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NEAL CONAN, host:

Forty years ago, Julia Child opened "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" with a promise: This is a book for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children's meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat. And nothing, but nothing interfered with her enjoyment.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The French Chef")

Ms. JULIA CHILD (Chef, Television Personality, "The French Chef"): How about dinner in half a minute? How about a last-minute dinner party for 300 people? What about an omelet? Voila. The omelet show today, on "The French Chef."

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: The book became a TV show, a memoir, most recently a movie called "Julie & Julia." Throughout, the promise remains: You, too, can become a wonderful cook. And people are listening.

The release of the movie prompted a new edition of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." It will debut on the New York Times best-seller list on Sunday. And on behalf of those just now discovering Julia Child, we want to hear from those of you who benefited from the book and the TV show.

Tell us the story of your "French Chef" triumph or disaster: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Nora Ephron is the writer and director of "Julie & Julia," the movie, and she joins us today from Argo Studios in New York City.

Thanks very much for being with us. Nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. NORA EPHRON (Writer and Director, "Julie & Julia"): Oh, it's great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: I wonder, what happened the first time you followed a Julia Child recipe?

Ms. EPHRON: Well, I don't - I followed so many Julia Child recipes. I was a slave to Julia when I got that book, and all of my friends were. This was in the '60s when I was young, and the book had just come out. And truly, if you didn't own that book, you had not passed into adulthood as we understood it in those days. Everybody cooked from it. It worked. It was perfect. And I learned to cook from that cookbook, and, what's more, became completely infatuated with the person who'd written it.

CONAN: And more about that in just the moment. But I have to ask if you have any favorite recipes?

Ms. EPHRON: Oh, God, yes. Well, they're at least worth mentioning, and both of them are in the movie, actually.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. EPHRON: They're - one of them is chicken breasts with cream and port and mushrooms, which is heavenly and takes only about, really, 28 minutes to make. And that's great. And then the classic lamb stew recipe, which - there's no better recipe, period. That's the end of that. And I love lambs stew. Love it.

CONAN: If you'd like to see copies of Nora's favorite recipes from Julia Child, you can go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. But tell us a little bit more about your fascination of with the woman behind the measurements.

Ms. EPHRON: Well, I think, you know, of course, I had to think about this while I was writing it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. EPHRON: And I probably ended up practically over-thinking it. But when you get involved with a cookbook and you like to cook from it, you truly do have sort of an imaginary friend relationship with the person who wrote it. You - I used to sit in - stand, not sit, believe me - in my little teeny kitchen when I was first cooking from that book and imagine that Julia might come to dinner, and then try to figure out what I would cook her if she came to dinner because it seem wrong to cook for something from her cookbook…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. EPHRON: …because she'd eaten everything in that. But I didn't have a cookbook to cook her anything from, so it was extremely confusing because I could not imagine, for example, feeding her my recipe for barbecue sauce which I'd gotten from my mother and which consisted mostly of Heinz ketchup. So, but, you know, it - I just constantly thought about her. And one of the things I think I began to believe as I wrote this movie is that if I cook from Julia Child now, I not only connect to Julia, but I connect to the person I was when I started cooking from that cookbook.

In some ways, cooking and cookbooks are a kind of - almost a form of time travel. You know, you can cook something that your mother made you, and it - and you're with your mother in the kitchen, even though she may be dead. And you cook something - there's a guy I went out with who was the first person who taught me not to crowd the mushrooms in the frying pan. This, by the way, is in Julia Child, but I learned it from this guy. And I haven't seen him in 30 years, but I always think of him when I make mushrooms. He was a nice guy. I'm happy to think about him.

CONAN: Were there moments, either from the book or from the TV show -now, I should point out you are a noted cook. You're well known for doing these things well.

Ms. EPHRON: Well, especially in my own home.

CONAN: Yes.

Ms. EPHRON: Yes.

CONAN: But, were there…

Ms. EPHRON: Famous in my own home.

CONAN: Famous in concentric circles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EPHRON: Yes.

CONAN: But - was there a moment when you say, wait a minute. She makes them look so easy.

Ms. EPHRON: Well, I don't - I think that if you follow her instructions, it is easy. The truth is that cooking, especially - I'm not talking about that stuff you see on "Iron Chef," which none of us could do, none of us. I mean, those guys are irrelevant to home cooking.

