Needless to say, with the release of the film Julie & Julia, Julia Child is once again very much in the news. Child and her wildly popular show The French Chef are also one of the “thirty turning points in the making of American cuisine,” as identified by Andrew F. Smith in his forthcoming book Eating History.
In the chapter, Julia Child, the French Chef, Smith recounts the story of Child’s introduction to French cooking, Knopf’s initial reluctance to publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking (too expensive to print and Child was an unknown at the time), and her eventual success. Smith discusses how Child’s “energy, pedagogical abilities, sense of timing, informal, chatty manner, and her humor all contributed to the program’s success.” He also argues that the show’s evening time slot, a break from the traditional daytime airing of cooking shows, helped to attract a more upscale viewer who would be more predisposed to be interested in French cookery.
As mentioned above Knopf was initially reluctant to publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking and as Smith reveals had it not been for a cookout the book might never have become a success:
For promoting the 726-page tome, Knopf allocated limited funds for a few advertisements in newspapers and magazines. The book’s chances for success were minimal, it was thought, so why waste precious marketing dollars on it? On the other hand, without promotion, such a cookbook was unlikely to find its audience. Then Judith Jones [Child’s editor at Knopf] had an idea. A few months before the book was to be published, she called Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food columnist, asking him to review the book. Claiborne proposed a deal: if Jones and her husband would host a cookout for him on their Manhattan terrace, he would review the book once it was out. The Joneses upheld their end of the bargain, and, a few days after Mastering the Art of French Cooking was released, Claiborne’s review raved that it was “the most comprehensive, laudable and monumental work” on French cookery and that it would likely “remain as the definitive work for nonprofessionals.”
For more on Child, you can watch a video of a panel discussion held at the New School in 2008 and moderated by Andrew Smith. Panelists include the aforementioned Judith Jones, Alice Waters, Molly O’Neill. Below is a clip and you can watch the full discussion here.