One Julia dinner party should do it

Julia Child’s books are hot, but enthusiasm for cooking from them may rapidly wane

One Julia dinner party should do itThe first person to tell me that I should head post-haste for the nearest cinema to see Julie & Julia offered the recommendation with a caveat. “Take it from me,” he said. “Before you go to the movie, make a reservation for right after the film at the nearest French restaurant. It’s going to happen—you’ll need to go. But so will everyone else at the movie. So you’d better have your table waiting.”

As it turns out, the facts of the Julie & Julia effect are a little different. Put it down to hard times. Or if you prefer, attribute the phenomenon to the joyful and empowering central message of the film, which is that just about anyone—even a whinging, solipsistic New Yorker who has never before cooked or even eaten an egg—can handily master almost any recipe of the French culinary pantheon, untrained, first time out. Either way, it is not your local bistro that is witnessing a Hollywood-driven surge in business, but rather your local bookstore and online bookseller, each plagued with requests for the Julia Child back catalogue—and especially her two books that lie at the heart of the film, Mastering the Art of French Cooking and My Life in France.

“I was a little concerned when people started coming in and asking for them two weeks before the film came out,” Alison Fryer, manager of the Cookbook Store in Toronto, conceded when I caught up with her last week, fresh from her third viewing of Julie & Julia. “We were selling copies every day.”

Her concerns were realized: her specially allotted reserve stock for the much anticipated movie release—including 100 copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking—was exhausted before the film even opened. And new orders languished unfilled. “Not bad for a textbook that’s been out since 1961,” she said.

Quite so. It took 48 years, but late last month Mastering the Art of French Cooking finally hit the No. 1 spot on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list in the Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous list. It’s also reached No. 1 on Amazon. Volume One recently sold 22,000 copies in one week, and massive wholesale orders have pushed Knopf to turn out 356,000 hardcover copies (five printings) and 38,000 (three printings) in paperback.

All told, between this tome, the memoir, and four other old titles, Knopf has so far this year printed 1,290,500 new copies of Child’s books. And that awe-inspiring number provokes a question or two. Namely: if the woman unfailingly described as having introduced America to French cooking had really done so, why the sudden need for the big refresher course?

“Really I think what happened is that there’s a whole generation that don’t know her because they missed her,” Fryer posited, pointing out that the last book of consequence by Child, who died in 2004, was The Way to Cook, published in 1989. To be sure, despite this recent summer of Child, the popularity of French cooking in North America wanes more than it waxes. Health-conscious Americans vilify it; it does not combine well with American portion size (what does?). Hardly a publishing season goes by without an American book proclaiming the demise of l’art culinaire (the latest being Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France, by Michael Steinberger). Knopf has reprinted 665,000 copies of My Life in France this year. But back in 2006 when it was first published, I was booked for an interview with its co-author, Julia Child’s grandnephew by marriage Alex Prud’homme; my editor at the National Post told me not to bother because, as he saw it, readers had no interest in French food, never mind Child.

I regret that I did not explain to him that his Timbits might not be around were it not for the French beignet. But no matter; of far greater interest to me now is whether anyone will actually cook anything out of their freshly printed copy of Mastering the Art. Flipping through it now, one still finds great value in its thoroughly explained techniques, but many of the recipes are badly dated, their ingredients—like tinned tuna in the salade niçoise—modified for the American market in a way that is no longer necessary. Personally I suspect that there will be a lot of boeuf (or “boof” as they say in the film) bourguignon being trotted out on the dinner party circuit this fall—and then that will be that. But one word of advice for those who want to aim higher and have a go at, say, the duck “en croûte” from the film’s closing scene: try going at the bird with a filleting knife instead of the chef’s knife Julie uses and you might actually get somewhere. It’s what Julia would have done—I promise.

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