On the Genius of Julia Child

I can sense it in the ether…so many of you out there looking askance at the Dorie Greenspan book I’ve been pushing the last several days thinking: So what’s the big deal? There’s a new baking book released about every other minute these days. What makes this thing so special? Well, for those of you who are impressed by the James Beard awards, it won this year’s prize for best baking and pastry book, so there’s that. For those of you who think the James Beard awards are nothing more than a publicity stunt for a bunch of self-serving Manhattanite food snobs and their cronies (not that I think that…but there are, you know, other people…that aren’t me, who might) there is a deeper level to Greenspan’s book.

…and it all takes us back to the inimitable, the irreplaceable titan of cooking, the woman without whom American home cuisine simply would not be the same…Julia Child. For it was Julia Child who better than any other cookbook writer before her, bridged the gap between the professional kitchen and the home cook. It was she who, at the age of 37, decided to take up cooking for the sake of her new husband, a diplomat and former cartographer that she met during her stint in the OSS during World War II. Oh yes, you mean you didn’t know that Julia Child was also a spy? Well not a “spy” really, a six-foot-two-inch white woman with a voice like a flock of swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano would not exactly be a prized asset in the espionage community, especially when you consider her posting was in China. No, she was a clerk in the OSS for the most part, though it was still a dangerous and exciting job — especially for a woman in 1941.

But back to my point. It was in attempt to become a better wife and homemaker for her husband, Paul Child, that Julia Child attended Le Cordon Bleu school in France (where the couple were stationed in the post-war years). However, not being the kind of woman who was content to sit at home all day making pot-au-feu, she soon founded an informal cooking school for American women living in France and set to work on the book that would change American home cooking forever, the monumental Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of this book. Prior to its publication in 1961 (it took Child a decade to write it, test the recipes and find a publisher to take a risk on such an unusually comprehensive tome) there were precious few choices for American women who wished to transcend The Joy of Cooking or the Betty Crocker Cookbook. Before Julia Child if you wanted to kick your home cooking up a notch you had to go to cooking school, where even there it was likely you’d mostly learn American home-spun classics. French food was for the pros. Everybody knew that. Mastering the Art of French Cooking changed all that, making formal French kitchen techniques understandable — and more than that achievable — for the American home cook. It was, in a word, a watershed.

So OK, I get the Julia Child part you say. How is all this relevant to Dorie Greenspan? It’s relevant simply because Dorie Greenspan is the heir to the Child legacy, at least where baking is concerned. Greenspan is in fact very much like Julia Child, a home cook vs. a trained professional. And in fact she wrote Julia Child’s last and perhaps best baking book Baking with Julia. Greenspan’s book is nothing less than a cream-of-the-crop home baker writing for other home bakers; a collection of classic American recipes with a few tricks she learned from French pastry legend Pierre Hermé thrown in. Oh, you mean you didn’t know Dorie Greenspan also wrote Desserts by Pierre Hermé and Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé? Yes, she did. Buy her book.

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