Two Years, 134 Bloomers: Reflections on Julia Child, Bloomer & Shaker

by Sonya Chung

I counted the names three times over just to make sure: but yes, it’s true, as of this week—the two-year anniversary of Bloom’s launching in November 2012—we’ve featured 100 authors.

One hundred individuals who’ve lived incredibly rich and interesting lives, often struggling long and hard toward literary authorship. Add to that the 18 “Other Bloomers & Shakers”—later-blooming creative people in fields other than literature—that our own Nicole Wolverton (and recently joining her, Dena Santoro) has discovered and shared with us; along with 16 Bloomer-essayists who’ve written beautifully about their artistic and personal journeys, very much in-progress… and you’ve got an awful lot of blooming going on. Where I am right now, it’s cold and there’s snow on the ground, but no matter: 134 talented, determined folks—blooming blooming bloomed.

I wrote recently at The Millions about how editing Bloom has palpably impacted my reading life: there are the authors I’ve written about, and the ones I’ve read about, and between them I’ve been deeply inspired and influenced, by both the work and the lives.

The latest of these is Julia Child—thanks to Nicole Wolverton, who wrote, in the inaugural column of “Other Bloomers & Shakers,” “[Child’s] story began with a love of food and the desire to succeed.”  It’s a simple statement that says so much: Julia possessed genuine creative passion, and serious ambition. And having recently read both her memoir and Bob Spitz’s biography, I learned for the first time that those qualities were absolutely crucial in Julia becoming the successful, energetic, and fulfilled person that most of us know her to have been; for before she was a world-renowned TV personality and celebrity chef, she was, first and foremost, the author of a brilliant, initially unpublishable, 700+ page cookbook.

An author, yes—like many of us, dreaming an impossible book, working tirelessly on it for several years; then hitting hugely disappointing roadblocks en route to publication. Predictably, Wikipedia glosses over this part of Julia’s story: “[She] initially signed a contract with publisher Houghton Mifflin, which later rejected the manuscript for seeming too much like an encyclopedia. Finally, when it was first published in 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, the 726-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a best-seller and received critical acclaim. . . Lauded for its helpful illustrations and precise attention to detail, and for making fine cuisine accessible, the book is still in print and is considered a seminal culinary work.” Recognizing that nothing is ever as easy as it appears—and that it is dangerous to distort the reality of the creative journey by glossing over the hardest moments in the process—is what Bloom is all about. Julia is an exemplary case in point.

She began work on the book in the fall of 1952, at age 40—began at age 40, when most women were settled down in families, motherhood, or perhaps a modest career. Her friends and fellow cooking-school partners Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle asked her to help them bring their French-cooking-for-American-kitchens project to fruition. They were expert cooks but did not have the bent for expression or translation that would bridge French cooking to American audiences, especially those of the 1950s. It was an enormous and challenging endeavor that Julia took on with great gusto—despite fears and doubts about the impossibility of what she was taking on. In doing so, her life—which had been quite restless and aimless for so long—began to make sense. When she’d discovered her passion for food—French food, for her husband Paul worked in the foreign service and they’d been assigned to Paris between 1948 and 1956—and began learning to cook, she’d finally, at the ripe age of 38, found her passion; in developing the cookbook, she’d found the shape of ambition.

She worked tirelessly on the book, testing and retesting recipes, over and again, getting every detail of instruction and translation exactly right, writing and rewriting for absolute clarity and precision. Simone—“Simca”—too worked diligently (Louisette eventually dropped off from the project), and by early 1953, with the help of friend and champion Avis DeVoto, who had contacts in publishing, they had a contract with Houghton Mifflin. Julia continued to work hard and steadily on the book, even through several moves—Paul was reassigned to Marseille, then Germany, then Oslo, then back to Washington, DC. By early 1958, The Book had grown gargantuan—700 pages that covered only soups and poultry. But 700 pages of which she and Simca were enormously proud, for they were, the two women felt, representative of the way good food should be made and understood; their recipes and instructions had been “operationally proven” and were the most lovingly, skillfully detailed of any cookbook ever written.

That same year, they were summoned to meet with the editors at Houghton Mifflin and to share what they’d written so far. They carried their precious pages in a box on a wet wintry day to the Houghton Mifflin offices in Boston. The acquiring editor, Dorothy de Santillana, was as intelligent and pleasant as they’d imagined; but, Julia recalls in her memoir, her male colleagues were less so. During the meeting, one of them muttered something along the lines of, “Americans don’t want an encyclopedia; they want to cook something quick, with a mix.” It was 1958, the era of TV dinners and Twinkies and canned soup.

A few weeks later, the letter from de Santillana arrived:

[W]e must state forthwith that this is not the book we contracted for, which was to be a single volume book which would tell the American housewife how to cook in French.

