Category Archives: Modern

A Tale of Two Omelettes, Part 2

By Amy Vidor and Caroline Barta

A good French omelette is a smooth, gently swelling, golden oval that is tender and creamy inside. And as it takes less than half a minute to make, it is ideal for a quick meal. There is a trick to omelettes, and certainly the easiest way to learn is to ask an expert to give you a lesson. — Julia Child.

In our last post we traced the origin of the omelette recipe (or at least one of the origins) to François Pierre de La Varenne, but what we did not expect in our research was to draw a straight line to Julia Child. Through our research, we discovered that not only did Child own two 1712 volumes of La Varenne’s Le Cuisinier Fran FRANÇOIS, but also she carried on the style and type of cuisine pioneered by La Varenne’s incipient textual project.

Child’s two volumes of La Varenne’s text can be found within her significant personal collection of 5,000 cookbooks, which are now catalogued at the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Marylène Altieri, Curator of Books and Printed Materials, and Honor Moody, Rare Book Cataloger, informed us that Child rarely marked any cookbooks dating before 1900 (even with an ownership signature). A rare exception is an annotated copy of Larousse Gastronomique E, “but otherwise she did not [generally] mark her collection of research books. On the other hand, she marked her own publications with many corrections for future printings”, especially Mastering the Art of French Cooking  (hereafter MAFC).

Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

When we further discovered that the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin held Julia Child’s editorial correspondence, we could not resist the opportunity to dive into the behind-the-scenes creation of MAFC, one of the most iconic cookbooks ever published. Starting from its 1960s publication, this best-selling cookbook introduced French cooking into countless homes.

1950s America was not far removed from the restrictions and rationing of wartime (or the generational memory of Depression-era food shortages). Like their medieval and early modern forebears, those responsible for feeding themselves and their families prioritized sustenance and ease of preparation.

The post-War generation was naturally enamoured with convenient and cost-effective processed foods, such as Jell-O and frozen TV dinners. While time-saving kitchen appliances like refrigerators and electric mixers made daily cooking quicker, home cooks across the country needed help transforming the everyday chore of cooking back into an educational, pleasurable experience, as La Varenne had once done.

Enter Julia Child, a chef who helped introduce the idea of gourmet home cooking for modern audiences. Rather than settling for convenience, she advocated for cooking as a meticulous process that allowed room for error and fostered hospitality. She revived interest in taste over function, preaching the value of simple, local ingredients and flavors developed with care and attention.

Arnold Newman
Photograph of Julia Child in her kitchen for McCall’s Magazine, France, 1970. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

While her husband was stationed in Paris, Child decided to attend Le Cordon Bleu. Shortly after, she met French chefs Simone (“Simca”) Beck and Louisette Bertholle at Le Cercle des Gourmettes, a culinary club for women in Paris. Child’s eventual bestseller, co-written with Beck and Bertholle, drew inspiration from her close friendships with these women.

L’École des Trois Gourmandes: Louisette Bertholle, Simone (Simca) Beck, and Julia Child, 1953. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

In 1952, the trio started L’École des Trois Gourmandes, an informal “school” primarily aimed at American women living in Paris who wanted to learn about French cuisine. The lessons were held in Child’s kitchen. Although the school “closed”  in 1953 when Child moved to Marseille, their collaboration was the foundation for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a 734-page encyclopedic cookbook published in 1961.

In effect, this trio had translated the collaborative kitchen environment developed over centuries in France for home cooks across the world. Once again, a chef’s decision to share knowledge with the world, using the medium of a book, inspired generations to attempt “professional” skills from the comfort of their home kitchen. By creating a systemized text to train the next generation of home cooks, they continued the cultural exchange began by La Varenne in 1651 (for more on early modern cooking, particularly female alliances in the kitchen, see previous RP post by Amanda Herbert).

A letter from Julia Child to Judith Jones, 31 October 1960, p. 1. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

The voluminous Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. collection in the Harry Ransom Center archives includes the editorial correspondence between Julia Child and her Knopf editors Judith Jones and Carol Brown Janeway. Looking at pages of contracts, book-signing notices, and editorial letters revealed the work of active editors. At their best, an editor ventriloquizes purpose back to the author, creating a loop of meaning that frustrates a sense of singular authorship. They also facilitate translations of works into other languages.

A letter from Julia Child to Judith Jones, 31 October 1960, p. 2. Credit: Harry Ransom Center.

Judith Jones, Julia Child’s primary editor, began her career at Alfred A. Knopf as a French translation reader. She was quickly promoted to editor, ultimately spending 50 years at the publishing house. She recently passed away at the age of 93, and is remembered best for her dual passions for cooking and editing. These shaped her editorial collaborations with not only Julia Child, but also chefs like Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters, and Claudia Roden. It also inspired her to write her own cookbooks and blog, including The Pleasure of Cooking for One.

