The imitation game

Mastering the Art of cookbooks

Precious few classic cookbooks have earned such reverence that they can go by a single name, like a famous celebrity. If someone tells you she is making a recipe from "Mastering", there is likely only one cookbook that comes to mind: Julia Child's iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. However, many "Mastering the Art of" cookbooks have appeared over the years, and The Washington Post takes a closer look at these copycats.

The final title of Child's masterpiece was the result of lengthy debate between Child and her editor, Judith Jones. The pair exchanged many letters while Child was overseas with her husband. When asked what she thought about the many other "Mastering the art of" cookbooks, Jones said, "I think a cookbook should have its own identity, its own title, its own meaningfulness." It's easy to tell she is not a fan of the copycats.

And what do the authors of these cookbooks think about riding the coattails of a classic work? Says Natalie Dupree, co-author of Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, "I was always so intimidated by Julia, by her thoroughness and scholarliness. I just wouldn't have come to it myself, but the publisher wanted it." 

Therein lies the rub. Coming up with cookbook titles usually involves several people and even focus groups, says Maria Guarnaschelli, a vice president and senior editor at publisher W.W. Norton & Co. She notes that key words are often utilized because they have certain connotations. "Classic" is one such term and "Bible" is another. When Guarnaschelli was editing Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible at William Morrow in the 1980s, she wasn't sure the term would be accepted. It's safe to say the word caught on.

A new cookbook using the "Mastering of" phrase seems to drop every few months. Next up is Lidia's Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine by Lidia Bastianich, who may be among the most qualified of those who have used the phrase. One title that might make purists cringe is Mastering the Art of Ticket Orders on the Cajun Cuisine Hotline by John Baker.

What do you think of "Mastering the art of" or "The XXX Bible" cookbook titles? Do you find them derivative or do you think they are fine as long as the cookbooks are solid and comprehensive? 

4 Comments

  • pitterpat4  on  7/7/2015 at 7:54 AM

    I think they are fine if they are comprehensive about their subject.

  • nwaterman967  on  7/7/2015 at 8:04 AM

    Personally, I prefer titles that are more original . . . and for some reason, whenever I see the word "Bible" in a cookbook recipe, my first thought is "pass." I don't expect to find all the answers or all the recipes for a given type of cooking in any one book and somehow, that is what these types of titles seem to be trying to say to me. I approach it with suspicion to be honest. So while maybe the publishers are right about such titles selling well in general, they actually backfire when it come to my own cookbook purchasing.

  • Aggie92  on  7/7/2015 at 11:42 AM

    The XXX Bible sounds like something you buy at the naughty store ;-)

  • BethNH  on  7/7/2015 at 2:58 PM

    I find it rather pretentious to think that no other cookbook author could have a "Mastering the Art of ..." book. While Julia Child was an expert at French cooking, she could hardly lay claim to being an expert at all cuisines. Why shouldn't any expert use a similar title?

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