Appetite For Life: The Biography of Julia Child by Noel Riley Fitch

Butter? Lard? Cream? Roast duck, with skin? Liver, kidneys, lobster? Check…hold on. Wait a minute…not exactly. While I doubt that many dieticians or cardiologists would suggest Mastering the Art of French Cooking to their patients, it’s hardly a morass of cholesterol and sodium, not least because the authors based the recipes on cooking from scratch. Not a box or mix in sight1. While not the only or the best French cookbook out there today, it’s still deservedly a landmark because it was the first (that I’m aware of) to spell out how to cook French food for an American audience, using ingredients likely to be found in the United States at the time it was published.

…and boy, did that take a lot of doing. But on to the subject of Fitch’s biography.

Julia Child didn’t start out intending to become a chef, much less be known as The Doyenne of French Cooking. She was a California Rich Girl, full of life to be sure but not connecting that to love of food when young. Well, not cooking haute cuisine for herself. Certainly nothing in her upbringing, education or early career would indicate that she’d become so strongly associated with French cooking in the United States. Born in California in 1912 to a wealthy old family, she went to Smith College and as a young woman, worked as an advertising copywriter in New York City. Too tall at 6’2″ to serve in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, she instead worked for the OSS, starting in Washington D.C. but later moving on to Ceylon and China. She met Paul Child, her future husband, in Ceylon; they married in 1946 and went to Paris in 1948. Between Paul and Paris, it is at this point that she realized just what really good food could be.

It’s at this point that the obvious biographical timeline for a landmark cookbook’s author begins: she attended Le Cordon Bleu, befriended a couple of other avid French cooks who were themselves working on a cookbook of same for Americans…and here I’ll stop with the mini-biography. This is when she began to step forward into the limelight to become the media star (insofar as chefs ever do become such) that most people remember; I’ll just add that the PBS series that aired in the late ’60s, The French Chef, is still worth watching, if you can get over the sound of her voice2.

While Fitch’s book isn’t the only biography of Child—Dearie came out last year—it strikes me as the more respectful and the better researched one. Not surprising, given that Child herself worked with Fitch to provide the papers and documentation so necessary to write an authoritative biography, and gave her the freedom to write an un-nitpicked one. What to read next? Well, other than the cookbooks themselves. If you found Fitch’s biography too worshipfully “at the feet of the master”, try Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. If you want to know what Child herself thought, try her autobiography My Life in France, but give Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously a miss: Child didn’t think too much of it, and certainly the style is much breathier, centered on Julie, the blogger-author herself rather than on Child’s cooking.

Oh, and if you’ve watched all her television shows, don’t miss the “Julia Grownup” skits on the first Electric Company show (not the one that’s currently airing on PBS) and, of course, Dan Ackroyd’s sendup for Saturday Night Live; apparently, Child herself thought that was hilarious.

1Well, hardly ever: the book does allow as how canned broth and the occasional can of peas can be terribly convenient in a pinch
2yes, it was a bit peculiar. I’ll confess that the first time I heard her speak, in one of her later shows, I was somewhat taken aback; as a comment on how she sounded, I completely missed the transition from her show to Sesame Street because darned if she didn’t sound exactly like some of the Muppets. With apologies. I like Jim Hensen’s work, and I hope she wouldn’t take that comparison amiss.

What’s for breakfast?

I love breakfast. Well, specifically, I love food that’s usually eaten for breakfast in the United States, now and historically. Unfortunately, I have what might politely be called an awareness deficiency when I first get up, which makes it difficult to do anything involving hot stoves and following instructions. Until I’ve got the money to hire a personal chef, reading cookbooks such as A Real American Breakfast will have to do….but these two are a pleasure to read.

A Real American Breakfast is a much more comprehensive cookbook than The Big Book of Breakfast, with a range of dishes that might plausibly be eaten for brunch but which also might serve for a lunch. Overall, it is aimed more at the full breakfast/brunch market, but does include what many would these days think of as a more mundane weekday menu. Waffles may be too time consuming for most people to squeeze into their daily morning routine, but this cookbook does include wraps, sandwiches, cereals and the like which might be prepared quickly on days when the diner needs something quick, tasty and nutritious which can be eaten on the road. This is a big cookbook, though the size is due largely to the combination of sidebars describing historical details and notes regarding the ingredients with white space around each recipe–handy for those of us who like to scribble notes regarding our preparation and tweaks of the recipes. There are some photographs, set aside in special sections, but as they do not accompany the recipes which they illustrate, this requires a bit of flipping back and forth and therefore aren’t particularly useful as illustrations.

