As Sen moves through his subjects’ stories, each chapter raises questions about the obstacles that prevented them from ascending the ranks of the food industry and achieving the fame of other luminaries, such as Julia Child. He nimbly weaves in an “interlude” on Child — “Julia Child, American Woman” — which examines her rise as a pre-eminent authority on French cooking. The chapter is a detour that provides crucial perspective on his other subjects. Child was an American icon, a home cook who became a household name. While her impact on American food is undeniable, Sen underscores another point: “Julia possessed a unique qualification that allowed her to be a great teacher of French cooking for Americans: She carried no threat of the outsider.” This assertion is presented as fact, not criticism, but it may bring discomfort to Child’s devotees, particularly as it precedes his next chapter, about the French chef Madeleine Kamman.
Born in Paris, Kamman moved to Pennsylvania with her husband in the early 1960s. Cooking the dishes of her homeland was a way of assuaging her loneliness. In 1970, after moving to a town outside Boston, she established a cooking school, which offered nine classes exploring both French and American cuisine. Throughout her career, she was known to be a stickler for technique, studying history to understand the origins of a dish — “Something terrible happened to onion soup after it crossed the ocean and came to America,” she wrote with characteristically humorous disapproval — and she went on to write seven cookbooks.
Despite her accomplishments, Kamman suffered endless comparisons to Child, the doyenne of the Boston food world, and the two women sparred publicly. (Child adopted the habit of forwarding all Kamman’s letters to her lawyers.) Writing in The Los Angeles Times in 1971, Jeanne Voltz claimed that Kamman “borrows techniques but not recipes from the Julia Child books.” Yet Kamman, Sen explains, was asking Americans not so much to respect French cooking, something that Child had already achieved, but to respect the cooking of a Frenchwoman. That was a more complicated ask, given that Child had told The Washington Post in 1970, “Frenchwomen don’t know a damn thing about French cooking, although they pretend they know everything.” Kamman retaliated in The New York Times in 1981, saying: “When you try to teach a cuisine that is not your own, there is always one dimension missing.”
The Boston Globe declared Kamman’s restaurant Chez la Mère Madeleine “simply the best restaurant in Boston,” but she continued to struggle for the respect of the local food community. She publicly called out sexism, and she paid the consequences. Her bluntness was seen as a handicap, many in the industry citing it as a means of discrediting her talents. A dedicated teacher and prolific writer, she never achieved the acclaim Child did, but Sen points out that her willingness to speak her mind, including about the unequal treatment of women in her profession, “gave permission to a generation of younger women to follow her lead, to be angry, to agitate in public.”