Category Archives: Modern

How an American Became ‘The French Chef’

By Juliet Tempest

There can be no better description of Julia Child than “meticulous.” Indeed, Amy Vidor and Caroline Barta describe her thus in their delightful post this month. They review the history of Child’s success in circulating French cuisine in the U.S. As they discuss, Child held the highest respect for the integrity of a recipe, which enabled her cookbooks to become the first authoritative American “translations” of French food. Yet her enthusiasm for these recipes eclipsed even her exacting nature in developing them, allowing her to connect with her audience and thereby introduce French cuisine into American homes—through the sense of “hospitality” to which Vidor and Barta refer.

Child, Paul. “Julia Child on WGBH.” Credit: Biography of Julia Child, PBS, 15 June 2005.

Child removed the cultural and political implications of French food, as Ashley Armes has argued (133). Here I add that the theory of cognitive dissonance explains the mechanism by which she accomplished this. Psychologist Elliot Aronson describes dissonance as mental discomfort associated with hypocritical cognitions or actions (107). People tend to rationalize such hypocrisies away, either through avoidance or re-description of beliefs. To cook French food, Americans of Child’s day would experience dissonance on two levels: due first to an ambivalent political relationship with France, and second to a cultural inferiority complex. Julia Child mitigated both sources of dissonance through her accessible persona; the audience could identify effortlessly with Child because of her humanizing imperfections and comprehension of the American psyche.

The Omelette Show from The French Chef.

Granted, Child did not succeed on personality alone. She possessed ample qualifications to teach French cuisine, as Vidor and Barta point out. After publishing the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child gained rapid visibility as the star of the television program The French Chef (Pillsbury 135).

Child wanted to teach authentically French cuisine to the authentic American (Ferguson 5). Her comprehensive instructions therefore reflected while elucidating the complexity of French food. With the advent of microwaveable meals, one might have expected Child’s economizing competitors to capture the American audience. Many of them tried to propagate French cooking through shortcuts, like canned foods; these trendy hacks highlighted their Americanization of French food, however (Armes 122). It would have been a dissonance-creating admission of inadequacy should Americans prepare anything less than genuine French food. Child’s approach did not require such damage to Americans’ positive self-concept.

Around that time, a 1969 New York Times Magazine article implied that France still overshadowed America in culinary achievement (Armes 120). Like a younger sibling, the U.S. has long aspired to live up to France’s example while cultivating an individualized identity—a dynamic present since perhaps American emancipation from the British Empire, made possible by the intervention of the French. Despite this historical affinity for France, the moment when Child managed to popularize its cuisine hardly seemed ripe. Charles de Gaulle’s nationalist tendencies fed tense relations with the U.S. over the decade he served as president from 1959. Based on the unflattering media coverage that ensued, France appeared to lose its prominence in every arena, save the culinary (Armes 91, 101, 109-110, 120).

This separation of cuisine from other aspects of French culture is largely attributable to Child. Her predecessors had employed French cooking as “a tool for cultural education” (Armes 118). Loathe to submit to pedantic lecturing, let alone about emulating a country critical of them, Americans would not take up French cooking and associated cognitive dissonance within this framework. They needed Child to re-cast adoption of other food cultures, French specifically, as an American enterprise, one whose political implications featured national strength. Child celebrated how Americans “‘borrow from cuisines from all over the world. We take what we like from another culture and add it to our own’” (Algert 155). France then was not condescending to teach the U.S. to cook, just as de Gaulle was governance; rather, the U.S. exhibited agency in electing to learn.

Beyond this ideological shift, Child herself made French cooking all the more approachable. A slightly disheveled eccentric who preferred not to rehearse and (consequently perhaps) dropped food on air, Child demonstrated implicitly that the least coordinated among us could still master the art (Armes 129; “Profile”). She reduced any cognitive dissonance around assuming a challenge beyond one’s abilities for anyone previously too intimidated to attempt French cuisine. Indeed, psychologists Roger Marshall, et al. argue that the more unrealistic a spokesperson’s image, the more dissonance will be created through customers’ identification with the product represented (566). That everyone could imagine Child in his own kitchen reinforced the connection to her and the food she prepared.

Child’s accessibility might not have eliminated all potential cognitive dissonance. The theory nonetheless contains the mechanism by which she could still become an American culinary icon. Viewers who watched The French Chef yet whose negative perceptions of France persisted required some way of reconciling this apparent hypocrisy; they might instead re-evaluate their beliefs about Child more positively to justify their viewership. Thus for uncertain cooks and Franco-skeptics alike, Julia made learning to cook French food worthwhile.


Algert, Susan. “Julia Child at 91 Comments on American Culinary Culture.” Nutrition Today. 39.4 (2004): 154-156. WilsonWeb. Web. 6 Apr. 2010.

Armes, Ashley R. “Image of Nation, Image of Culture: France and French Cooking in the American Press 1918-1969.” MA Thesis. Texas Tech University, 2006.

Aronson, Elliot. “Dissonance, Hypocrisy, and the Self-Concept.” Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social psychology (1999): 103-126. PsycBooks. Web. 24 Apr. 2010.

Child, Julia and Alex Prud’homme. My Life in France. New York: Knopf, 2006.

Child, Julia, Louise Bertholle, and Simone Beck. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Vol. 1. New York: Knopf, 2001.