When adapting manuscripts for new audiences, cookbook translators often prioritize word-for-word accuracy, useful equivalencies across different measurement systems, and cross-cultural labeling of ingredients. Caution is advised, as altering formatting and spacing of the text also can change meaning.

In a letter dated November 6, 1975, Carol Brown Janeway related Child’s feelings about the British “translation” of MAFC:

Julia [Child] has always been very dissatisfied with what [British editors] did…they entirely changed the layout of the book which reduced to nonsense her whole method of teaching recipes.

Child was meticulous in her kitchen pedagogy, providing exacting instructions interspersed with diagrams for proper technique. The original MAFC progresses deliberately: beginning with basics such as knife skills, followed by tips selecting and using ingredients like wine, and building to the most simple type of recipes, soups. Just as La Varenne had done three centuries earlier! When the British editors rearranged the layout, they disrupted this meticulous process, transforming the book from a process of skill-acquisition to a collection of recipes.

Notwithstanding the potential difficulty, MAFC was rapidly translated into numerous languages including Finnish, Danish, Chinese, Russian, Italian, Korean, Dutch, and Spanish, and a second volume was ordered for 1970.

If all this talk about food makes you hungry, head to MAFC, Volume 1, to whip up a delightful omelette. It’s what Julia would want you to do.

Julia Child’s French Omelette Recipe

Makes 1 serving

2 extra-large or 3 large or medium eggs

Large pinch salt

Several grinds black pepper

1 teaspoon cold water (optional)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus extra to garnish

Several sprigs parsley, to garnish

Combine the eggs, seasonings: In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt, pepper and water, if using, until just blended. Set aside.

Cook the omelet: Place a nonstick skillet over high heat. Add the butter and tilt the pan in all directions to coat the bottom and sides. When the butter foam has almost subsided but just before it browns, pour in the eggs. Shake the pan briefly to spread the eggs over the bottom of the pan, then let the pan sit for several seconds undisturbed while the eggs coagulate on the bottom. If adding any fillings, such as sauteed vegetables, do so now. Start jerking the pan toward you, throwing the eggs against the far edge. Keep jerking roughly, gradually lifting the pan up by the handle and tilting the far edge of the pan over the heat as the omelet begins to roll over on itself. Use a rubber spatula to push any stray egg back into the mass. Then bang on the handle close to the pan with a fist and the omelet will start curling at its far edge.

Unmold the omelet: Maneuver the omelet to one side of the pan. Fold the third of the omelet farthest from you over on itself. Lift the pan and hold a serving plate next to it. Tilt the pan toward the plate, allowing the omelet to slide onto it and fold over on itself into thirds.

Presentation: Spear a lump of butter with a fork and rapidly brush it over the top of the omelet. Garnish with parsley.


Sources

Beck, Simone, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Knopf, New York, 1961.


About the authors

Caroline B. Barta is a third-year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Texas Austin. Her work researches questions of literacy, access, gender, and cultural commodity. She received her Masters in English Literature from Boston College (2015), and her bachelors in Great Texts and Classics from Baylor University (2012). She considers recipes useful textual artifacts, revealing how women especially retrieved and shared practical literacy in their households and kitchens.

Amy Vidor is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She completed her Bachelors’ degrees in English and French from the University of Southern California (2012) and her Master’s degree in History and Literature at Columbia University (2014).  Her work analyzes how female testimony and textual inheritances complicate cultural memory. Her research areas include francophone and anglophone literature.

This Month’s Banner: Sin Eating

From: John Frederic Bernard and Bernard Picart, The ceremonies and religious customs of the known world (1737), p. 83. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

As you may have noticed, we (try to) change the blog banner once a month — sometimes thematically, sometimes just because the editor that month likes the picture.

This month’s choice is inspired by the darkness of autumn, and the coming of Halloween. It is an engraving by Bernard Picart that shows English funeral customs (including sin eating). You can read more about this fascinating eighteenth-century book here, which considered religion origins and traditions comparatively. But if it’s the sin-eating that has captured your interest, this Atlas Obscura article by Natalie Zarelli offers an excellent introduction to an intriguing subject!

Feeding Under Fire: Medicinal Food

By Simon Walker

When I first began Feeding Under Fire, I was excited for the episode on medicinal food because it offered the chance to combine my public engagement platform and my PhD research into the improvement of soldiers’ bodies in the First World War. Now that the video is up, it is important to consider the role that food played in the improvement and recovery of soldiers’ bodies, while also drawing attention to the peculiarity of medical improvements during the war being supported by traditional recipes.

