These foods were ushered in by technological developments during and after World War II. Yet during this same time Julia Child was living in Paris and taking cooking lessons. By 1961 she had written “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and by 1962 she was on PBS demystifying haute cuisine by careful step-by-step instructions and commonsensical humor. She was by no means the only Francophile cook of her era: Already Craig Claiborne was food editor of The New York Times. But Child certainly encouraged American women to tackle the classics of French cuisine in their own kitchens.
We can see where this got us in Betty Fussell’s description of competitive hostessing among the cooking cognoscenti in “My Kitchen Wars” (1999). Describing how she and her friends singlehandedly put on dinner parties featuring multiple complex recipes, she says, “The trick was to be a lady in the dining room, yet an amateur pro in the kitchen… . to make cooking an art, or at the very least a craft like watercolor painting, embroidery … all those genteel accomplishments that distinguished ladies who chatted in the parlors of Jane Austen from their servants. A lady could become extremely accomplished at any of these arts, even in writing novels, as long as no one took her work seriously or paid her money for it, which was much the same thing. Our parties were baroquely elaborated gifts.”
Underlying Ms. Fussell’s clearsighted but painful description of the sheer hard work involved in this marathon of entertaining is the fact that many bright women who graduated from universities in the 1960s and married and had children soon thereafter had very few job opportunities — or perhaps, rather, very few acceptable child care options at a time when it was still believed that a father’s duty lay entirely in providing the family’s financial wherewithal. With time on their hands and dinner to get on the table, it is not surprising that such women took to Child and worked off some of their intellectual energies in making one piece de resistance after another.
But culinary athleticism can get old, or perhaps people just grow out it. Ms. Fussell’s description is powered by a kind of fury at the wasted effort of those days. We can see it too in “That Infernal Machine, the Pressure Cooker” in which Betty MacDonald writes of the farm wife’s orgies of canning so many fruits and vegetables that one year’s supply remains unopened while the next year’s jars are already being added to the shelves.
In capturing some of the downsides of cooking as well as its high moments, editor Molly O’Neill shows her breadth of culinary understanding and knowledge. Her selection is nothing if not catholic and informative. She has missed no obvious inclusion — though Jeffrey Steingarten has probably written better articles than “Primal Bread” and Gael Greene has definitely written more wittily and sensibly than in “Lessons in Humility and Chutzpah.”
However, such tiny disappointments are wonderfully outweighed by Ms. O’Neill’s inclusion and generous praise of Judith Moore’s “Adultery,” a fine piece of cliffhanger writing, and Nora Ephron’s “The Food Establishment: Life in the Land of the Rising Souffle (Or Is It the Rising Meringue?),” which lifts the lid on the rivalries in the world of high-stakes food writers. Ms. O’Neill has other wonderful pieces too. Indeed, anyone owning this large and fascinating book is likely to come back to it from time to time, finding new jewels to treasure, new favorites to recommend.
Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.
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