There’s a scene in the film Julie & Julia where Julia Child and Simone Beck gently—or not so gently—try to deal with Louisette Bertholle, their co-author on Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Bertholle hasn’t done her share of the work, and after some haggling Child and Beck cut her pay. Adding insult to injury, Beck then suggests Bertholle’s name should appear last on the book’s cover. It should be “Julia Child and Simone Beck with Louisette Bertholle,” she says. But Child quickly jumps in. “No,” she says, it should be alphabetical, alphabetical!”
Things turned out a bit differently in real life. While Beck got what she wanted—Bertholle has been all but forgotten—she herself has been rendered almost invisible as well. So a few years ago, when my mother asked me if I’d like to have her copy of Beck’s cookbook Simca’s Cuisine, I gave the flimsy, yellowed paperback a dubious look. To be honest, I didn’t even know who Simone Beck was.
But I soon met her. Flipping casually through Simca’s Cuisine, I quickly learned as much about Simca (Beck’s nickname) as I did about her food. Slipped into Beck’s recipes are trucs (tricks) and conseils (advice), and implicit in the menus are her high expectations. (Most of them call for six courses—complete with cheese plates and petit fours—and that’s in the “informal occasions” portion of the book.) So I was a bit intimidated as I began tackling her recipes. But the fussiness pays off: After preparing her roast chicken (chicken livers, cognac, bread crumbs, and garlic are stuffed under the skin), I knew I’d never need another roast chicken recipe again.
In the introduction to the book, Beck writes that she never intended to write Simca‘s Cuisine. She did it just to appease her publisher and her fans, and now that it was done she could finally retire to her life of cooking six-course lunches for her friends in Provence. But apparently she changed her mind, because two other books—Food and Friends and New Menus from Simca’s Cuisine—followed. With all three of the books now out of print (though they can easily be found on the Internet), it can be just as rare to find someone cooking from one of them as it is to hear Beck mentioned in the same breath as Julia Child.
With any luck, Linda Emond’s keen performance as Beck in Julie & Julia will change all that. Perhaps it might wake people up to the fact that Mastering had three (or at least two) great authors behind it. And who knows, with any luck it will also convince publishers to get Beck’s books back into print.