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Julia Child a best seller at last, after only 48 years

August 24, 2009
Julia Child

Julia Child

Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking finally reaches the top of The New York Times Best Seller list next Sunday, nearly 48 years after it was first published. But those buying the book fear its recipes, brimming with butter, pork fat and salt, will kill them.

Boosted by the movie Julie and Julia, featuring Meryl Streep as Child, the 752-page cookbook sold 22,000 copies in the most recent week tracked by Nielsen BookScan, The New York Times reports today. And that’s despite its “labor-intensive and time-consuming recipes,” not to mention its $40 list price.

Publisher Alfred A. Knopf says that’s more copies than the book has sold in any year since it first appeared. Child, who worked for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, during World War II, learned French cooking in post-war Paris, where her husband was posted by the U.S. Foreign Service.

Mastering French Cooking made Child a celebrity, a cooking expert and a TV celebrity chef. Her PBS program, The French Chef, debuted in 1963 — decades before the current mania for reality shows featuring imperious chefs and cooking competitions.

Charmed by the movie, today’s preternaturally health conscious cooks are finding themselves horrified when they open the book and see what the recipes actually contain.

“I’m looking at these ingredients going, Oh, sweet Lord, we’ll die,” Melissah Bruce-Weiner, 45, a resident of Lakeland, Fla., told the Times. “I know why all of the greatest generation has died of heart attacks.”

Julie Powell

Julie Powell

The movie has also lifted the sales of Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, which will top the Times‘ Aug. 30 list of paperback and how-to books. Julie & Julia, the memoir by Julie Powell that inspired the film, has been reprinted 13 times this year, according to the Times. Over the course of a year, Powell cooked all 524 recipes in Mastering French Cooking, creating a popular blog about the experience.

The health food and fitness movements emerged in the 1960s, too, and Child defended high fat French cooking throughout her career. Judith Jones, her editor, told the Times that Child always said, “Oh, butter never hurts you.” The French eat smaller portions, too, and more fruits and vegetables than found in the average American diet.

I met Child briefly at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in the mid-1990s, when she shared a podium with another great American personality and sometime author, Jimmy Buffet. She was impressively tall, knowledgeable and good natured, with that famous loopy voice, which until then I’d only known from Dan Ackroyd’s parody on Saturday Night Live.

In her talk, Child praised some recent study suggesting that butter might not be as bad as cigarettes, after all. “We need to get over this irrational fear of things that give us pleasure,” she said to me afterward. “All things in moderation.”

Julia Child, by the way, lived to be 91.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    August 24, 2009 3:17 pm

    Oh! What a movie can do for your book sales…amazing!

    All these people who think they are so healthy by chosing low and non fat options are fooling themselves. I agree with Child: All things in moderation. There’s nothing wrong with butter so long as you don’t eat tons of it.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    August 24, 2009 3:29 pm

    Don’t certain dieticians claim the French live leaner and healthier lives because they drink a glass of red wine with their meals? Just one though. As Rachel says, everything in moderation.

    I remember Child through SNL episodes as well. As a publicity coordinator for a NYC publishing house, I know that any publicity–whether good or bad–sells books.

  3. Steve permalink
    August 24, 2009 11:03 pm

    Paula Deen has taken over the job of “killing America, one stick of butter at a time”

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    August 25, 2009 10:15 am

    This whole thing puts me in mind of my all-time favorite maxim, from Mark Twain, of course:

    “Moderation in all things. Including moderation.”

    Twain lived to be 76, by the way, smoking cigars the whole way.

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