But if you follow the directions in Julia Child or in any number of wonderful cookbooks that are on the market - I happen to love Ina Garten's cookbooks - you can make those things. And, you know, all these people who say if you read, you can cook, are telling the truth. It's not anything. You know, it's not - I could no more learn Japanese. You know, I couldn't do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EPHRON: But - and most people can't really learn Japanese. Well, they could, if they just wanted to devote themselves to it. But you can really learn to cook, and especially from that cookbook, which is so written for people who - you know, it doesn't matter if you're an expert or a neophyte, that book is written for you.

CONAN: We're talking with Nora Ephron. Her most recent movie, of course, is the hit out now, "Julie & Julia." 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. What are your triumphs and your tragedies from "The French Chef"? And let's begin with Patricia, Patricia calling us from Richmond in Virginia.

PATRICIA (Caller): Hey, it's Patricia.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PATRICIA: Hey. Years ago, I tried - it was difficult to learn to make pie crusts. And then I got this cookbook, and the tart crust in there -the technique, the way that she tells you how to do it, the ingredients - you know, butter and flour - but she tells you how to handle the dough. And I was actually looking for it here, because I remember the descriptions being so wonderful.

But you just - the way she tells you to handle it lightly and make sure everything's cold and not to smoosh(ph) it around. And it's just - it was like having someone else there teaching you, as well as just, you know, telling you what to do, telling you how to do it.

CONAN: And you still make that crust?

PATRICIA: I do. And I rarely make things like that anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Have you tried the crust, Nora?

Ms. EPHRON: Well, I'm afraid I'm one of those - I just don't know how to say this. Every so often, I make a pie crust, but sometimes I buy a pie crust.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Oh, my gosh. Those are dark clouds…

Ms. EPHRON: I think…

CONAN: …gathering over…

Ms. EPHRON: No, I just but…

CONAN: …over southern Manhattan.

Ms. EPHRON: But you see, I do really feel that you don't have to make everything, and that one of the reasons why people are so afraid of cooking is they think that you have to make all three things from scratch that are on the plate, plus you have to make the dessert from scratch, and they get overwhelmed and they don't cook. But the truth is those pie crusts you buy, like - I'm sorry to say - Pillsbury pie crusts, that's as good a pie crust as I can make.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. Patricia?

PATRICIA: Well…

Ms. EPHRON: I don't mean to knock Julia's pie crust…

CONAN: Oh, no, no, no, no.

Ms. EPHRON: …I just mean that you don't always have to make everything, and it is really easy to make a pie if you start with the refrigerator compartment in your grocery store.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PATRICIA: The thing in the refrigerator department in the groceries is that it has all these six and seven-syllable ingredients in it.

Ms. EPHRON: Yes, that is true.

CONAN: All right. Patricia, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

PATRICIA: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

PATRICIA: Bye.

CONAN: This email from Judy in Las Vegas. Every Christmas season, I make loaf after loaf of Julia's French sandwich bread. It is then given to special friends, neighbors and even business clients. Each loaf contains a half stick of butter. But if I'm feeling particularly munificent - I'll get that right sooner or later.

Ms. EPHRON: Munificent, yes.

CONAN: Munificent - I put in a whole stick.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, wasn't - did Julia Child the one who said, when in doubt, put in more butter?

Ms. EPHRON: Well, she said something like that. And my mother always said you can never have too much butter. It's - I actually believe that, and I think, eventually, there will be some huge front-page article that alerts us all that butter really isn't bad for you, and fortunately, I have known that all my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: This - an email from somebody anonymous, but - Herb, excuse me. Herb writes: To this day, I can debone a chicken by hand without a knife, thanks to Julia, and I miss her. And, well, I suspect you do to.

Ms. EPHRON: Without a knife?

CONAN: Without I knife, he says.

Ms. EPHRON: My God. That's amazing.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another on the line - Patrick, Patrick with us from Fort Collins in Colorado.

PATRICK: Hey, how are you doing, guys?

CONAN: Very well.

PATRICK: Oh, Nora, I love your work. I just wanted to fit that in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EPHRON: Thanks.

PATRICK: I had a triumph with Julia. I was 10 years old. I was alone at home-ish. I had a babysitter who was - well, I hope she's not listening. She was inept. And I really was very hungry. And I noticed this old Belgian waffle maker that my parents could never get correctly. And I caught an episode of Julia in the afternoon - I usually watched her along with Bob Ross. And next thing I know, I'm in the kitchen manhandling Belgian waffles. And I didn't have a filler, and I looked over and I see a bunch of pecans that are about to go bad. I chopped up the pecans and dumped it into my waffle.

