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Julia Child's Culinary Notes
“Rushing from stove to typewriter like a mad hen...”
It’s almost Thanksgiving in the U.S., which means that many of us are getting ready to cook. Even if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, this is a pretty spectacular culinary season: as the days turn colder, I turn towards my oven. To my mind, there’s no greater champion of cooking at home—of nourishing oneself and loved ones—than Julia Child (1912-2004).
She revolutionized American cooking by teaching us that we could make delicious food at home. First, she taught us with her exquisite cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and then she entered our homes on public television with The French Chef—one of our first cooking television shows.
But more than any of that, Julia’s life is a model of passion, fortitude, and kindness. Spending time with this great woman’s diaries and notes filled me with deeper respect. I hope you are as inspired by her notes as I am!
Julia and Paul Child’s Scrapbook:
After she graduated from Smith College, Julia had proposals of marriage. But she turned them down. The 6’1” tomboy was waiting for real love. And she found it in Paul Child. Theirs is one of our greatest love stories.
Julia met Paul, during World War II. They both joined the OSS (Office of Strategic Services)—the precursor to today’s CIA. Julia did secretarial work for spies, while Paul used his artistic skills to design maps and diagrams. They were stationed in what is now Sri Lanka.
By the time the war ended, the two were madly in love. They married on returning to the United States. And then Paul’s work with the U.S. Foreign Service took the couple to Paris, France.
Julia’s life would never be the same.
Julia’s French Diary
Julia and Paul arrived in Le Havre, France on November 3, 1948—the day they learned Truman was elected.
Julia kept a list of restaurants to visit in the beginning of her daily planner for 1948. She kept a similar list of restaurants NOT to visit.
By the next year, this list had evolved into a record of restaurants the couple had tried and enjoyed.
And then, on October 4th, 1949, Julia took her first class at Le Cordon Bleu—the renowned culinary school. After her first day, she would abbreviate the school to “CB.”
Julia immersed herself in the Parisian culinary scene. This is how she met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Beck and Bertholle would become Julia’s co-authors for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but in the early 1950s, they were struggling to write a French cookbook for an American audience. They didn’t understand American culture. They needed an American co-author.
On her trips back to the US, Julia would “investigate” American supermarkets. She learned that American flour was different from French, and that French chickens were smaller. Here is a list she wrote of “Things to Investigate” in the USA:
Notes for Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Julia Child revolutionized the way we cook, at least in part, because she revolutionized cookbooks. Child always saw herself as a teacher. Accordingly, her cookbooks were meant to instruct. They needed to be precise. And they needed to be easy to follow.
Beck and Child1 tested their recipes numerous times until the measurements were perfect. They had beta-testers do the same in the US. Most cookbooks, Julia learned, were not nearly as precise as they should be.
In the meantime, I had been working on my ‘hen scratches’—my collection of recipes. I was amazed to learn, upon close inspection, how inexact many of the recipes in well-regarded books were, and how painfully exact ours must be to be worth anything at all. Each recipe took hours of work, but I was finally getting them into order.2
Julia’s “hours of work” spent perfecting recipes shows up in the notes she and Beck passed back and forth. Some were hand written, like Julia’s recipe for “Watercress—leek + Pot Soup,” which she declares “v. good” at the end:
Often, Julia would work out a recipe and then type it up—“Rushing from stove to typewriter like a mad hen...”3—and then Simone (Simca) would write out suggestions.
Julia wrote notes on Simone’s recipes too—often explaining American food. For example, she wrote:
We do not have Crayfish in America
We have CRAWFISH in fresh water brooks + small rivers principally in Louisiana
Publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Behind every bestselling book lies a pile of rejection letters. This was certainly the case for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It was an ambitious project. Houghton-Mifflin backed out of its contract because they felt the book was too long and that it would intimidate housewives.
Child and Beck tried to shorten their book. As they passed recipes back and forth they wondered what they might cut. For example, did they need to include a recipe for Asparagus Velouté when “canned Campbell is so good?”
Ultimately, Knopf agreed to publish the cookbook, even though Alfred Knopf reportedly said “I’ll eat my hat if anyone buys a book with that title.”4
Clearly, Knopf was wrong. But as Julia repeated again and again, setbacks are a part of cooking:
One of the secrets, the pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.
This is something Julia illustrated on her television show, The French Chef—the subject of this week’s post script.
I’ll leave you with a charming interview Julia did with David Letterman just after Thanksgiving in 1986:
Notes on Julia Child’s Notes:
Diaries are records of our priorities: If you’re not sure where you’re energy is going, take a look at your daily diary. Most people don’t write out their favorite restaurants and what they ate with Julia’s gusto. She had clear priorities.
Repetition: masterful notes are often a process of repetition. In her notes, we see Julia trying out the same recipe and revising it many times until she deemed it fool-proof.
Rejection is part of the process: it sucks, but every successful author has experienced rejection. Julia dealt with her cookbook’s rejection brilliantly. Of course, she kept working on her manuscript, but she also really valued the process of crafting the cookbook. She told herself that at least she had hundreds of perfected recipes she could use in her cooking classes.
Noted is fueled by you. Your ❤️’s and comments inspire me. As always, I would love to know your thoughts.
P.S. This Wednesday at 3pm EST, I’ll be joiningfor a lively conversation about writers and their notebooks—the first hour is free for all registered participants. We’d love to see you there! You can register here.
P.P.S. I’m taking next week off to spend Thanksgiving with my family. I’ll be back with a new post in two weeks.
Louisette Bertholle was unable to devote the 40+ hours a week that Child and Beck poured into Mastering, so she became “a consultant,” even if her name remained on the title page.
Child, Julia, and Alex Prud’homme. My Life in France. Knopf Doubleday, 2006, p.125.
Qtd in Fitch, Noel Riley. Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. Knopf Doubleday, 2012, p. 343.
Child, My Life in France, p. 249.