Ferguson, Kennan. “Mastering the Art of the Sensible: Julia Child, Nationalist.” Theory and Event 12.2 (2009).

Marshall, Roger, et al. “Endorsement Theory: How Consumers Relate to Celebrity Models.” Journal of Advertising Research 48.4 (Dec. 2008): 564-572. EBSCOhost. Web. 24 Apr. 2010.

Pillsbury, Richard. No Foreign Food: The American Diet In Time and Place (Geographies of the Imagination). Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. Print.

“Profile: Julia Child, who brought the art of French cooking to the United States, has died at age 91.” All Things Considered. Host Michele Block. Natl. Public Radio, 13 Aug. 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 Apr. 2010.

Juliet M. Tempest is an aspiring anthropologist of Chinese foodways who holds a B.A. in Economics, Finance, and Translation & Intercultural Communication from Princeton University. Her research has focused on the effects of culture on trade and finance, in China specifically, though (simultaneously and) subsequently evolved into scholarship of food studies. She formally completed certificates in Cuisine & Patisserie de Base at L’Ecole du Cordon Bleu in Paris, an internship at the organic Buena Vista Farm in New South Wales, and a seminar on “Reading Historic Cookbooks” at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute in Boston. She has recorded and translated cooking class recipes through interviews with a classically trained Yunnanese chef and served as a Mandarin interpreter for disbursing farmers market vouchers to low-income individuals in DC.

To dine at Kew: The meals of George III and his household

By Rachel Rich

Lately I’ve been thinking about whether the kitchen at Kew, c. 1789, should be considered as a domestic space or a public one. The reason this has been on my mind is because I’ve been working with Lisa Smith and Adam Crymble on a project we’ve provisionally called ‘The King’s Dinner.’ Thanks to the Steward at Kew, who kept a detailed ledger of all the meals served during the King’s time in residence there between 1789 and 1797, we know everything that made it to the twelve separate tables in the Palace, every day at dinner time. This rich source may not exactly tell us what each person ate or how much, and it doesn’t say much about how the meals were ordered and selected. But it is the closest I feel I’ve ever come to being able to witness a household’s eating from the past.

James Gillray, Anti-saccharites, -or- John Bull and his family leaving off the use of sugar (1792). Depicts the royal family at a frugal tea-table. Source: British Museum, London.

I’m thinking about whether to consider these meals as public or private because of what other questions that might lead me to ask. Should I be considering what the George III menus tell us about domestic eating habits in the late eighteenth century? I can see that the names of the dishes are in the fashionable style of contemporary English cooking which gave French names to reliably familiar English meals.

And I can see that there was a version here of the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy, even if it was on a much grander scale. It makes sense to me to think about how food was used to encode social relations within homes where master and servant ate food produced in the same kitchens, and from the same supply chains, while marking our hierarchy through the relative degree of elaboration that went into the dishes served at the different tables.

Anonymous, Farmer G-e, studying the wind and weather (1771). Source: British Museum, London.

If, however, I start to think of the Palace less as a private home and more as a public—or at least semi-public—institution, then I think about the scale on which things were done, and what that meant about labour, organization, and time management. Food is very time sensitive in many ways. There is the question of seasons, and of eating the right produce when it is at its best. This may have mattered to King George, whose keen interest in agriculture had gained him the nickname Farmer George. In the coming months I am hoping to look carefully at the vegetables that were served in each month, and about how important seasonality was at the Royal table.

Food is also time sensitive because of the time it takes to cook each dish. All foods can be ruined through over cooking, while some foods are also dangerous if undercooked. Kitchen staff needed to know about timing, and given the difficulty of calculating cooking times with their contemporary cooking technologies, I assume they employed a combination of modern time management with more traditional sense-time for measuring the readiness of dishes.

Finally, food is time bound in that meals eaten communally need to be ready at the appointed time, and everyone who is sharing a table needs to know at what time they ought to make an appearance, if they are to share the meal. With twelve tables to serve, how did each dish reach the right table at the right time? Thinking about the management of the ‘home’ that was Kew Palace seems to offer a wonderful opportunity for thinking about how food timing shaped the operation of a semi-public institution with many inhabitants from across the social spectrum.

There were twelve daily dinners served at Kew each day including their Majesties’ Dinner, the Equerries dinner, dinner for various pages, grooms, and kitchen staff. Social hierarchy marked out who could share a table, but also the amount of food that was served, and the diversity of dishes. For their majesties, an elaborate meal was always prepared.  On 6 December 1789, the dinner was comprised of:

Soupe Sante, 4 chickens, tendrons of lamb; mutton cotellets; Emince of Pullets; 71/2 Veal Collops; a haunch of venison; 2 large soles; a leg of Portland mutton; 83/4 muttons; Richmond duck; Capon; 3 pigs trotters; asparagus; potted meat; Genoise; ¾ prawns; celery and pomme de terre.

It was a lot of food—but I don’t exactly know who was sitting at the table, so I don’t know how much of it was specifically designated as surplus food. This is one of many questions I have been considering over the last few days.

This is the first in a series of posts in which Lisa, Adam and I are planning to explore this amazing source from a range of different angles. In this way we hope to develop ideas about national identity, class, and domestic labour, health, and nutrition, in relation to a unique household which was at once completely different from, but also emblematic of, all the other household in Britain.

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.


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!