And Julia was right there with me the whole time. And she not only served as my cooking assistant, you know, my little chef on my shoulder, but she was also my matchmaker because any time that I've ever cooked for any of my prospective, I guess, I don't know, future wives' guests, you know, they would always - they were always extremely impressed. They always ask, you know, who did you learn cooking from? Your mom? Your dad? And I said, no, they're intellects. I learned from Julia Child, you know, plain and simple. I mean, she brings nothing but wonderful memories from my childhood. And to this day, I still - yeah, I can't forget her, you know? I mean, she's just the greatest.

CONAN: Patrick…

PATRICK: I mean, (unintelligible)…

Ms. EPHRON: Yes. I highly recommend her, you know, her television show, the "French Chef," is on DVD, and particularly the early shows - before she really got good at it - are absolutely brilliant and totally hilarious because she's out of breath almost the entire show. The suspense that you bring to it, absolutely not knowing if she's going to get through this, and the camera, too, because no one had ever done a show like this.

They did it with one camera. There's - the chicken show, there's a moment when the camera just flies up to the ceiling and stays there while Julia just goes on talking, then comes right back down and finds her again. I cannot tell you, these shows are hilarious and amazing and really worth watching.

CONAN: Patrick, thanks very much for the call.

PATRICK: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: We're talking with director Nora Ephron about, well, Julia Child. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's next talk with Diane, Diane with us from Jacksonville.

DIANE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

DIANE: Well, this goes back so many years, back into the '60s, shortly after the book came out and I was trying to impress my brand-new in-laws by cooking duck a l'orange. And everything was in the oven. And as I was putting everything away, I happened to realize that the spice I had in my hand, rather than being poultry seasoning, was chili powder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DIANE: They arrived, and they very gamely ate it. And I'm sure it was very gamely, but they didn't say too much. And finally, my mother-in-law, several weeks later, said where did you get that lovely recipe? I said, well, it's Julia Child's, but - and she said, well, I think I want to try it out. And I said, oh, good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DIANE: But I love the movie. Thank you so much, Ms. Ephron.

Ms. EPHRON: Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: That's great. So, well, clearly, not Julia's fault.

DIANE: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's - this is Muffy(ph) in Pernandina(ph) Beach in Massachusetts - or Fernandina, I think it is. Hi, I bought both volumes of Julia back in the '70s in a progressive dinner party. I decided to make her croissant many layers of butter, butter, butter. And hours later of rolling and more butter, the croissants were baked and ready for company. They were wonderful, but the company scarfed them up in less than five minutes. So I gave away the cookbooks and swore never to cook from Julia again.

This is from Jason in Durham, and he's a chef. Was Julia ever an actual chef, i.e., did she ever run a professional kitchen? If not, what is the opinion on Julia's influence on this decade's rise in celebrity chefdom and non-chef food celebrities? What do you think, Nora?

Ms. EPHRON: Well, I think one of the reasons she's so good is that she was never a professional chef. She never had anyone - you know, she learned to cook when you had to wash your own dishes, and she didn't have sous-chefs doing the chopping for her so that - you know that thing that happens when you buy a cookbook by a professional chef? It simply -it just doesn't have anything to do with you.

And I think she so approached this from the point of view of I'm going teach people to cook. The celebrity was so after, you know, so not what she had planned. She just - she was going to be a cooking teacher, and then she was going to write this book and it was going to be published. But that's what she is, is a teacher.

At the same time, she is the pioneer of all this food on television. You know, that wasn't the beginning. And she's still, I think, about the most delightful person who has ever had a cooking show.

CONAN: I was interested to read, I think, one of the later forewords to a later edition of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," where she said she was wondering about the title of that television program since she was neither French nor a chef.

Ms. EPHRON: Exactly. And it is completely misnamed.

CONAN: Here's an email we're going to end with from Patrick in Tulsa. I grew up watching Ms. Child mostly because she reminded me of my beloved grandmother. I learned how to cook a steak in my skillet from her. This was a useful skill, as in college, my first date with a certain young redhead involved me preparing steak in my cheap college apartment. I still cook the steaks, only now the redhead is my wife of nearly 20 years, the mother of our three girls. Thanks, Julia.

And Nora Ephron, I'm sure you want to add your thanks to Julia Child, too, and…

Ms. EPHRON: I do. Every day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you so much for the film and for being with us today.

Ms. EPHRON: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Nora Ephron is the writer and director of "Julie and Julia," the film based on Julie Powell's book. She joined us today from a studio in New York City.

Tomorrow, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY. Paul Raeburn guest hosts with a conversation about multi-tasking and why it might not be a good thing for your brain or your productivity. Plus, curing genetic disease by swapping DNA in eggs. That's tomorrow's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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