Madeleine & Julia

Julia Child
Julia Child

Appearances can be deceiving.*

And in the food (foodie?) world, what smells of success — however minor — to one person may well reek like garbage to another.

Take the case of Julia Child and Madeleine Kamman, for example.

All the recent reminiscing about Julia Child (one of the Holy Trinity of female food writers of the 20th century — along with Elizabeth David and M. F. K. Fisher, although we might include Jane Grigson, making it a foursome instead) leaves out something. And that something is the blatant animosity that Julia’s mere presence (and runaway success) elicited from cookbook writer and French-food expert Kamman.**

Both French and a chef, and a former student of Simone Beck (one of Julia’s co-authors of Mastering), Kamman opened a restaurant and cooking school called The Modern Gourmet in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, in 1969, eight years after Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking first appeared. And six years after the phenomenal sky-shaking “French Chef” television program dominated by the 6’2″ Julia.

Kamman found the growing adulation of Julia a bit hard to take. And she said so. Openly.

Of an interview Kamman had with former New York Times food writer Molly O’Neil, O’Neil wrote:

… she was exasperated at being a purist in a world that rewarded charisma more handsomely than it did expertise. In fact, the central question in Ms. Kamman’s life then was: Why Julia? Why not me? ‘I am French!’ she said in the interview in 1982. ‘Why would they want an American ‘French Chef’?’

And according to Julia’s biographer, Noel Riley Fitch (Appetite for Life), Kamman forbade her students to either read Julia’s books or watch her television show. Worse yet, Kamman denounced Julia publicly in The Washington Post and wrote malicious letters to her. Julia finally turned over such material to her lawyers and never said Kamman’s name in public.

Madeleine Kamman
Madeleine Kamman

But, once (and just once), at Harvard’s Institute for Learning in Retirement in 1985,  Julia hinted that she remembered all of Kamman’s ” ‘put-downs and belittlements.'” In Fitch’s version of the story, winking, and in jest (of course!),  Julia said:

…  if the woman comes close, ‘I shall grab her by the short hairs (wearing gloves of course), and I will grind her alive, piece by piece, in my food processor.’

Again the old adage proves true: you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar!

*The material in this little bit of reportage resides in the Julia Child archives in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. See also Nancy Verde Barr’s Backstage with Julia for more about the Kamman feud.

**Madeleine Kamman has written seven high-caliber cookbooks: The Making of a Cook, Dinner Against the Clock, When French Women Cook, In Madeleine’s Kitchen, Madeleine Cooks (companion volume to the PBS TV series which ran from 1984 through 1991), Madeleine Kamman’s SAVOIE, and The New Making of a Cook (used by many cooking schools).

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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14 comments

  • From every thing I have read, Kamman always made snide and sarcastic comments about Child, and when she would write something derogatory about Child, she would send Child a carbon copy, which she finally just forwarded to her lawyer. Perhaps, some of this behavior was the result of a mental problem of some sort, but that does not make it any less unbecoming, especially in light of all the kindness and support Child showed Kamman and all the other talented upcoming chefs.

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  • I’ve never said Madeleine Kamman wasn’t good at what she does — she just made some tactical errors of judgment along the way. Very human thing to do.

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  • Curiously, when the classes were available, and I was in every one,including Master Class and Chefs class, it was rare to here a negative comment from any of the teachers or by Madeleine. Depending on your goals , she might guide you with a comment. She was tough on everybody and expected a level of paying attention due her…usually more than some thought possible.Like wash and dry fresh parsley, chop it fine with a well sharpened knife, ,until it dropped from your hand like fluffy confetti….simply amazing…it is the finely honed techniques that do finally make cooking a great joy.
    As for the dirt about whomever, I had to dig around a lot, even paying a service to locate the few incidents . May both be glittery stars in our Culinary constellations.
    I actually was born under the boig dipper!

    Great Culinary Heavens to all!

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  • Julia Child never referred to herself as a “chef” but a home cook and a teacher. Perhaps Kamman didn’t realize that the title “The French Chef” was chosen among all the ones proposed because it would fit into the small area allotted on the local newspaper for the name of TV programs. The sad part of it is that Child welcomed Kamman into her home and spoke very highly of her abilities and recommended her to everyone. Despite all her phenomenal skills and knowledge, Kamman seems to have been sadly driven by envy and jealousy when she could have benefited greatly form Child’s support and recommendations.
    What made Child such an great success was not her charisma or natural cooking talent, but her generosity and teaching ability which came from having been that clueless person in the kitchen who had to learn how to be a good cook.
    I wish Kamman and her wonderful teaching were better known among the general public, but my prediction is that Child will remain an icon and teacher long after Kamman has been forgotten.

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  • Thank you for writing. As I said in one of my previous comments on this post, I admire Madeleine Kamman and her stupendous work. No one is denying that her work has been stellar. However, the documentation exists for the feelings she had for Julia Child. Ms. Kamman mentioned it herself in an interview.

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  • A moment of revelation came to me following becoming a student of the Chefs class at Modern Gourmet,and completing the requirements, was that I could now take all of Julia’s books and easily understand what they were all about….My culinary world has been incredibly enriched
    by Madeleine
    Kamman and her wonderful teachers and the students in her classes. She gave unstintingly and generously of her time and few know of the insults she endured from obnoxious patrons of the restaurant…Most, if not all have very strong and happy memories of the study and
    rigorous attention it required. For many it was the most difficult bit of work they had encountered, even if they had earned a masters degree in chemistry, That was interesting to some who had no degrees.

    Though we went on to fine dining all over the world, nothing compares to having the awakening to French Food that Madeleine
    Kamman gave to her students and patrons. Simple fabulous food based on amazing skill and technique.

    There is much more that could be said…there was room in my life for Julia and Madeleine,
    and in those days of say it like it is,much more than now and the last 20 years.

    It is Madeleine who was the very best teacher a person could have.

    s.laRhette

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  • I have always been a big fan of Madeleine’s, please know that. I have read both books you mention and am aware of the great work she’s done. The truth of the matter unfortunately is that, as she herself says in the O’Neil interview, she said and wrote some things that were best left unsaid.

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  • Her entire career, Madeleine Kamman has been a strong advocate for acceptance of women chefs in the male-dominated field of ‘world-class’ chefs. I think cultural differences probably account for her intentions being misrepresented or misunderstood over the years. Her interest and scientific knowledge about the components of food are phenomenal. She explains the why as well as the how of cooking. It makes fascinating reading. Check out the Making of a New Cook and When French Women Cook. Julia was an entertainer I loved to watch, but Madeleine is the star of culinary knowledge, whose teaching is so thorough that you can apply that knowledge in new ways to make great food your own way.

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  • Exactly, counselor. You’re right. This piece didn’t even scratch the surface of the whole sordid story. Sad, because Kamman DOES know her stuff.

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  • I looooooove food-world rivalries!!
    I would like to contrast the photo from Ms. Kamman’s book cover with the PR photo of Julia at the top of your post. Who would you rather teach you the intricacies of making a souffle or trussing a bird? Frau frowny face who looks like she’s ready to flambe the photographer?? Or friendly Auntie Julia with her welcoming smile and ginormous side of beef in front of her??

    I rest my case.

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