Top positive review
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Most Important Cookbook of the Last 50 Years. Period.
on April 6, 2004
Rarely are we able to say with certainty that a book is at the top of its subject in regard and quality. This book, 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck is certainly in that most unique position among cookbooks written in English and published in the United States.
With Julia Child's celebrity arising from her long series of TV cooking shows on PBS, it may be easy to forget how Ms. Child rose to a position with the authority that gave her the cachet to do these shows in the first place. This book is the foundation of that cachet and the basis of Ms. Child's influence with an entire generation of amateur and professional chefs.
It may also be easy to forget that this book has three authors and not just one. The three began as instructors in a school of French cooking, 'Les Ecole des Trois Gourmandes' operating in Paris in the 1950's. And, it was from their experience with this school that led them to write this book. To be fair, Julia Child originated a majority of the culinary content and contributed almost all of the grunt work with her editors and publisher to get the book published.
The influence of this book cannot be underestimated. It has been written that the style of recipe writing even influenced James Beard, the leading American culinary authority at the time, to change his style of writing in a major cookbook on which he was working when '...French Cooking' was published. Many major American celebrity experts in culinary matters have cited Child and this book as a major influence. Not the least of these is Martha Stewart and Ina Garten. It is interesting that these first to come to mind are not professional chefs, but caterers and teachers of the household cook. Child was not necessarily teaching 'haute cuisine', she was teaching what has been named 'la cuisine Bourgeoise' or the cooking of the housewife and, to some extent, the cooking of the bistro and brasserie, not the one or two or three star restaurant.
The table of contents follows a very familiar and very comfortable outline, with major chapters covering Soups, Sauces, Eggs, Entrees and Luncheon Dishes, Fish, Poultry, Meat, Vegetables, Cold Buffet, and Deserts and Cakes. The table of contents does not itemize every recipe, but it does break topics down so that one can come very close to a type of preparation you wish from the table of contents. One of the very attractive schemas used to organize recipes in this book is to take a general topic such as Roast Chicken and give not one, but many different variations on this basic method. Under Roast Chicken, for example, you see Spit-roasted Chicken, Roast Chicken Basted with Cream, Roast Chicken Steeped with Port Wine, Roast Squab Chickens with Chicken Liver Canapes, Casserole-roasted Chicken with Tarragon and Casserole-roasted Chicken with Bacon. Thus, the book is not only a tutorial of techniques, it is also a work of taxonomy, giving one a picture of the whole range of variations possible to a basic technique.
The book goes far beyond being a simple collection of recipes in many other ways without straying from the culinary material. Unlike books combining regional recipes with anecdotal memoirs, this book is all business. Heading the recipes is a wealth of general knowledge on cooking variables such as weights versus cooking time and conditions. Headnotes also include general techniques on, for example, how to truss a chicken (with drawings) and many deep observations on professional technique. The notes on roasting chicken instructing one to attend to all the senses in watching and listening to the cooking meat in order to obtain the very best results. This may have easily come from the pen of Wolfgang Puck or Mario Batali.
The individual recipe writing is detailed in the extreme, and recipes typically run to two to three times as long as you may see in 'The Joy of Cooking' or 'James Beard's American Cookery'. The recipes are also very 'modular'. A single recipe may actually require the cooking of two or three component preparations. This is not an invention of Julia Child. I believe she has captured here an essential characteristic of French culinary tradition. The most common of these advance preparations is a stock. More complicated examples are to make a potato salad, a dish in itself, as a component to a Salade Nicoise. What Child may have originated, at least to the world of American cookbook writing, is the notion of a Master Recipe, where many different dishes are presented as variations on a basic preparation. This notion has been used and misused for decades.
This book has become so important in its field that it seems almost irreverent to question the quality of the recipes. I can only say that I have prepared several dishes from these pages, and have always produced a tasty dish and learned something new with each experience. While there are other excellent introductions to French Cooking such as Madeline Kamman's 'The New Making of a Chef', one simply cannot go wrong by using this book as ones entree into cooking in general and French cooking in particular.
The more I read other cooking authorities' writing, the more I respect the work of Julia Child and company. Observations on technique that went right over my head two years ago are now revealed as signs of a deep insight into cooking technique.
As large as the book is, the material presented to Knopf in 1961 was actually much larger and the second volume of the book is largely material created for the original writing. To get a reasonably complete picture of French Cookery, do get both volumes at the same time.
A true classic with both simple and advanced techniques. A superb introduction for someone who is just beginning an interest in food.