ONE: I did, a lot; still do on occasion, though I don't often cook from anything much anymore. I spent a couple years cooking several times a week from Julia's book (what? Simone Beck is chopped foie gras?), as well as Louis Diat's and Henri-Paul Pellaprat's. I didn't come out the other side a cuisinier, but I did come out knowing how to cook.
TWO: this piece, like the movie and the Blogging Event which inspired it, are not for me. Just so's we all understand one another. Had it occurred to me, in 1978, to write a book about the "experience", or Ur-blog it by calling ten people and telling them about it, utilizing up-to-the-minute, NASA-developed touch tone dialing, I would have sat down with a cold cloth until the idea passed. When I first heard about the Julie character blogging her way through Mastering the Art I thought, oh, great idea! Then I dialed up a connection and read some. End of great idea. I am not the audience for this sort of thing. I do not care if that audience is hoodwinked repeatedly because of its devotion to quotidian pop-culture manias, unless they are perpetrated by Politics, Commerce, or come through my walls and disturb my reading.
THREE: I don't understand why it should require much experience of the culture before one simply throws up one's hands, preparatory to meeting each and every media-driven mass trampling of what was once a perfectly fine flower bed, bothering no one and giving pleasure to the few who knew it well, with a fittingly Gallic shrug. Don't Buy "Mastering the Art"! Sheesh, lady, the people who have to be told that are never going to learn the lesson. The people who peddle books are never going to stop putting movie stars or muppets or Whatever Sells on whatever stack of wood pulp they have in stock. Can you get a Passion of the Christ Bible at Half-Price Books? Wouldn't particularly surprise me. I think we ought to be thankful there's no Burger King Limited Time Only Chicken Cordon Bleu sandwich and special Julie & Julia commemorative cup deal going on.
Okay, so, it's Slate, and so the perpetual pretense that one is commenting on something real, rather than spinning the same old cog in the Perpetual Zeitgeist Machine, has to be maintained. But look, supposing you dissuade some poor-impulse-control buyer from ponying up $25 here. What happens? The money's gonna be spent on the next gimcrack down the block, which, odds say, will probably be absolutely worthless, not just practically so. Whereas all those Volume Ones are going to wind up at garage sales across this great land, probably within the next twelvemonth, and possibly inspire some kid someday to do some real cooking.
So, before we start (sadly, yes), Ms Schrambling, if you really have a problem with people buying a cook book so far over their heads, and so beyond the minimal amount of effort they are likely willing to put into the practice, I suggest you take it up with Ms Powell, who used the thing as a prop.
Thanks to my consort, I have owned the two-volume set of Mastering the Art since 1984, the year after I graduated from restaurant school, but even I have never cooked from it. My copy of Volume 1 is tattered, but only because I've used it for reference over the decades—it is infallible as a sourcebook. I would think the problem is my short attention span, given that I grew up cooking from my mom's 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook and was trained professionally using recipes that had been distilled to their essence so that technique could be taught fast. But Julia's recipes were written for a rigorous cook with endless patience for serious detail.
I wish this flabbergasted me more than it does. It's not for want of trying on Ms Schrambling's part. I'm hoping that "recipes distilled to their essence so that technique could be taught fast" is merely the product of a tin ear--hers, or her instructor's--but I fear the worst.
Recipes aren't distilled because they're teaching "technique". They're distilled because they're teaching restaurant cooking, which is a form of fast food. I do hope your instructors understood that. It must be finished to order. Depending on the establishment, and the clientele, a one- or two-hour lag might be acceptable, but what has really happened is that a complex (if desired) series of events has taken place, utilizing a division of labor, in order to simplify the final preparation. You do not walk into a fine dining establishment, order the Poulet rôti, and wait while the captain relays the message to the guy who takes the chicken out of the locker, trusses it, and bastes it for the next 2-1/2 hours. Or not many.
Neither can I understand the "don't cook from it, but use it as a reference" routine. That's what Larousse is for. Mastering the Art isn't a compendium. It's a collection of recipes for the home.
Okay, so if you know how to cook every cookbook is a reference work, and if you've got The Girls on the shelf, and damn am I tired of coming up with ways to avoid pasting the full title in again and again, you might use it that way. But this is all from The Repertoire. If you've never followed a recipe, what do you need it as a reference of?
