The Julia Child collections at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute contain everything from tax forms to recipes, from personal letters to family to work-related queries to and from the many people with whom Child worked. One stream of correspondence—between Child and her editor Judith Jones—proves especially telling. It documents the production process behind Child’s books, but also points to their connection to the world that she and Jones inhabited.
On April 21, 1961—after nearly 10 years of work, endless days of recipe development and testing, countless hours of conversation and reams of correspondence among the co-authors, a last-minute switch of publishers, and 10–12 hour days in the last stages of editing—Julia Child’s work on Mastering the Art of French Cooking was nearing completion. It remained only for her to read and return the final page proofs. In the seeming window of opportunity before they arrived, Child set one of very few limits on her work with Knopf and her editor, Judith Jones. With her usual directness, but with unusual lack of concern with Jones’s calendar, Child warned Jones about an upcoming family vacation that would preclude her working: “Our whole family is arriving in Norway the first week in June for a trip to the fjords, etc. . . . I would like put in a strong word that I DO NOT LOOK WITH FAVOR [emphasis in original] on having any page proofs from June 1 to June 21. This family trip has been planned for a year, all tickets and reservations have been made, and you know the general picture of that venture.”
Child was right that the plans had long been set. The trip with Paul’s brother and his family had been discussed for months ahead of time; Paul’s imminent retirement from the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the Childs’ permanent relocation to the United States made it a now-or-never proposition. And Julia certainly deserved the break. She had patiently responded to weekly—and sometimes nearly daily—requests from Jones and from Knopf staff all spring, bearing their requests to speed up or to wait patiently as their own calendar required. Indeed, the trip had been planned based on an earlier production schedule that Knopf had been unable to meet.
In spite of Julia’s efforts to retain some control over her schedule, three days later the vacation was off. “The Algerian crisis suddenly decided us that we are going to change all plans (however long laid).” Instead, she wrote that when Paul’s appointment in Oslo ended in late May the couple would “come right home.” This was not all bad, the new author decided: “The book, actually, is more important than anything.”
This exchange was one of the first that I read as I began my own book project on Julia Child and the emergence of gourmet food as mass culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Having read the excellent biographies already in existence, I knew that Julia Child had spent the spring and summer of 1961 working on the book and that she was excited by its publication. I was struck, though, by the many other themes suggested by this exchange. First, her language speaks very directly to the rigid scheduling and effort that the manuscript required from her; this was a far cry from the breezy, joyful cooking so often represented as her distinctive contribution. This brief exchange also invoked international politics and suggested that these, too, played a role in Julia’s cookbook. Finally, the letter hinted at the many tasks included in family life among middle-class diplomats. It is an exchange that travels across the globe, pointing to Oslo, to France, to the United States, to Algeria—and to the ways that history shaped Julia Child and her work. Child and Jones’s brief exchange about production schedules helped me to envision a story that is opened up by, rather than contained within, Child’s biography.
From the first, this exchange points to the way that the cookbook, and Julia Child’s personal and professional lives, were bound up in international affairs and politics—part of a larger story of the Cold War era. Child blamed their decision on the “Algerian crisis”—a short-lived attempt by rightist members of the French army to prevent the independence of Algeria and to unseat President DeGaulle, who had been conducting negotiations aimed at French withdrawal. The “crisis” ended two days after Julia’s letter to Judith but that it showed up at all reminds us that Julia’s efforts to instantiate a particular notion of Frenchness in American kitchens occurred while France itself was losing international presence. Its efforts to retain colonies, or even control the process of their departure, met with violence, resistance, and profound international embarrassment. The neat directions and the paths of cooking opened up by the recipes she developed stood in stark contrast to the disarray of French colonies and of imperial governance at the time.
International politics mattered in other ways as well. Julia Child was, after all, in France, and later in Oslo from where this letter was written, because of Paul’s work as a cultural attaché and exhibits officer with the USIA. His career reflected the US effort to wage a “soft” Cold War in Europe using arts, education, and cultural events to build support for the United States and its capitalist system. The Childs' lives were very much taken up with this other, larger project during precisely the years that Julia was developing the instructions at the core of her teaching. In ways so obvious at the time that Child did not need to state them, the recipes and collaborations that created Mastering the Art of French Cooking were made possible by the longstanding American alliance with France and recent systems of diplomacy that encouraged cultural knowledge and exchange. The cookbook was a project that performed political work and that was, in vital ways, dependent on political systems.
Of course, it was not only the Algeria crisis that kept Paul and Julia from taking that cruise with their family. Child and Knopf now faced the enormous amount of work remaining to do on the book manuscript and the tight deadlines. This book had taken years of her working life, and in recent years, it had taken entire days. The Childs had already invested significant sums in the book manuscript: paying for typists, endless postage for transatlantic mailings, and costs of ingredients for recipes being tested. Paul’s letters to his brother document the 10–12 hour days Julia put in on edits, the emotional toll of constant pressure from Knopf, resistance to changes from coauthor Simone Beck, etc. (They also imply that it was this production schedule that drove the change: Paul vividly described Julia’s workload and noted that it was better to forgo a trip that was likely to be so “harried.”) Julia may have loved cooking, but publishing required endless and isolating attention to the details of language, style, format, and technique.
This work was difficult, however, because of the constraints and expectations of married professional life in the mid-20th-century diplomatic corps. So small they are easy to miss are allusions to this other work and Julia’s many commitments. As the letter suggests and other correspondence makes clear, large parts of her days were spent on the daily tasks of embassy life, on social and personal relations, and on removing an entire household, setting up temporary shop in the United States, and then finally moving into a permanent home (in Cambridge). In the midst of working on the manuscript, she put in appearances at embassy events, organized lunches and dinners for friends and colleagues, packed their apartment, determined travel itineraries, etc. Child was certainly committed to her career but not in a way that set her apart from gendered expectations of middle class sociality or the requirements of diplomatic life.
Finally, these letters point to a crucial challenge that Paul and Julia faced and navigated. Put bluntly, Julia’s career came to mean that she did less of the sort of supportive tasks she had done while Paul was working. The lunches she had made him, the parties that they had thrown, the restaurant meals they had eaten together—all of this had mattered to Paul’s work but now, in a very different way, meals, parties, restaurants, and food would matter to Julia’s work. The missed vacation to mark the end of Paul’s time in Oslo, the immediate plunging into the proofreading and indexing when they returned to the Unted States: these neatly symbolize the quick transition the couple made from Paul’s work to Julia’s.
This brief exchange moves us inward, into Child’s life and her juggling of so much. But it also moves us outward, into thinking about the cultural and political work that Mastering the Art of French Cooking did in a quickly shifting Cold War world. The conversation between the author and editor helps us to ask how and why the book became so important to Julia Child and to so many other people.
Tracey Deutsch is an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota, teaching and researching in the history of capitalism, women’s history, consumer culture, and food studies. She is the author of Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), the winner of a 2011 ASFS Book Award from the Association for the Study of Food and Society, and of “Memories of Mothers in the Kitchen: Local Foods, History, and Women’s Work” (Spring 2011, Radical History Review). A 2012–2013 Schlesinger Library Research Grant recipient, Deutsch is currently researching “The Julia Child Project.”