America Goes Gourmet
America’s mid-20th-century gastronomic revolution is usually attributed to James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne. Following in the footsteps of food writers M.F.K. Fisher and Alice B. Toklas, these remarkable characters introduced recipes designed to entice Americans to embrace cooking as an opportunity for sensual and creative expression. Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book led a backlash to the gourmet movement, while Edna Lewis proved American home cooking was plenty delectable all along.
In his preface to The New York Times Cook Book, Craig Claiborne (1920–2000) notes that M.F.K. Fisher had characterized American cuisine as the “flavor of innumerable tin cans.” Fisher, nee Mary Frances Kennedy, was probably unknown to many of the book’s readers, but Claiborne regarded her as the “finest writer on food subjects in America.” He wasn’t entirely alone on that count; Fisher had become a cult figure with a small but glamorous following in California, where she lived when not in France. Fisher’s thoughtful essays on culinary history are anthologized in one of America’s first literary food books, Serve It Forth (1937). She followed that with many others, including Consider the Oyster (1941) and The Physiology of Taste (1949), a translation of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s 1826 French classic Physiologie du Goût.
While clearly admiring his predecessor, Claiborne also threw down the gauntlet. Believing a “gastronomic revolution” was imminent, he trusted in the home cook and felt America was ready for his formidable book. Fisher’s disparaging remark preceded some 1,500 recipes meant to make it possible for Americans to put their can openers aside. Claiborne was inspired by Fisher—in part, perhaps, he was inspired to prove her wrong.
In a 1968 article in New York magazine, Nora Ephron wrote, “In the beginning, there was James Beard.” When The New York Times Cook Book and Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out in 1961, Beard had already published 13 tomes—including The James Beard Cookbook (1959), a catalog of American cuisine—and had pioneered the television cooking show, with Elsie Presents James Beard in “I Love to Eat” (1946–1947). One might have expected Beard to perceive a rival in the upstart Claiborne, whose Times cookbook would sell nearly 3 million copies. Beard, though, was so confident in his starring role in the story of American food that he welcomed the young, little-known Claiborne as a regular guest at his parties in New York’s Greenwich Village and helped him into a job at Gourmet magazine. After the Times cookbook propelled him to best-selling author status, however, the increasingly mercurial Claiborne began to characterize Beard as an “unsophisticated” cook. Their differences came down to diverging philosophies about American food: Claiborne embraced international influences; Beard championed American cookery to the end.
Julia Child (1912–2004) and M.F.K. Fisher had much in common when they became friends. Both were Californians who discovered a life-changing love of food when they wound up expatriates in France by way of marriage. The two became close when they worked together on a Time-Life book, The Cooking of Provincial France (1968). During the book’s production the consulting editor, Michael Field, stayed in Child’s French country house, La Pitchoune, to facilitate his research into the region’s cuisine. When Fisher arrived at La Pitchoune immediately afterward, she noted a shocking lack of fromage and asked, “How could a person who loves food be in the south of France and not at least have a piece of cheese in the refrigerator?” Both women expressed embarrassment about the published book: David Kamp writes in The United States of Arugula (2006) that Child characterized some of its recipes as “AWFUL” and that Fisher claimed the editors had “neutered her spiky prose.” Their criticisms reflect one major difference between the two close pals: For Fisher, who was also a travel writer, memoirist and noted oenophile, food was a metaphor for life; for Child, food gave life its very meaning.
When Alfred A. Knopf editor Judith Jones wanted somebody to vet the massive digest on French cuisine she was about to publish, she asked James Beard to look at the advance proofs. Beard was so wowed by Mastering the Art of French Cooking that he arranged a reception for the new authors—Paris cooking school proprietors Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck—at a New York restaurant run by Dione Lucas, the first female graduate of the French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu. Jones became Beard’s editor, and the event also initiated the close friendship between Beard and Child, who bonded over their love of gossip and good food, despite her preference for French and his for American.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking launched Child’s television career when she appeared on a Boston book review show, I’ve Been Reading, and cooked an omelet. That performance sparked the creation of The French Chef (1963–1973), which made its amiable star one of the first celebrity chefs. Beard’s career had also been propelled by television; his 15-minute cooking segment, Elsie Presents James Beard in “I Love to Eat,” aired before the Friday night fights on NBC in 1946 and 1947.