What we could envision as saleable. . . is perhaps a series of small books devoted to particular portions of the meal. . .Such a series should meet a rigorous standard of simplicity and compactness, certainly less elaborate than your present volumes.

She went on to describe how the book had become “much more complex and difficult to handle” than they’d imagined.

Julia was heartbroken. She felt quite clear that the book they wanted was not a book she and Simca were interested in writing. “We felt that the mass audience was already abundantly served by women’s magazines and most cookbooks. We were far more interested in readers who were devoted to serious, creative cookery. . . It would, however be a relatively small audience.” Together, she and Simca went as far as drafting a letter in which they ended the relationship with Houghton Mifflin. The next morning, however, they had a change of heart: they would do it. The prospect of hunting for a new publisher was too overwhelming at this stage; they would compress the book into 350 pages total, simplify everything. de Santillana agreed, and they went forth.

In September of 1959—when Julia was 47 years old—French Recipes for American Cooks was finally done: in Julia’s words, it was now “a primer on cuisine bourgeois for serious American cooks, covering everything form crudités to dessert.” But: it was still 750 pages long; she and Simca simply could not compromise rigor and detail. She sent it off and waited. In November, she received a letter from Paul Brooks, the Editor in Chief of Houghton Mifflin:

Although all of us respect the work as an achievement it is obvious that this will be a very expensive book to produce and the publisher’s investment will be heavy. This means that he should be able to define in advance the market for the book to envisage a large buying public for a cookbook that will have to be high priced, because of its manufacturing costs. It is at this point that my colleagues feel dubious.

He went on to essentially scold Julia for not making good on what she’d promised to Dorothy de Santillana and ended his letter with what many of us who have received rejection letters will recognize as empty consolation: “Believe me, I know how much work has gone into this manuscript. I send you my best wishes for its success elsewhere.”

Arghh. Knife in gut. Seven years of work. Passion, devotion, deep commitment to what she was cooking, how she was cooking it, and how she was expressing the process. A vision for how Americans could create and enjoy food in a whole new way. All dismissed by a mere cost analysis formula.

Here, now, I will fast forward, because you know the ending anyway: Avis DeVoto was a true champion of the book and would not be defeated. Unbeknownst to Julia, she got the manuscript into the hands of someone at Knopf, who got it into the hands of a young editor named Judith Jones, who happened to have fallen in love with Paris and French cooking around the same time Julia did (and who, incidentally, was also the young editor who prevented Doubleday from turning down The Diary of Anne Frank). The rest, of course, is history. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as it was later retitled, was published in 1961; it has been through some 34 reprintings to date and has been reissued twice with revisions. Volume 2 was published in 1970. Julia Child went on to become, well… Julia Child.

What do I ultimately like about this story? First, Julia knew what she was about, what she cared about; where her non-negotiable passion lay. At the same time, she didn’t refuse an opportunity and knew her limits. In the end, because of the former, she couldn’t squeeze herself into a corporate formula, wholly on someone else’s terms. Her vision could not be quashed, or over-simplified.

Also, she was 49 years old when the book was published, 50 when she began cooking on television: that a 6-foot-2 middle aged woman with a gurgly voice could become a television phenomenon is just one of these things to keep on one’s mental-health radar—and a fact that is especially heartening amidst today’s m.o. of creepy airbrushed media beauty.

Julia was indeed lucky; we may not all be so lucky as to have an Avis DeVoto, and yet I don’t see this as a story about knowing people in high places: what Julia did was focus on what she loved, the life and the obsessions and the treasured friendships in front of her. The rest came together.   She’d befriended Avis DeVoto, after all, in 1952, by simply being her quirky self—when Avis’s husband Bernard had written an eccentric diatribe on kitchen knives, and Julia had written him a fan letter, enclosing two carbon-steel paring knives. It was Avis who read his correspondence and responded to Julia at length; a friendship was instantly born.

One hundred thirty-four later bloomers; and many more where they came from. (Not to mention 957 Facebook supporters; wouldn’t you like to help us hit 1,000?) Thanks to the Bloom staff (current and former), to our featured authors and devoted writers; and to all our readers and supporters. May we all keep blooming blooming blooming.

Bloom Post End

Sonya Chung is founding editor of Bloom and author of the novel Long for This World.

2 thoughts on “Two Years, 134 Bloomers: Reflections on Julia Child, Bloomer & Shaker

  1. I love this piece. Especially this: “Also, she was 49 years old when the book was published, 50 when she began cooking on television: that a 6-foot-2 middle aged woman with a gurgly voice could become a television phenomenon is just one of these things to keep on one’s mental-health radar—and a fact that is especially heartening amidst today’s m.o. of creepy airbrushed media beauty.” Great!!

  2. Pingback: In the Media: 23rd November 2014 | The Writes of Woman

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