Maryana Vollstedt’s The Big Book of Breakfast is, typically of Vollstedt’s other books, a fairly straightforward collection of generic American recipes. The recipes are simple, straightforward and not overly spicy. None of them would make the Food Network–we’re talking plain food rather than haute gourmet–but then this sort of thing could be a godsend if you’re trying to present a meal for people who are disinclined to chichi tasting menus or unable to eat highly spiced or complex dishes–children, say, or people with gastric reflux. The layout also provides plenty of white space for those of us who like to make notes on recipes. Perhaps not surprisingly given the stereotyped perception of breakfasts, the recipes herein are slanted heavily toward eggs and egg based dishes, such as strata, frittatas, quiches and the old standbys, pancakes, crepes and french toast; this may be a problem for diners with cholesterol issues or allergies, but makes the cookbook ideal for those of us who like going out to the kind of diner where the cooks pass dishes out through a slot in the dining room wall. She does include short chapters on breads, meats and potatoes. Overall, I’d say this was a good basic starter cookbook for people looking to create a conventional brunch…or who’re looking for a somewhat updated cookbook in the style of Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book.

True: many people simply don’t have time for anything more complex than slicing a banana on a bowl of cold cereal in the morning. But as both of these cookbooks point out, who says you have to have omeletes or hash browns for breakfast?

Peg Bracken

Hate to cook? hate to clean? fear not, you are not alone. Not only that, you haven’t been for some time.

Peg Bracken is perhaps best known (and justifiably so!) for her cookbook, the I Hate to Cook Book, which came out in 1960, although she wrote several later books which are as worth reading. The I Hate to Cook Book came out as things were beginning to come to a head in regards whether women were supposed to find fulfillment in the home and childrearing and only that–Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out three years later–and while it’s absolutely true that cooking and cleaning need to be done in every household small or large, I have yet to meet anyone whose childhood dreams of their future career path consisted solely of “housespouse”.

The I Hate to Housekeep Book and I Try to Behave Myself followed close on the cookbook’s heels; both were reasonably popular at the time, though I don’t know how well known either is today, more’s the pity. The world needs more blue-collar middle class pragmatic etiquette guides; Miss Manners is the closest modern equivalent I can think of.

Bracken was, I think, something more of a phenomenon in the 1960’s than now; fifty years on, many of the recipes in the I Hate to Cook Book and housekeeping hints in I Hate to Housekeep Book have been superseded by modern health concerns1 and cleaning supplies. However, women2 are just as likely to hate cooking and housekeeping, not to mention having even less time to actually DO these things, and the books’ very simplicity in their suggestions dodges some of the intervening decades’s improvements. Soap is soap, after all, and a cheese “cream” sauce calling for flour, butter, milk and cheese is as valid today as it was fifty years ago…though I’d possibly add a bit of curry or cayenne to liven it up today. Certainly, her first book the I Hate to Cook Book was reissued a couple of years ago as a (gulp) 50th anniversary version.

Her later books, A Window Over the Sink (memoir) and But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! (travel) aren’t quite as coherent as her earlier themed books. However, if you like her writing style and are curious to find out more about Bracken herself, I’d wholeheartedly suggest both. Indeed, I appreciate But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! solely for its suggestion that there are certain incredibly useful phrases which will never appear in your standard travelers’ phrase book, although I’d add “Where’s the bathroom?” to Bracken’s list of essential phrases everyone should know but might have time to seek out in a comprehensive phrase book–she suggested “Does anyone speak English?”, “No, thank you.” and “Go away!”