Before Betty Friedan exposed housewifely drudgery as the “problem that has no name” in The Feminine Mystique (1963), Peg Bracken tuned in to the zeitgeist and decried the postwar cult of domesticity. The Oregon copywriter’s first feminist assault on the culture of domestic perfection that kept women in the house was The I Hate to Cook Book, a manifesto of shortcut recipes written by women (who “pooled” their “ignorance”) for women—or at least for those who would rather fold their “big dishwasher hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.”
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Julia Child had her life changed by a flounder (a meal that included sole meunière precipitated an “opening up of the soul and spirit,” she recalled) and began working with two friends to produce Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The two recipe books are vastly dissimilar, but both were reactions to aspects of postwar America their authors found repressive. Bracken encouraged women to reject the confines of the kitchen, while Child urged cooks to discard the prepackaged ingredients that were becoming standard issue in modern kitchens and embrace the sensuality of French cuisine.
The I Hate to Cook Book isn’t just a feminist reaction to 1950s domesticity—drudgery and captivity to many. It is also a complaint about the affectation of the gourmet fanaticism that was sweeping the United States. In her introduction, Peg Bracken ridicules food writing that proclaimed tomatoes and basil “soulmates” and an emerging food philosophy that seemed to make cuisine too precious. Bracken didn’t hate good food—she hoped for dinner invitations from women who liked to cook—but she rebuffed the snobbish aspects of the new culinary revolution.
Bracken, who combated gourmet high-mindedness with wit, might have enjoyed the pretension-free cooking and food philosophy of Edna Lewis, the first acclaimed female African American chef. Unlike Bracken, Lewis didn’t hate to cook. She remembered food tasting delicious when she was a child, but as a grown-up she found it not nearly as good. When she began cooking in New York in 1949, she was trying to “recapture those good flavors of the past” and re-create the recipes of her mother’s kitchen in Freetown, Virginia. The extraordinary success both women enjoyed indicates a perennial American appetite for good, straightforward food that steers clear of showing off.
Edna Lewis has been called the “South’s answer to Julia Child,” but Lewis had won New Yorkers over to her perfectly roasted chicken and other traditional southern dishes at her East Side restaurant while Child was still learning how to stuff a bird. Café Nicholson opened in 1949 with Lewis as chef and almost immediately became popular with celebrities (Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo), including those nostalgic for the food of home (Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Truman Capote). Not until the 1970s, however, when Lewis took a break from cooking, did she decide to immortalize her recipes, first in The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972), which reminded people that American food could be just as good as highly touted continental cuisine. Lewis’s acclaimed second cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), is set apart not simply by its recipes but by the chef’s vivid accounts of growing up in Freetown, Virginia, eating her mother’s delicious food. Writing didn’t come naturally to Lewis. Her voice was teased out during meetings with her editor at Knopf, who was none other than Judith Jones, the visionary who had earlier recognized the importance of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, coauthored by Child.
In her cookbook’s opening pages, Alice B. Toklas writes, “The French like to say that their food stems from their culture and that it has developed over the centuries.” She goes on to criticize French tradition for its rigidity, while praising the ingenuity and flexibility of the American character. At its core The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book is about cultural exchange and the shock that Toklas, her partner, Gertrude Stein, and their extraordinary circle of expat Americans experienced when they were immersed in a culture that placed sensuality and food at its center. Benefiting from its author’s literary celebrity—established by Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)—the memoir-cum-cookbook was a best-seller in the U.S. Released before the start of the gastronomic revolution, however, it came a few years too early to change the way Americans ate. That was left to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, inspired by that very same cultural exchange Toklas had experienced as an expat in France. Julia Child and her coauthors, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, bridged the gap that Toklas had felt, translating and adapting complex and rigid French recettes into a flexible language Americans could understand and use at home.
Although she was an ardent fan of Alice B. Toklas, M.F.K. Fisher never met her literary predecessor. Fisher had carried a letter of introduction around with her while visiting Paris in 1929 but lacked the courage to present it at the famed Rue de Fleurus salon Toklas shared with Gertrude Stein. Fisher writes about the missed opportunity in her foreword to the 1984 edition of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, admitting that Toklas had “been an integral part of my life” since adolescence. It seems a shame, then, that Fisher never tried (she claims) the recipe for Toklas’s notorious “Haschich Fudge,” recommended as an “entertaining refreshment for…a chapter meeting of the DAR.”
Toklas writes that food shortages during wartime—a period she described as “perpetual Lent”—led her to indulge in the “passionate reading of elaborate recipes” when ingredients were lacking. Fisher, who had written a guidebook for the homemaker faced with such scarcity, How to Cook a Wolf (1942), heartily endorses the practice: The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, Fisher declares, “would feed my soul abundantly if I could find no other nourishment.”