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

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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