I’m not quite sure what to suggest to read after this; I haven’t encountered anyone quite as breezy yet pragmatic as Bracken. Certainly no one willing to come out and say “Some of us hate cooking and housecleaning. That’s OK.” It doesn’t make us any less feminine or womanly, any less adored by the men who share our lives3. Peg Bracken’s daughter started a blog on WordPress, though I suspect it was largely to publicize the 50th anniversary publication of the I Hate to Cook Book as it hasn’t been updated in about 18 months; it’s still an amusing glimpse into Bracken’s real life that few of us got.

For those of us who would still rather wrap our hands around a dry martini than a wet flounder at the end of a long day, there is still Peg Bracken’s work.

1sodium in canned soups
2and it is still largely women responsible for cooking and cleaning despite two intervening generations of progress
3I apologize here: I’ve not forgotten all the same-sex relationships out there. It’s just that all the members of those relationships with whom I’m acquainted seem more pragmatic about splitting these duties evenly.

weeding cookbooks, or how librarians entertain themselves

(Weeder’s note: the library from which I got these cookbooks automated in the mid-nineties, although I’m not sure whether they’ve kept circulation records since then, given the vagaries of updating computer systems)

1) The best of Near Eastern Cookery; favorite dishes from the Balkans, Turkey, Israel Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Arabian peninsula, by Ann Seranne and Eileen Gaden. Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1964; 158 p. illus., map (on lining papers) 22 cm
This is a reasonably comprehensive collection of recipes from an area the cuisines of which are often overlooked in modern cookbooks, and the recipes are simple, both in ingredients which may be found in the rural Midwest and in instructions. On the plus side, the recipes are frequently low in cholesterol as a result of relying on olive oil rather than animal fats, and many might serve for people with food allergies or intolerances to dairy, eggs or wheat. (Well, not the baklava…) Unfortunately, the dated layout of the book itself lacking much illustration, not to mention all the changed political issues in the last 48 years, makes me consider this a candidate for withdrawal. As an example, Iran’s name change from Persia would have been as recent an event to people reading this book as the fall of the Berlin Wall today. Circulated 13 times since automation.
Verdict: withdraw….and give it to me!

2) A Book of Favorite Recipes compiled by D.A.N.K. Ladies Society of German American National Congress Benton Harbor – St.Joseph Michigan Shawnee Mission, KS : Circulation Service, c1968-1979. 70 p. : col. ill., spiral bound ; 23 cm.
As the citation suggests, this was brought out by a local women’s group in the late seventies, and the recipes have a strong Midwestern German feel to them—herring, liver and cabbage are common ingredients. Judging by the publication dates for similar items held in the MEL ILL database, compiling collections of recipes was a popular activity in the 70s in Michigan. I confess that I’ve always found this sort of cookbook to be endearing: the local groups are invariably earnest though the recipes may be derivative and dated even as the book is published. Based solely on its merits as a cookbook, I’d withdraw it—the recipes are outmoded, the layout and design outdated and it’s only circulated thirteen times since the library automated. It has, however, a donation plate, and is by a local group, and at least to some degree reflects local history/society.

Verdict: depends on the library’s policy of keeping books of local interest or with presentation or memorial plates.

3) The Vegetarian Gourmet: 315 international recipes for health, palate and a long happy life Sally and Lucian Berg New York: Herder and Herder 1971
While there is a distinct paucity of vegetarian cookbooks even today, at forty years old, this cookbook’s long overdue (if you’ll forgive the pun) for withdrawal. Although the book includes a wide range of cuisines—it is truly international in this regard—the layout is dated, the book’s cover is worn and tatty, and without a dust jacket, the copy fades into the background in comparison to modern cookbooks. To compound this for American readers, the book originally published in England uses slightly different measurements than what Americans are used to: by weight rather than volume. The book has only circulated twice since the library automated.
Verdict: withdraw—age, condition and lack of circulation

4) The New Vegan: fresh, fabulous, and fun Hudson, Janet London: Thorsons 2005
This book are straightforward and would probably appeal to people accustomed to a European meat-based diet who haven’t had much prior exposure to vegetarian and vegan cuisine; many of the recipes rely on vegan products designed to resemble the animal-based equivalent, such as tempeh turkey and wheat gluten cutlets. The cover design is colorful and brightly attractive but the internal layout isn’t terribly organized. Circulated 30 times since purchase.
Verdict: Keep, but continue looking for vegan cookbooks

