Tag Archives: Julia Child

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.

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.

First Monday Library Chat: Schlesinger Library at Harvard University

This month’s First Monday Library Chat features the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.  We spoke with Marylène Altieri,  Curator of Books and Printed Materials, about the Schlesinger collections.  She was joined by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, an independent scholar and culinary historian who became an affiliate of the library in the 1970s and who has welcomed legions of budding scholars to Schlesinger as a de facto research advisor.


Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schlesinger_Library
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Image courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schlesinger_Library


The Schlesinger is known for its commitment to collecting materials on the history of women in America, including the historic ties between women, food, and etiquette. Can you tell us about the range and scope of culinary materials held at your institution? When did the Schlesinger begin collecting materials on these topics?

Schlesinger Library, the world’s most significant collection of books, manuscripts, periodicals, images, and artifacts documenting the history of women in America, is also home to one of the country’s most extensive and distinguished culinary collections. The Schlesinger’s culinary collecting goes back to 1960, when 1500 historic cookbooks, many donated to Harvard College by Marietta Greenough, were transferred to the library, then known as the Women’s Archive, from Widener Library in Harvard Yard. Building on that kernel, the culinary collection grew to encompass not only books but periodicals, papers of culinary figures, and ephemera such as pamphlets and menus. Barbara Haber was the Curator of Books at Schlesinger for over three decades at a time when few academic libraries had any interest in this area, and through her advocacy the culinary collection became firmly established here and continued to grow. The culinary collection grew mainly by gifts and continues to benefit from them, combined with strategic purchases of essential new publications and antiquarian purchasing to fill gaps and deepen our strengths. Our collection policy, reflecting the reality that now many libraries collect in this area, defines our focus on cookbooks that emphasize the domestic aspects of food and its role in the lives of women and families.

We estimate that the culinary collection now includes 20,000 volumes, going back to 1567 and including thousands of rarities from America and Europe. Our main strength in the printed collections is American culinary history. Other strengths include cooking as part of domestic science (which crosses over into our women’s history collections); a large collection of periodicals, both culinary and general women’s publications; French and Continental cookery from the 16th to 21st centuries; significant collections of Russian and Eastern European cookbooks; Swedish cookbooks; modern Greek cookbooks; works on vegetarianism and other health diets; 20th-century British cookery; wartime cookery; culinary ephemera including over 4500 pamphlets, and menus, films, and even blogs. We also have significant holdings in domestic arts and kitchen design; a recent Museum of Modern Art show on the History of the Kitchen featured quotations from the works of Christine Frederick, a domestic scientist whose papers we hold. Etiquette and consumer advocacy are two further related areas; we hold historian Arthur M. Schlesinger’s collection of 19th and early 20th century etiquette books, which includes many works on dining etiquette, and many works on consumer aspects of food and cooking. And of course, the related collection here of 80,000 volumes of books on women’s history contain a vast amount of material on women’s activities in the home, including cooking.

In addition to the print collections, we have many outstanding and important culinary collections among our 3,500 manuscript collections. Here you will find the papers of many women and organizations of the culinary world: Julia Child, M. F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Simone Beck, Dione Lucas, the Rombauer-Becker Family, Grace Zia Chu, Stella Standard, Peg Bracken, Roberta Kalechovsky (a Jewish animal rights and vegetarian writer/activist), and Zarela Martinez; The Window Shop café founded by wartime Eastern European immigrants on Brattle Street in Cambridge, the Corner Book Store, a renowned culinary book shop operated by Eleanor Loewenstein in New York City, papers of Christine Frederick and Esther Peterson, home economists; several home economics associations; culinary organizations such as Les Dames D’Escoffier, the Epicurean Club of Boston, oral history interviews with members of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, Records of the Women and Food Information Network, Records of the Fishermen’s Wives of Gloucester, and many handwritten, or manuscript, cookbooks.

What distinguishes Schlesinger from other culinary collections is that our culinary collections are embedded in a rich and deep context of materials documenting women’s lives and domestic and family life. There isn’t another collection that can offer such a supportive context; this context greatly enhances the research experience and the possibilities here. Another distinction is that we are open to the public; no academic affiliation or prior vetting process is required to use our materials.


Two of the most well-known collections at the Schlesinger are those of Julia Child and her fellow author Simone Beck, with whom she wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking I and II. What’s the history behind the Child and Beck papers, and how did they come to be a part of the Schlesinger Library?

First Edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961).  Image courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mastering_the_Art_of_French_Cooking
First Edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Image courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mastering_the_Art_of_French_Cooking

It was through Avis DeVoto that Julia Child’s papers first came to the Library. Mrs. DeVoto, a cookbook editor at Knopf, had corresponded extensively with Julia during the 1950s and 1960s, during the time Julia Child and her collaborators were laboring on the manuscript of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she and her husband became good friends of Julia and Paul Child. When Mrs. DeVoto, who knew the collecting interests of Schlesinger Library very well, decided to give the letters she received from Julia and Paul Child to the library, the Childs also donated their letters from Avis DeVoto. This gift, heralded in the Library’s annual report for 1968-70 as “an especial pleasure,” opened the door. Nearly every year from that point on, the annual reports record donations of books from Julia Child, eventually numbering in the thousands. Julia Child had built an impressive collection of rare and important cookbooks during her residency in France, in her zeal to master French cooking techniques and to research the historic antecedents for every recipe she wrote. In 1976, she signed the agreement that formalized the donation of her papers, and she began to deposit her papers as well as books here steadily. The final chapter in the Schlesinger’s acquisition of Julia Child’s papers was written in the fall of 2001, when Child moved to California. This last donation comprised 94 cartons; included were Julia Child’s detailed subject files (covering everything from Artichokes to Zucchini), carefully organized over the years by her office staff. There were also thousands of photographs, mostly taken by her husband Paul; files on her television programs, correspondence, records of dealings with her publishers, framed awards, and Paul Child’s diaries of their travels. One can imagine many uses of these papers in the future, from studies of early television history to the conditions of social life in France, Germany, Scandinavia, and other countries in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1992 Julia Child donated a significant collection of papers of her longtime professional colleague and close friend Simone Beck to Schlesinger Library. Simone Beck, Julia Child, and Louisette Bertholle founded the Ecole des Trois Gourmandes in Paris, and they also wrote the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961; Child and Beck then went on to bring out volume two in 1970. Child and Beck remained extremely close until Beck’s death in 1991. It is said that many of the recipes in Mastering were Simone Beck’s recipes, researched, greatly enhanced, and carefully explicated for American cooks by Julia Child. In light of this, it’s particularly interesting to see Beck’s own early handwritten recipe collections, included with her papers. Schlesinger recently acquired further materials that will enhance scholars’ understanding of Beck’s own cookbook writing and how Child encouraged and influenced her friend. The new material consists of 80 letters, as well as typescript drafts and recipes, and a photograph of Beck.

Julia’s papers radiate with her serious and thorough approach to everything she did. Her papers are important because she believed deeply that what she was doing was important, not for her own glory, but in service of her goal: raising the standard of cooking and eating and making it attainable and fun for everyone. In addition, her papers trace her astounding personal evolution and her invention of new career paths for women.


Most people associate Child with her books or with her very popular cooking shows (“The French Chef,” “Julia Child & Company,” and “Dinner at Julia’s,” among others) but she was also devoted to scholarly study of gastronomy. Can you tell us a bit about her efforts to introduce this as a serious field for academic work?

Julia Child at KUHT.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Child#/media/File:Julia_Child_at_KUHT.jpg
Julia Child at KUHT. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Child#/media/File:Julia_Child_at_KUHT.jpg

Julia Child was a diligent student of culinary history and acquired a substantial research library of historic cookbooks during her residency in Europe in order to study the history and variations of the recipes she was developing. Julia Child’s books comprise one of the largest collections of European, particularly French, cookbooks in America; when still housed in Child’s own home, she generously opened her door to researchers who could not find these books in American libraries at the time – Barbara Ketcham Wheaton was given a key to the house and encouraged to use Child’s books as needed. Before she died, Childs donated nearly 5,000 titles to Schlesinger. There are many treasures among them: her beautiful 18th and 19th century editions of Menon, La Chapelle, La Varenne, Carême, Grimod de la Reynière, and Urbain Dubois; her two 19th-century editions of The Frugal Housewife, by Lydia Maria Child; a wonderful late 19th-century work on using leftovers (L’art d’accommoder les restes, dédié aux petites fortunes), her 1931 first edition of The Joy of Cooking, her Santa Barbara Junior League Cookbook of 1939, her Fannie Farmer, her Larousse Gastronomique boldly inscribed “La Pitchoune”, the little Norwegian cookbook issued by her cooking instructor in Norway, Lolly Raestad, and the work on Chinese Snacks translated from the Chinese by Nina Simonds, who wrote an entire letter to her mentor Julia inside the front cover. Julia Child’s book collection has been cataloged in detail, is used by many researchers, promoted extensively in our public outreach and exhibits, and stored in the best possible climate-controlled and secure storage.


