pack the manuscript in a sturdier box because the hundreds of pages almost came loose in transit. Ironing out the minute details of the book, from the title to which French words would carry accents, were a maddening but essential part of the process. “Cook books are horrible things to print, aren’t they?” Child wrote to Jones. She signed at least one letter, “With cross-eyed regards, J.C.”
“You have already revolutionized my own efforts in the cuisine,” Jones wrote to her. “And everyone I have let sample a recipe or talked to about the book is already pledged not to buy another cookbook until this one is on the market.”
Just before the book was finally published in October 1961, (Avis) de Voto made a list of people who would receive complimentary copies of the cookbook, and at the bottom of the typed list, she added one more in heavy black cursive: “Mrs. John F. Kennedy should have a copy, too.”
I never forgot the feeling of those letters in my hands.
If you flashback 10 years, you’ll remember that foodies, food bloggers and food professionals were still feeling the ripple effect that “Julie and Julia” had on the industry. Social media and Yelp had taken the restaurant industry by storm. A new generation of food personalities were taking over YouTube.
Home cooks were starting countless new food blogs each month, and here I was, holding the papers that felt like they started it all.
Julia Child didn’t, of course, birth the modern food movement. She wasn’t the first American to make French food at home. She wasn’t the first person to cook food on television. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is in the top 25 of the bestselling cookbooks in American history, but it’s not at the top.
She didn’t even like food blogging.
But what Americans loved about Julia Child wasn’t that she taught them how to make cassoulet at home. It was her exuberant personality and unfettered enthusiasm for cooking that made her a star when her television show debuted in 1963 at the age of 50.
It’s what kept Bobby Flay on the Food Network for 27 years. (This week, he walked away from the network after asking for a reported $100 million contract.)
It’s the same qualities that make Joshua Weissman (a YouTube star who lives in Austin), Andrew Rea (founder of Binging with Babish), Sohla El-Waylly (formerly of Bon Appetit) and “Magnolia Table” author Joanna Gaines the biggest food stars today.
All of that unabashed passion about food shares some of the same DNA that Julia (and the Galloping Gourmet and, later, Martha Stewart, B. Smith and Martin Yan) introduced to millions of Americans through her TV appearances.
But she would have never worked her way into our homes and our hearts without this historic cookbook.
If you’re as nerdy about this stuff as I am — and want to read as Julia’s charisma practically leaps off the page — head over to the Ransom Center this fall to browse those letters yourself. The museum is always free, and while you’re there, check out the impressive main exhibit about Gabriel García Márquez, which ends on Jan. 2.
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A hint about what’s coming up: I went to the Ransom Center this week with my friend Mariana McEnroe, who is the co-author of a new book that is coming out this month called “Dining with the Dead.” I’ll do a separate post about her and her husband’s (stunning) debut cookbook next week.
I’m finishing up the last few episodes of “Class Reunion: The Podcast,” which will be wrapping up soon. If you haven’t heard any of the show, check it out! It’s so much more than reminiscing with classmates. I think anyone who went to high school or who has thought about why people chose the live the lives they do will find it interesting.
And if you would like to learn a little about tarot and enjoy a hike on Bull Creek with me on Sunday, I invite you to join me on my second Tarot 101 Hike! I had so much fun on my first group hike; I’m so excited to meet a new squad of nature lovers this weekend.
Don’t forget that you can book 1:1 tarot and ancestral healing sessions with me at calendly.com/addiebroyles. With Day of the Dead around the corner, it’s been a busy season of working with my own constellation of ancestors. If you want to learn more about this work, reach out!
See you soon!