5) Recipes from the regional cooks of Mexico Kennedy, Diana New York: Harper and Row 1978
Kennedy is something of an authority on Mexican cuisines and cooking—think Julia Child in regards French cuisine—and her cookbooks are similarly authoritative/accessible for people wanting to learn how to cook it for themselves at home. That said, this specific cookbook is showing its age a bit–the dust jacket is fading and the layout dated–the recipes may still be valuable but the library should probably look into getting some of her more recent books. Checked out 21 times since the library automated.
Verdict: keep until it hasn’t circulated in three years or until we get more of her books, whichever comes second. And then give it to me. I love Diana Kennedy’s cookbooks and indeed have a few suggestions for future purchases.

6) The New York Times Soup and Bread Cookbook. Tarr, Yvonne Young Quadrangle Books 1972
Forty years on, the soups and breads in this cookbook have (I think!) survived reasonably well—not surprising given the authority of the presiding agency. A sufficiently large number of the recipes include cream and eggs to make modern cooks with dietary restrictions a trifle wary, but as the cookbook as a whole assumes the cook is starting from scratch, it isn’t unduly unhealthy. Unfortunately, physically the book is looking a bit tatty; it lacks a dust jacket and the top and bottom edges of the spine are showing shelf wear (not surprising given this is a library book!) Overall, it lacks the illustrations and photographs that catch patrons’ eyes in a modern library, and so we might consider keeping it until circulation slows. Checked out 23 times since the library automated.
Verdict: keep until we find a similarly international, similarly basic soup cookbook…and give this to me. I love soup. I love collecting outdated cookbooks.

7) The Big Book of Soups and Stews Vollstedt, Maryana San Francisco: Chronicle Books 2001
While not as complete as the New York Times soup cookbook above, this is a reasonably attractive, non-intimidating introduction to (as the title suggests) soups and stews the author makes brief forays into Asian and Hispanic inspired dishes, but there are also comfort food mainstays such as chicken and dumplings and Irish stew. Vollstedt has published a couple of other similar books; if this shows enough demand we might want to consider purchasing them. Checked out 36 times since purchased.
Verdict: keep.

8) The Japanese Menu Cookbook Chang, Constance Garden City: Doubleday 1976
The recipes themselves may be acceptable in a community without a significant Asian population and the idea of seasonal dinner menus and accompanying menus is intriguing, but this book’s starting to show its age, both in wear and in the photography, typical of books from the 1970s. Circulated 17 times since automation.
Verdict: consider withdrawing as soon as we purchase a more recent Japanese cookery book

9) Siamese Cookery Wilson, Marie Rutland, Vt: C.E. Tuttle Co, 1965
Given that the country has not been uniformly called Siam since before this book was published, my doubts about the book’s currency began even before opening the cover. The author, a Caucasian-American who lived in Thailand for the first few years of her marriage, attempted to adapt the cuisine she had come to love for the ingredients available in the United States in the mid-60s. In a more attractive modern design with more socially sensitive glosses, the recipes might not have been bad in this context. Circulated seven times since automation.
Verdict: withdraw–age

10) The Key to Chinese Cooking Kuo, Irene New York: Wings 1996 (originally published Knopf: 1977)
An interesting introduction to Chinese cooking technique—I caught myself poring over the author’s description of proper chopping and slicing technique in utter absorption before returning to my assignment–but not very eyecatching, and that is what I suspect matters more to non-librarians. It’s got a plain white cover with the title and a few sketches of ingredients, and there aren’t any glossy photographs or simple recipes with step by step illustrations within, but rather extensive descriptions. A fat tome with plenty of recipes adapted to American groceries likely to be available in the mid-70s (and still likely to be available in the rural Midwest), this is the sort of thing that I would like to keep in the collection if at all possible, as the information is more useful than anything I’ve seen in the collection so far. The question is, of course, how to promote it? Circulated six times since automation.
Verdict: keep and try promotion—compared to the other books on Chinese cookery, six circs isn’t bad…but not exactly great. (If we have to weed it…first dibs!)

when to withdraw cookbooks?

When the illustrations resemble something that might appear in James Lilek’s The Gallery of Regrettable Food.

