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After 48 Years, Julia Child Has a Big Best Seller, Butter and All

Stephanie Clifford|The New York Times
Monday, 24 Aug 2009 | 3:40 PM ET

Almost 48 years after it was first published, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child is finally topping the best-seller list, bringing with it all the butter, salt and goose fat that home chefs had largely abandoned in the age of Lipitor.

The book will make its debut at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list of Aug. 30 in the advice and how-to category.

“In a month, I’ve sold almost seven times what I sell, typically, in a year of ‘Mastering,’ and it’s going to get even higher,” said Lee Stern, the cookbook buyer for Barnes & Noble. “It’s amazing.”

Amazing not just because the book is almost half a century old, costs $40 and contains 752 pages of labor-intensive and time-consuming recipes — the art of French cooking is indeed hard to master — but also for what those recipes contain.

Julia Child
AP
Julia Child

In a decade when cookbooks promise 20-minute dinners that are light on calories, Ms. Child’s recipes feature instructions like “thin out with more spoonfuls of cream” (Veau Prince Orloff, or veal with onions and mushrooms, pages 355-7) or “sauté the bacon in the butter for several minutes” (Navets à la Champenoise, or turnip casserole, pages 488-9). And for a generation raised to believe that Jell-O should have marshmallows in it, there is plenty of aspic — the kind made with meat.

Readers who only recently opened the book, and have been blogging and tweeting about it, have found some anachronistic surprises.

“I’m looking at these ingredients going, Oh, sweet Lord, we’ll die,” said Melissah Bruce-Weiner, 45, a resident of Lakeland, Fla., who bought the book on her way home from seeing the movie. Horrified by the prospect of cooking with pork fat, she tried her own variation of boeuf bourguignon, which she called “beef fauxguignon.”

“I know why all of the greatest generation has died of heart attacks,” she said. “I actually did a can of cream of mushroom soup, and a can of French onion soup, and a can of red wine — it was the same can — I filled it with the bottle that I had been drinking the night before.

“Yes, Julia Child rolled over in her grave when I opened the cream of mushroom soup, I’m pretty sure of that. But you know what? That’s our world.”

Mindy Lockard, 34, of Eugene, Ore., made Poulet Sauté aux Herbes de Provence, which calls for a whole stick of butter, for a recent dinner party.

“I found the recipes, actually, much easier than I thought they were going to be, but the amount of butter was a bit overwhelming,” she said. “There’s a picture of me cooking, and I have this glow, and it’s from too much hot butter. I expected to break out the next day.

“My husband loved it and asked if we could have it again the next day. I actually said, we probably shouldn’t have this in the same month.”

Ms. Child, who died in 2004 at the age of 91, liked to say, “ ‘Oh, butter never hurts you,’ ” her editor, Judith Jones, recalls. “In this country, we sort of have a love-hate relationship with food — we love it, but we’re also afraid of this whole fear-of-fat mania.”

Mireille Guiliano, the author of “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” said there are reasons why American and French bodies respond differently to the same fatty ingredients.

For starters, the French eat more fruits and vegetables, and they walk more, she said. And then there is portion size. “The French simply eat much less,” she said.

Some of that is alluded to in the movie “Julie & Julia,” which combines scenes from Ms. Child’s discovery of cooking while in France with the true story of a modern blogger who decides to cook her way through “Mastering the Art.”

“Mastering the Art” — co-written by Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, and the first of two volumes — is not the only book that has gotten a lift from the movie. The book “Julie & Julia,” which was written by the blogger Julie Powell and was the basis for the movie, has been reprinted 13 times this year in movie tie-in versions by publisher Little, Brown.

The movie editions of “My Life in France,” the 2006 book that chronicles Ms. Child’s years there and provided biographical material for the movie, have been reprinted nine times by Knopf.

Knopf has also reprinted “Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom” six times this year, and it will top the Aug. 30 Book Review list of advice and how-to paperbacks. According to BookScan, which tracks roughly 75 percent of the book market, it is the second-best-selling cookbook in the country, behind “Mastering” and ahead of more contemporary titles like “Cook Yourself Thin: Skinny Meals You Can Make in Minutes” and “Hungry Girl: 200 Under 200,” a book of recipes under 200 calories.

As for “Mastering the Art,” even discount stores that have never stocked the book, like Sam’s Club, are putting in orders.

“We won’t be caught up for a while,” said Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Knopf.

Part of the sales can be credited to movie promotions from Columbia Pictures, which released the film. “Basically, we just integrated it into everything we did, so if we had radio promos, we’d give away the book; if we had screenings, we’d give away the book,” said Marc Weinstock, president of worldwide theatrical marketing for Sony Pictures, Columbia’s parent company.

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But booksellers were still startled by the demand for new copies. The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle and Barbara’s Bookstore, based in Chicago, have both run out of “Mastering the Art” recently. At Powell’s Books in Portland, managers had ordered extra books for a Julia Child promotional section.

“Pretty much by the Sunday after the movie opened, it just looked like a bomb hit it,” said Gerry Donaghy, the purchasing supervisor for new books at Powell’s.

And at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, N.Y., “My Life in France” has been “flying, flying off the shelves,” said a co-owner, Maryann Calendrille. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Nora Ephron, the film’s writer and director, said she had hoped to inspire more cooking.

“This was a secret dream,” Ms. Ephron said, “that the movie would sell a lot of books.”

She added: “I’m completely delighted that people are walking out of the multiplex and into the bookstore.”

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