Let’s start with calories. According to the British Royal Army Medical Corps Training Manual soldiers were supposed to receive between 3000 and 5000 calories per day dependant on the strenuousness of their activities.[i]

From: Royal Army Medical Corps Training Manual, p. 60.

The manual also notes that a varied and healthily diet was important for ‘general health and liability to disease’.[ii] Obviously, food was an important aspect of keeping men healthy, and meal plans were devised to attempt to ensure that soldiers were getting enough to eat.

Food also played a regenerative role. Within the 1915 Manual of Military Cooking and Dietary, several recipes are displayed under the heading ‘When soldiers are required to attend their sick and wounded comrades the following simple recipes are useful’.[iii]

Manual of Military Cooking and Dietary, p. 48.

These recipes include ‘Toast and Water’, essentially burnt bread steeped in water, ‘Calves food Jelly’, a citrus treat with sugar that had to simmer for a full day, and the onion porridge from my episode. This dish of boiled onion, salt, pepper, corn flour and butter would be very much at home on the side of a roast dinner, but instead the instructions read ‘eat the porridge just before retiring for the night. This is an excellent remedy for colds’.[iv]

Cook’s Guide And Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant, p. 53.

Onions have a long history of being associated with folk medicine. Gabrielle Hatfield, for example, explains that they were already considered a cure for coughs and colds in ancient Egypt.[v] The recipe that is printed in the manual has almost the exact same wording as in Charles Elme Francatell’s 1868 Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant, except Francatell’s claims the recipe ‘…was imparted to me by a jolly, warm-hearted Yorkshire farmer’.[vi]

The story for my other recipe, rice water, is similar.  This dish, dating back to ancient Chinese medicine, has hundreds of different versions, including additions of milk, sugar, or fruits, and is found in numerous recipe books including John Milner Fothergill, Food for the Invalid: The Convalescent, the Dyspeptic, and the Gouty (1880).

Food for the Invalid: The Convalescent, the Dyspeptic, and the Gouty.

It is interesting that while improvements such as blood transfusions, plastic surgery and disease prevention through sanitation and inoculation were being employed. The British army were still somewhat reliant on recipes that soldier’s parents may have just as easily made for them as a home remedy.

Moving to consider those whose maladies carried them off the line and into medical facilities, although some of these home remedies may have remained part of their diet, overall all, food whilst in a hospital bed could be significantly more substantial. After the war, Private George Elder wrote in his memoirs about how being transferred to the hospital could have meant ‘…comfort, good food, bed and skilled attention.[vii]

Towards the end of the RAMC Manual there are several pages of recipes for hospital cooks including, meat dishes, vegetables, breakfast foods, desserts and beverages. Next to Gruel and Stewed Tripe (see Episode 7 of Feeding Under Fire for the “delicious” use of tripe in the trenches), there is also Roast Fowl, Fried Filleted Plaice, Lemon Jelly, and Lemonade.[viii]

These recipes were not only far from the ‘trench’ treatments of a nice bowl of onion porridge, but also seemingly beyond the usual fare that men were getting for their regular meals both in and behind the trenches. They may have been sick, wounded, controlled by tyrannical medical staff and wearing a blue pyjama uniform, but at least it seems the food was good.

Ultimately, food was an important part of maintaining and improving the health of soldiers, but is it interesting to note that in the face of traditional medical dishes being printed in the official military medical handbook, that its seems old remedies still had a place next to ever improving military medical practice.


References

[i] Anon, Royal Army Medical Corps Training Manual (London: HMS, 1911), p.60

[ii] Ibid. p.61.

[iii] Anon, Manual of Military Cooking and Dietary, (London: HMS, 1915), p.48

[iv] Ibid. p.50.

[v] G. Hatfield, Encyclopaedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions (Oxford: Clio, 2004), p.255.

[vi] C. E. Francatell, Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant (London: Richard Bentley, 1868), p.53.

[vii] G. Elder, From Geordie Land to No Man’s Land, (London: Bloomington, 2011), p.76.

[viii] RAMC Manual, pp.415-426.


About the author

Simon Harold Walker is a Military Medical Historian in the final stages of his PhD at the University of Strathclyde. His PhD Research focuses on how British soldier’s bodies and identities were created, conditioned and controlled over the course of the First World War. He has published on the role of Army Chaplains within the medical services in the First World War and presents a popular YouTube series, Feeding Under Fire, which examines First World War soldier’s food. Simon has also researched inoculation and power and is in the process of researching soldier’s experiences and medicinal food in the First World War.