Well, there’s more to collection development than that, of course. “Collection Development” is half adding books to the collection–popular, useful, updated versions of what you’ve got already, filling a gap a staff member noticed or a patron’s request–and half withdrawing books when they’ve come to the end of their usefulness. It’s this withdrawal process that gets difficult at times, not least when explaining to aghast patrons that yes: most public libraries not only withdraw items but dispose of them1. Usually, books get withdrawn for one of three reasons: the information is outdated2, the item is in poor condition3, or non-use4.

What is The Gallery of Regrettable Food? It’s the book adaptation of the food component of James Lileks’ web site. According to the preface, the family moved to Fargo, North Dakota in the 1950s and shortly after their arrival, a Welcome Wagon Lady showed up on their doorstep with a bagful of the usual coupons and fliers from participating businesses in the area. His mother tucked them away; Lileks found them at the back of a closet in his parents’s home some forty years later and was horrified/inspired enough to not only investigate further into the world of now outdated cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s but also set up a web site to edify others on the ghastly horrors visited upon diners of the time. As someone who weeded the nonfiction of a library established in 1960, I can attest to the fact that the cover art, illustrations and photographs used are real; I’ve weeded enough examples of the Better Homes and Gardens cooking series to recognize that. Lileks’ captions and descriptions are more than a little tongue in cheek, but even when he’s being most sardonic, he’s right. Those illustrations are creepy.

What to read next? Well, that depends on whether you want more of the time period or something to, er, cleanse your palate after a quite literally tasteless trek through a wasteland of cookery. If it’s the former, try Betty McDonald’s fourth memoir, Onions in the Stew or, should that not be enough, contact me offline and I’ll tell you where I used to work. I think they still have some of the books Lileks references. If you want something more refreshing about someone who came through that period determined to bring something a little tastier to us, start with Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France or the biography about her, Appetite for Life. I am, of course, open to suggestions from readers here!

1stop looking at me like I kicked your puppy. You’re confusing your local public library with the Library of Congress. Unless you’re willing to pay LOTS more taxes, we have to remove items from the collection or we’ll run out of space.
2usually, rapidly changing areas like health/nutrition or technology/sciences but most non-fiction will eventually fall into this category
3often simple use over time but occasionally the book loses a tangle with, say, water or a toddler with a lollipop
4items may have been trendy when we got them but aren’t any more, or sometimes have been superseded by newer holdings

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, or how a Cordon Bleu graduate created her own cooking lessons

As The Kitchen Counter Cooking School begins, Kathleen Flinn, freshly returned from Paris and the Cordon Bleu school there, “stalks” a shopper around the local mega-supermarket, mystified about why the stranger is piling her trolley high with packages and bottles when she is surrounded by delicious nutritious ingredients which would produce delicious nutritious meals at a fraction of the cost. Finally, Flinn works up the nerve to approach the woman and ask; the woman admits to being a poor cook–she doesn’t know how to cut up a chicken, much less roast it, and the packaged foods produce a familiar edible meal with little effort.

This encounter inspires her to start, not a cooking school exactly, but rather to seek out a group of volunteers from that group of people in the same boat as the woman she encountered in the grocery stores: people who didn’t eat well because they didn’t have what she considered basic cooking skills or the knowledge to judge the quality of ingredients. Flinn started the experiment with a visit to each of her future students’ home, to go through the contents of their pantries; this resulted in a not unexpected mix of prepackaged foods and leftovers gone bad as a result of overestimating what the family would be able to and inclined to eat before the supplies went bad. The remainder of the book is a combination of the description of each class, and the students’ reaction to them, with a listing of any recipes used in that class listed at the end of the chapter. The lessons are an interesting and useful mix of practical techniques–how to use a knife easily and safely, how to make an omelet, how to braise just about anything–with an education in determining which is the best ingredient for the purpose, including taste testing a spectrum of simple foodstuffs from olive oil to salt. Flinn returned to her students’ homes several months after the classes ended as a followup to see how much of her lessons the students had incorporated into their lives at home on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, there was rather a lot of what I’d call backsliding, but all the students had managed to take some things back into their real lives; one student would make omelettes for dinner rather than grabbing McDonalds on the way home, another would pack a sandwich to carry with her on her hours long commute, and so on. The best lesson they took away was simply confidence in their ability to cook; not everyone can be a Brilliant Chef and all too often seeing Lidia Bastianich, Jacques Pepin or the current Celebrity Chef du Jour can put even decent home cooks off their stride, not realizing that those cooking shows have backups to their backup sous chefs.

