Skip to content

Response to Review of Setting the Table for Julia Child: Gourmet Dining in America, 1934–1961

Professor Maggie Andrews has introduced a helpful comparative approach to my study of the rise of gourmet dining in the United States, while raising questions about issues of gender, class, national identity, and the role of media in the adoption of new foodways. As she points out, the interest in French cuisine that emerged in the late 19th century in the United States and continues to the present day has its parallel in Britain. In both countries French cuisine initially appealed to members of the social elite. Chief among its advocates were male chefs and food writers rather than home cooks and women cookbook writers, who often favored traditional dishes from a particular region. At the same time, differences in gender and class relations, as well as geography, which reflect the distinctive history, culture, and social structures of the two countries, have given rise to certain approaches and practices specific to one country or the other.

An important force in advancing gourmet dining in both countries has been the rise of an upper middle class which appropriated dining styles initially modeled by the upper class. In the United States, as I argue, luxury magazines, other printed matter, and the broadcast media, staffed by knowledgeable gastronomes, systematically advocated the spread of gourmet dining.(1) Professor Andrews at first appears to refute this claim. She argues that regional and national identities created barriers that blocked the efforts of the media to promote French cuisine in Britain. Later, however, she applauds Marcel Boulestin’s success in disseminating French culinary ways to the British public through his BBC broadcasts, the publication of ‘Simple French Cooking for English Homes’ (reprinted on four occasions) and articles on food in many periodicals. Boulestin’s presentation of French cooking, according to Andrews, appealed to social groups that previously found it inaccessible.

Boulestin’s success, however, was due to more than his passion for teaching French culinary ways to the British public. Unlike American counterparts, he could assume the existence of a stable upper class in Britain, many of whose members encountered French culinary ways during habitual Grand Tours of the Continent. American elites, by contrast, waxed and waned over time. One thinks, for example, of the planter aristocracy in Virginia and South Carolina and the merchant elite in New England, both of which were displaced over time by competing social groups. More important, still, was the existence of the BBC. Few, if any, American radio and TV stations, privately owned and operated, could afford to risk broadcasting lessons on French cooking to an audience that was initially small and unlikely to generate enough revenue to support the program.

The role of geography in recent years, as Andrews argues, also sparked a more rapid and continuous dissemination of French ways in Britain as compared to the United States especially among the middle ranks of society. Lower middle- and working-class Americans were less likely than their British counterparts to visit France and, even if they went, they were less likely to eat in French restaurants.(2) While Boulestin’s advocacy of French home cooking – as opposed to the refined restaurant fare of Auguste Escoffier – may have made it more accessible to the masses, factors beyond the dining experience created new barriers to enjoying restaurants of this sort.

In fact, Boulestin’s populist approach to French cuisine echoed the work of his French compatriots, Maurice Edmond Sailland (known by his pen name, Curnonsky) and Marcel Rouff, who urged French diners to try out simple provincial restaurants described in their guide books.(3) This more casual approach to dining was also promoted in America by Samuel Chamberlin, who worked for Gourmet magazine. Because many of the provincial restaurants were accessible only by automobile and might require an overnight hotel stay, the Frenchmen and foreigners who dined in these restaurants were likely to be comfortably well off. Their popularity, much like that of Marie Antoinette’s rustic farmhouse, suggests that visitors found not only aesthetic satisfaction, but a voyeur’s delight in ‘slumming’ which could, in turn, become a new way to acquire ‘cultural capital’. As for British home cooks, they may have found Boulestin’s recipes easier to work with than those in Escoffier’s Le guide culinaire (4), but it is not clear how many converts he made.

As Professor Andrews notes, the turn toward French home cooking was a welcome opportunity for women to find a role for themselves in what had been an exclusively male domain. However, her suggestion that I have a greater regard for the achievements of gourmet chefs in the public domain as opposed to the work of home cooks is mistaken. In fact, I found little discussion in gourmet circles of home cooking in America until after the Second World War when Samuel Chamberlain and Julia Child focused attention on this subject. And Andrews herself abandons this distinction and comes to view gastronomic literature and recipes as a single entity. She then contrasts the literary arm of gourmet dining with its practice in the kitchen. While first questioning whether readers of that literature should be considered part of the gourmet community, she makes clear that reading and cooking are two important ways to experience the world of gourmet dining. Over time, indeed, an individual can become engaged in either or both of these activities.

In conclusion, a comparative approach is useful in highlighting important commonalities in the development of gourmet dining cultures in both the United States and Britain. Evidence shows that elites in both countries were drawn during the 19th century to the pleasures of French cuisine through the reading of gastronomic literature and their direct experience with meals in French restaurants on the continent or elsewhere. However, the broadening of the impact of gourmet dining on populations in the two countries occurred at different rates. Advocates in Britain, such as Boulestin and Elizabeth David, argued that masculine elites should relinquish control of French cooking to housewives relying on cookbooks aimed at them. It was not until two decades later that Julia Child and Samuel Chamberlain promoted this idea to American audiences. Differences in the class structures and media systems help to explain these distinctive features of the gourmet dining cultures in the two countries.

1. Professor Andrews mistakenly identifies my explanation for the growth of gourmet dining as ‘trickle down’. Rather, the proponents of gourmet dining adopted a self-conscious, systematic effort to spread this activity.

2. See Harvey Levenstein, We’ll Always Have Paris: American Tourists in France since 1930 (Chicago, IL and London, 2004), pp. 168–71, 250–4, 268–72.

3 Maurice Edmond Sailland and Marcel Rouff, La France Gastronomique: Guides des merveilles culinaires et des bonnes auberges françaises (Paris, 1921–8, 13 vols.).

4 Georges Auguste Escoffier, Le guide culinaire (Paris, 1903).