The Heroine of the Cookbook Story

By Rachel Rich

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Every cookbook tells a story about itself, and the imagined reader it addresses is the heroine of that story. In the nineteenth century, following recipes meant embarking on a quest for respectability, stability and family happiness. The author offered guidance, and the reader was warned of the perils of leaving the path of good housekeeping. From start to finish, cookbooks in the nineteenth century had a fairly consistent tone… and a story that was repeated time and again. The introduction was where the reader—the protagonist—was introduced to herself through the eyes of the author-narrator.

Mrs Beeton’s introduction of the central character may the most famous, but it is not the only one. The heroine of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is introduced as ‘the commander of an army’ and ‘the leader of an enterprise’. But others had already got the idea that the main character in the story of the cookbook played a role of national significance. As early as 1803, John Armstrong was placing the women of Britain centre stage in the success of the nation:

To the Young Females of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, This Work is most respectfully inscribed, as a new, safe, and pleasant Guide to the purest and most lasting sources of happiness, and which essentially depends on the just performance of the various Duties of their Sex, whether as Servants, Daughters, Wives, Mothers, or Mistresses of Families.[1]

Others were similarly confident about the importance of the reader, and the task she was undertaking in following the instructions which the author could provide. In 1837, one wrote:

The Collection of Domestic Receipts now presented to the public could not have been formed in any age but the present. The wisdom of this age has been to bring science from her heights down to the practical knowledge of every-day concerns’ and the number or its inventions and discoveries have kept pace with the increasing wants of man.[2]

Eliza Acton entrusted the heroine of her story with no less than the fate of civilization:

it is of the utmost consequence that the food which is served at the more simply supplied tables of the middle classes should all be well and skilfully prepared, particularly as it is from these classes that the men principally emanate to whose indefatigable industry, high intelligence, and active genius, we are mainly indebted for our advancement in science in art, in literature, and in general civilization.[3]

After carefully conveying the importance of her task to the reader, it was now the job of the author to explain the extent to which contemporary women were failing to become the heroines imagined by the author, thus introducing the possibility of adversity and defeat into the story.

Young women utterly ignorant and careless of domestic duties often think themselves fully qualified to undertake the duties and responsibilities of married life, while at the same time regarding it as derogatory to their dignity to cultivate knowledge on which, unless their husbands are very wealthy, the happiness of their homes must necessarily depend.[4]

In warning women of the adversity they faced, without the help of their cookbooks, Mrs Warren uttered this rousing cry:

Diligently and zealously learn and practise every domestic duty and every feminine accomplishment…and no longer will they say, “We cannot marry, our incomes will not suffice.” [5]

The recipes, then, formed the denouement. Once the tension was set up in the introduction, juxtaposing the importance of domestic management against the price of failure, the need for one more cookbook might seem obvious. But in case it was still an open question, many writers troubled themselves to impress upon the reader how different their own book was, and how important. Miss Renny, who’s What to do with Cold Mutton offered solutions for the use of leftovers, offered this explanation:

It may be thought unnecessary to add another to the already numerous list of books upon Cookery; books as various in their degree of excellence as in price. But this little Work does not profess to teach “the whole Art of Cookery:” it simply aims at supplying a want often felt by the young and inexperienced mistress of a household, where a moderate income, rather than position, renders economy advisable; and who, accustomed to every luxury and comfort in her father’s house, is yet ignorant of the art by which such culinary results are attained, and would gladly see her husband’s more modest table as well ordered, though by more simple means.[6]

The heroine of Miss Renny’s book is a young woman of modest means, who is willing to do what it takes to make a go of it: a true British heroine in the age of self-help and social mobility.

Every cookbook situates its imagined reader within the story of the recipes it holds. In the nineteenth century, cookbooks offered a fairly consistent message about the importance of domesticity to the nation’s success, always placing that story at the edge of the dark, looming clouds of the ruin that awaited women who would not follow the rules.


[1] J. Armstrong, The Young Woman’s Guide to Virtue, Economy and Happiness, Newcastle: Mackenzie and Dent, c.1803. n.p.

[2] Anon. The New Family Receipt Book London: John Murray, 1837. p. vii.

[3] E. Acton, Modern Cookery, For Private Families. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1861. p. viii.

[4] A. H. Miles, ed. A Look Inside: A Daily Household Guide. London: John Heywood, c. 1898. p. 118.

[5] Mrs Warren, How I Managed my Household on Two Hundred Pounds a Year. London: Houlston and Wright, 1864. p. iv;

[6] Anon [Miss Renny], What to do with Cold Mutton. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1887. p. 111