I know that the Schlesinger’s culinary collections have inspired both exhibits and seminars (most notably those organized by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton), and the public’s response to those efforts at outreach has been terrific. Can you tell us a bit about the ways that members of the public are invited to engage with your culinary collections?

Many researchers come to the Schlesinger every year to make use of our culinary resources, and to look at and learn from our exhibitions. In 1993, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, Barbara Haber, and Joyce Toomre organized a major and ground-breaking exhibition at Harvard in 1993 entitled “No Food in the Library” (with the word No crossed out) that highlighted how much undiscovered material on food history was to be found throughout all the varied Harvard subject libraries. In addition we organize exhibits, including a major exhibit on Julia Child during 2012, the centennial of her birth. We have held several culinary symposia at the Radcliffe Institute, and the Culinary Historians of Boston meet at Schlesinger once a month to offer a talk by a cookbook author or culinary history scholar. We have also collaborated with the instructors of an undergraduate course at Harvard on the Science of Cooking, organizing an online exhibit and talks and hosting tours for some of the international chefs who teach in the course. Finally, we host Barbara Ketcham Wheaton’s annual Reading Historic Cookbooks Seminar, about which she writes:

Cookbooks, unlike novels, often change from one edition to another. The reasons for these changes include new ingredients, new equipment, changing tastes and perceptions of health benefits. The library has an especially notable sequence of Menon’s Cuisinière bourgeoise, from its first edition in 1746 until well into the 19th century. It was published in many parts of France, even during the Revolution; it was translated into most European languages, English, and Russian. The Schlesinger Library’s collection documents some of these changes in its more than four dozen editions. These books are full of information but much of it comes in very small units, making comparisons among the editions a challenge. To gain control over the details I have evolved a method for analyzing the contents of cookbooks in a structured way, and for more than a decade I have been offering a week-long seminar at the Schlesinger Library on these topics. A close reading of a dozen or more cookbooks looking only at ingredients reveals much about nutritional, sensory, seasonal, and class differences. On the second day a fresh group of books is read, and only the kitchen, its equipment, cooking techniques, and the management of heat and cold are considered. On the third day each person chooses a menu and mentally recreates the work-flow that produces the meal, and the means by which it is presented and eaten. Next we look at the cookbook as a genre, its structure and language, and the audience it addresses. Recipes are ideas, and like other ideas they move freely across boundaries of language, space, and class. They populate the cookbook-structure, but are not confined to it. At the end of the seminar we ask what place these books played in the lives of the writer, the publisher, the reader, and the cook.


Clearly there is something in this material that calls out to people. I get many offers from families who have a precious mother’s or grandmother’s recipe book that they’d like to donate. For them, these items have deep sentimental value; but more and more people are recognizing that they have research value as well. They are not unlike family photo albums. For many adults, the mere sight of the faded spine of their mother’s Settlement Cookbook or Joy of Cooking or the cracked plastic spines of those charitable cookbooks is enough to reduce them to tears.


How can we access your collections? Do you offer any travel fellowships? How much material is available online?

Our collections are fully cataloged in our online catalog, HOLLIS, which is available worldwide on the Internet. Many thousands of our photographs are digitized and also available for viewing on the Internet. A substantial number of our books are also digitized. For scholars who wish to come to the library in person, we offer small research grants for undergraduates, advanced degree candidates, and postgraduate researchers as well as independent investigators (see www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library/grants). All materials must be used in our supervised Reading Room, but no academic credential is necessary. Researchers simply register at our front desk to use the collections. Our Research Services staff can correspond with researchers at length about their needs and advise them in detail on the contents of our collections. They can be contacted at slref@radcliffe.harvard.edu. The online catalog can be consulted at www.hollis.harvard.edu. Detailed information about visiting Schlesinger Library and about all our collections is available on our website, www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library.

The researchers who come to the Schlesinger are able to read, and touch, the cookbooks and papers of women they’ve never met and to piece together the quality of their lives, the structure of their society, and the nature of their discourse from the simple texts of their daily domestic work.