Listen, I'll admit I have about ten bones to pick with the whiz-bang American food culture since 1975 for every morsel I find savory, but this is a big one: the idea that the World of Betty Crocker and the Go-Go American lifestyle exempt us from putting in the time and effort required to learn something of great worth. Americans give themselves a free pass on this sort of thing, and then turn around and ask why anyone would go to such bother. How th' fuck are you supposed to know?
Consider the boeuf bourguignon depicted so romantically in the movie, which has had restaurant chefs and amateurs alike breaking out their "9- or 10-inch fireproof casseroles" in the hottest month of the year. The ingredients and instructions for its recipe span three pages, and that is before you hit the fine print: The beef stock, braised pearl onions, and sautéed mushrooms all require separate procedures. Step 1 involves making lardons and simmering them for 10 minutes in a precise amount of water; seven steps later, the fat is finally skimmed off the sauce, which is either boiled down to thicken or adjusted with liquid if it's too thick.
First: Americans are excused for having short attention spans and no patience, but they aren't presumed to live in air-conditioned bubbles during the hot months? Sure. Two: I've got a 1977 printing. The recipe runs across three pages, but would come pretty close to fitting on two, with its introductory paragraph and wine and vegetable accompaniments intact. You slam into the onion braising and mushroom frying just after the casserole hits the oven, what would probably end page one of a dedicated pamphlet, and the horrible ordeal of stock skimming assaults you soon after. In other words, it's listed in the actual order in which you actually do actual things in the actual recipe. (And fer chrissakes, you don't need a "precise" amount [it's an exacting "1.5 quarts", by the way, not "10 to the third mole at 25º C.") of water; you need an ample amount so the lardons don't stick together when simmering.)
I mean, I crank out a lot of good lo' Fanny Farmeresque beef stew and pot roasts during the winter. How many steps are they, and how much mess? Even tossing the latter in a crock pot requires prepping onions, carrots, potatoes, turnips, garlic, and green beans, and even using one of the reasonably good shelf stocks available now (but not then) you're still advised to strain and deglaze before serving. How much less do you want to do? Toss everything into a pot and pray Betty sorts it out? Maybe cooking isn't for you at all, let alone trying to knock out haute cuisine.
And this is considered an entry-level recipe. Everything in the tome looks complicated, which of course guarantees the results will work but also makes cooking feel like brain surgery. Even simple sautéed veal scallops with mushrooms involve 18 ingredients and implements and two pages of instruction.
This is a fabrication. Seriously. And aided by the horrible American convention that one identify dishes by naming however many ingredients one cares to. This is, after all, the country when someone savoring the precious nectar of a '61 Chateau Petrus can be said to be "drinking a Merlot".
There is a recipe for Escalopes de Veau à la Crème which involves: veal, butter, shallots, white wine, brown stock, cream, and mushrooms. How much less work do you want? There are two, a Provençal dish with brown sauce, and Blanquette de Veau à L'Ancienne, which are more complicated. So what? Someone making a classic Blanquette de Veau is not sautéing veal and mushrooms, except in the sense that Joe Dimaggio was playing a kid's game. Throw veal and mushrooms in a pan and turn on the heat if you want. Perfectly acceptable, perhaps quite good, but not an excuse, in a food writer, for missing the distinction between true gastronomie and the production of ballast for a Stevedore, as Rex Stout once said.
If after 26 years of cooking for a living, I am worn out just reading those recipes, I can only imagine how a newbie who can barely identify a whisk will do,
Maybe he'll be less unwarrantedly jaded about it. Maybe she won't have been held prisoner by Betty Crocker in her youth.
let alone how someone who has never seen Dover sole in his supermarket could cook sole meunière, the other iconic Julia dish that restaurants and home cooks have been reflexively celebrating since ogling it in the film. It's a plot point, and the recipe is not in the book, although others for sole are, helpfully indexed under "poisson.")
Ah, well, you can always buy Volume II, with the complete index in comforting English. Lady, why shouldn't someone trying to master the art of French cooking learn some simple French culinary words and phrases? Do you gripe if you sit down at the piano and the instructions are in Italian?
Ms Powell's work can stand on its own merits, if any. But the infestation of food writing and broadcasting over the past three decades, dedicated to the idea that knowing this month's magazine-approved Trend trumps the requirement of doing any real work, is, well, un-fucking-palatable.