Julia Child's first cookbook was, and remains, her seminal work. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, co-authored with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck and published in 1961, has satisfied countless Americans' desires to recreate the French food they enjoyed traveling abroad. But is it Childs' best work? I long ago pilfered my mother's copy of MtAoFC, but cook exactly three recipes from it: potage parmentier, gougeres and sauce Bernaise.
Despite its minimal use, the tattered, faded old copy of the book still gets an esteemed position on my bookshelf. In the back of mind I think that someday I'll really master soufflés, and when that day comes, Julia will be there to help me. Or if I'm ever going to tackle cassoulet, there's no better recipe than Julia's. In reality however, there are better recipes and techniques for both dishes in countless other cookbooks. MtAoFC has a handful of illustrations, but no photos. Ingredients sometimes include canned vegetables--something de rigueur in the 60s, but completely frowned upon for any gourmand worth her fleur de sel today. And many of the dishes are dated. Or heavy. Who eats aspic anymore? Why is there so much butter?
A couple of the cookbooks that are better than MtAoFC, come from Julia Child as well. Baking with Julia, based on the PBS series of the same name, is a veritable bible for baking. The thing is, it was actually written by Dorie Greenspan. There's a reason it won a James Beard award. Like Greenspan's other award-winning cookbooks, it is packed with valuable baking tips and techniques, photos, and recipes that are nearly foolproof. Recipes come from other baking luminaries like Leslie Mackie, Nancy Silverton, Alice Medrich, and Nick Malgieri.
But Baking with Julia still has Julia's name and photograph on the front cover. Like her breakthrough cooking show The French Chef, Baking with Julia brought the loveable woman back into living rooms on TV screens across the country. There, like before, she told aspiring bakers it was OK to mess up, because she did too. As she did with French cooking for a generation prior, she did again for baking. She made it seem less intimidating and achievable.
One of Julia's best books is The Way to Cook, published in 1989. It still includes aspic, and plenty of butter, but also has photos, fresh vegetables, modern dishes, and global influences. When the time comes to master soufflés, this is the book I'll use. The recipe is similar to the one in MtAoFC, but there are few more tips and tricks, plus photos. More importantly, the book is sturdier, so I don't further damage my mother's tattered old copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
August 15 would have been Julia Child's 100th birthday. PBS--the network that first brought Julia into Americans' homes--is celebrating all month long. You can stream old episodes of The French Chef and other shows, find recipes to cook, read tributes from chefs and bloggers, and share stories, recipes, and photos through various social networks. Read more at pbs.org.