On the whole, this was a breezy quick read for me but about as substantial a work of literature as a puff pastry–fun while it lasted but once eaten, vanishing from the tongue. But then, as with the YA books…I’m not the target audience. The basic idea is a good one. There are uncountable people out there who really have no idea how to make salad dressing, or potato salad, that different condiments taste so very different or even how to chop a zucchini or scramble an egg. I’m nowhere near Cordon Bleu level, and indeed got vapor lock recently when trying to figure out how many potatoes to boil for potato salad, but I know how to roast poultry and mix a salad dressing. Or rather, I know that it’s not a difficult task and to check a cookbook for details.

Bluntly, I hope Flinn isn’t quite as disingenuous as she comes across in this book–if a stranger approached me in the grocery store and started critiquing my selections, I’d be more likely to get huffy than listen to her suggestions. (How does she know this is my primary shopping trip?) Overall, I’d put the book on a par with Julie and Julia rather than My Life in France: enjoyable but not brilliant. For more information, here’s the author’s blog (go WordPress!).

Soup and Bread and Community Spirit

Does anyone not like soup? Stop here and read no further.

Before I go further in this review, I’ll start with the disclaimer: these are my cousin’s books, and therefore I might be presumed to be more than a little biased. That said, bluntly, this is the sort of book people never hear about unless there’s some sort of personal or prior connection–a family member or one of the people who attended the soup nights–and I think it deserves more attention…because it’s a decent cookbook. I won’t blog about books I haven’t read, and I never buy books I don’t like and won’t use; this book is both.

The Soup and Bread project started almost exactly two years ago, in the depths of a Chicago winter in the depths of an equally cold recession that left a good many Chicago residents unemployed or underemployed and hurting for some way to socialize that didn’t require Great Financial Expenditures1. My cousin and her acquaintances started bringing crockpots of soup, and occasionally bread, to a local bar, the Hideout. While not a soup kitchen in the sense of providing free food to the destitute, the group encouraged people to come and partake and to give what they could, whether a dollar or a $20 or nothing at all; no one was turned away and they didn’t check who’d contributed. All proceeds were donated to various food assistance groups around Chicago, a different one each week. The idea for a cookbook came originally simply to answer the repeated question “Have you got the recipe for that yummy soup?” and involved pinning a number of freethinking hipsters through Chicago down to specific proportions and measurements, some more successfully than others. It was a self funded self-publication, but unlike many purely vanity press publications, this one was deliciously useful.

The soups in the first book are an interesting blend of cultures and cuisines, ranging from meat-laden indulgences to vegan delights2, kimchee to collard greens. I haven’t tried everything yet, but I can particularly recommend the mock turtle and lamb french onion soups. My one real complaint is that some of the recipes assume access to a metropolitan food supply which can provide ingredients such as ‘mulefoot’ pork from heritage pigs, but even that’s not insurmountable in today’s more cosmopolitan world, mail order being what it is. My copy’s getting stained and battered, and I’m looking forward to starting all over again now that the soup season’s started anew in the Great Lakes regions.

Unfortunately for those not in the know, the original collection is no longer in print, though it never was as “in print” as even the smallest runs from mainstream presses. Fortunately for soup lovers, the second season’s soup recipes are now collected in a book which, it is to be hoped, gets a slightly larger run and larger mainstream exposure. Even better, it’s available on Amazon, although as a proponent of smaller independent bookstores (and [gasp] libraries!) I’d suggest bugging your local bookstore to carry same and your library to try interlibrary loaning same3.

Never enough soup, I say!

1and, not surprisingly, many more flat out destitute and homeless
2several soups are vegan while others can be tweaked to eliminate dairy elements
3I hope older readers will forgive me for humming a few bars of Alice’s Restaurant here–can you imagine fifty people a day walking into a bookstore or library and demanding a few recipes from this cookbook?