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"The Proper Binge": Julia Child in the Ransom Center Archives

Book cover. Click to enlarge.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 1961

It feels typical of life at the Ransom Center that when the movie Julie & Julia came out in theaters, we public services interns were able simply to dip into the collections, pull out the original documents that were featured in the movie, and display them in an exhibit case on the second floor. By this we mean that the nature of the collections at the Ransom Center is so expansive that it can inspire research and scholarship and allow researchers to respond, on the spur of the moment, to popular trends in historical memory just by browsing what's already here.

Those who have seen the movie know that the arc of Julia Child's early career was defined by the work that went into writing her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1961. And now, those who come to the Ransom Center will know that the entirety of Child's ongoing correspondence with her editor, Judith Jones, is contained within the Knopf papers in our collection. Child's cookbook was the result of nearly ten years of work by Child and her collaborators, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. It had previously been rejected by Putnam as too unconventional and by Houghton Mifflin as too expensive to produce.

One of the many innovations of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was its emphasis on step-by-step explanation. Julia Child and Judith Jones worked tirelessly to elevate cookbooks from a list of ingredients and general instruction to an erudite and detailed explanation of tools and techniques—especially those that might have been unfamiliar to American cooks, such as the now-famous cast iron oval casserole dish or "French oven."

Mastering the Art of French Cooking's journey to publication, however, isn't the only thing documented in the Knopf papers. The papers also reveal Child's lifelong partnership with her husband Paul, the professional negotiations with her co-authors and fellow chefs of Les Trois Gourmandes, the ongoing guidance of her close friend Avis DeVoto, and the complexities of negotiating between French and American culinary culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Learn more about the Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. collection at the Ransom Center

—Anna Chen, Katherine Feo, and Francisca Folch are graduate interns at the Ransom Center. Chen is a graduate student in the School of Information, Feo is a graduate student in the American Studies program, and Folch is a graduate student in the Comparative Literature Program at The University of Texas at Austin.


We've highlighted the following archival materials from the Ransom Center's collections that represent key moments in Child's personal and professional life, each one a historical vignette and piquant example of Child's joie de vivre:

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Julia Child. Click to enlarge.

Arnold Newman
Photograph of Julia Child in her kitchen for McCall's Magazine, France
1970
Slide
Arnold Newman collection

This photo from the Arnold Newman archive shows Julia Child seated in the kitchen at her home in Paris. The innovation of hanging tools by hooks on pegboards came from her husband, Paul, who brought a sense of design honed from experience as the exhibits officer—and later Cultural Attaché—for the U.S. Information Service to his creation of an appropriately proportioned kitchen for his 6'2" wife ("none of this pygmy stuff," as she once said). Starting with their kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Paul raised the countertops, designed the pegboard scheme as well as other magnetic storage devices for hanging knives, and created a cool color scheme that fulfilled their long-held dream to make the kitchen "both practical and beautiful, a working laboratory as well as a living and dining room."


Typewritten letter. Click to enlarge.
Typewritten letter. Click to enlarge.

A letter from Julia Child to Judith Jones
February 25, 1961
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. records

This letter from Julia Child to her publisher at Knopf, Judith Jones, was sent from Oslo during one of Paul Child's assignments for the U.S. State Department. The text demonstrates Julia's understanding of the delicacy of translating recipes between cultures. In the third paragraph she points out that a strict translation of a French-titled dish into English would not be as helpful to readers as keeping the French title and simply adding an English description—hinting that a quintessentially French dish need not become Americanized to be learned by English speakers. Further down the page, she bemoans the lack of an appropriate English word for the French "nap," and then decides that the best option would be to simply invent a new term for Webster's Dictionary ("such as nap").


Typewritten letter. Click to enlarge.

A letter from Judith Jones to Avis DeVoto
May 6, 1960
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. records

Avis DeVoto was Julia Child's agent and close friend; they had bonded over their mutual dislike of stainless-steel knives. DeVoto's connection to American publishers through her husband Bernard, a distinguished historian and writer, was invaluable to Child's career. After Houghton Mifflin turned down Child's cookbook, DeVoto sent the manuscript to Knopf. The book landed on the desk of Judith Jones, then a young editor at Knopf, who made several of the recipes and, as a result, championed the cookbook despite Alfred Knopf's reservations. Ten years earlier at Doubleday, Jones had pulled The Diary of Anne Frank from the rejection pile; in her later career at Knopf, she would publish the works of James Beard, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Jacques Pépin, John Updike, and Anne Tyler.

Jones wrote this enthusiastic letter to DeVoto even before informing Child of Knopf's decision to publish her cookbook, declaring, "This book is revolutionary and we intend to prove it and to make it a classic."

Three women. Click to enlarge.

L'École des Trois Gourmandes: Louisette Bertholle, Simone (Simca) Beck, and Julia Child
1953
Photograph
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. records

This publicity photograph was taken by Paul Child, who also designed the round insignia for the school. Paul, a member of the diplomatic service, met Julia in 1944 while stationed in Ceylon. Ten years her senior, he was a well-travelled, sophisticated man who enjoyed gourmet food and was also a photographer, artist, and poet. Shortly after getting married, Paul was posted to Paris, where Julia fell in love with French cuisine and enrolled in the famed Cordon Bleu school. Eager to prove herself in this male-dominated environment, Julia and her friends Louisette Bertholle and Simca Beck taught cooking lessons for American students in her kitchen. It was during this time that the three women began to work on their cookbook. Paul and Julia were devoted to each other, and Paul was tirelessly supportive of his wife's culinary ambitions.


Typewritten letter. Click to enlarge.
Typewritten letter. Click to enlarge.

A letter from Julia Child to Judith Jones
October 31, 1960
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. records

The title for Julia Child's cookbook was the result of months of brainstorming. Judith Jones, Child's editor, objected to the proposed title of "Mastery of French Cooking" because it implied that mastery had already been achieved. She preferred "How to Master French Cooking," but thought that a "how to" title would cheapen the book. In response, Child wrote this letter to Jones proposing other possible titles. Penciled at the bottom of the list is the suggestion that would become the title of her famous cookbook.

In response to the title Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Alfred Knopf declared, "Well, I'll eat my hat if that title sells." The first edition sold 10,000 copies, and Knopf ordered another print run. When the Book-of-the-Month Club chose it as an alternate book dividend selection, sales skyrocketed. In 1974, the New York Times reported that sales had reached 1.4 million, making it one of the best-selling cookbooks of the century.

The success of Child's cookbook helped her launch the show The French Chef on PBS television. On the very first episode, Child made her celebrated beef recipe, Boeuf Bourguignon, which was the dish that had convinced Knopf editor Judith Jones to publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The show, which was broadcast from 1963 to 1966, was immensely popular and made cooking a national pastime. Arguably, the show promoted healthier eating habits, although Child was fond of saying that "the only time to eat diet food is while you're waiting for the steak to cook." By the 1970s, Child had authored several books and won numerous awards around the world, while using her influence to get chefs the recognition they deserved. Beyond her professional accomplishments, Julia Child's vitality seems to have been rallied by her own untiringly cheerful motto: "Life itself is the proper binge."