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Aiming for Julia’s glory? No, say cookbook authors, but ‘Mastering the Art’ is less sacrosanct than it once was

By Bill Daley

Chicago Tribune

Julia Child had a problem in 1960. After spending much of the previous decade wrestling a book of French recipes for Americans into shape, she was stuck on what to call it. Suggestions, 45 or so, came and went without a winner. Finally, Judith Jones, her editor at Knopf, struck proverbial gold with “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and the book was published in 1961.

Fast-forward about 50 years. Nathalie Dupree was wondering if she had a problem. It wasn’t that her new cookbook lacked a name; it had one: “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.”

“It was terrifying,” Dupree recalls of the choice.

Now, the Charleston, S.C.-based Dupree is no newbie. She’s the author of 12 books, a seasoned television cooking show host, a kitchen pro. But her response reflected the fact that “Mastering the Art” as a cookbook title is a phrase charged with meaning. For as Russ Parsons wrote in a Los Angeles Times story shortly after Dupree’s book made its debut in November, “It takes a lot of chutzpah to name a cookbook ‘Mastering the Art of ... .’ After all, Julia Child pretty much has the rights to that phrase in perpetuity.”

No more, apparently.

“Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” co-written by Dupree and Cynthia Graubart, will be joined on bookstore shelves this fall by “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing,” by Anya Von Bremzen, the Queens, N.Y.-based author and food writer, and Ann Mah’s “Mastering the Art of French Eating.” In 2014, expect “Rococo: Mastering the Art of Chocolate,” by Chantal Coady, a London chocolatier.

Mah says her title is meant as a sort of a joke — after all, how can one master eating? – but it is also a homage to Child, who was, like Mah, a diplomat’s wife in Paris. The Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer describes her book as culinary tour of France using Child’s book as a guide.

“Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is such a universally recognized title that prospective readers of Mah’s book should immediately get the playful title spin. It might be what gets them to buy it, and that’s the point.

“Every publisher’s goal is to get his book attention, and the most important thing to get right is the title,” says Bill LeBlond, editorial director of food and drink at Chronicle Books. An search turned up: “Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking,” by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo in 2009; “Mastering the Art of Florida Seafood,” by Lonnie T. Lynch in 1999; “Mastering the Art of French Pastry,” by Bruce Healy and Paul Bugat in 1984; and, my sentimental favorite, “Mastering the Art of Outdoor Cooking on Your Gas Grill,” published in the 1970s for Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Dan Rosenberg, editorial director of Harvard Common Press, believes publishers were generally unwilling to use “Mastering” as the main title for a food book in the American market before Child’s death in 2004 at age 91. He cautions that publishers and authors need to take care if they choose the “Mastering” route for books.

“You are heightening expectations on two fronts,” he says. “You’re going out on a limb that the cuisine approaches French cuisine in importance and, even more risky, you are going out on a limb and saying you write cookbooks at the level of Julia Child and Simone Beck.”