Julia Child has been beloved by home cooks for decades. She’s particularly well-known for her meticulous recipes for French classics, like this coq au vin.
It surprised everyone, then, when Julia decided to showcase a lasagna on her show, The French Chef. Rather than the carefully translated recipes cooks had come to expect, Julia dissed the classic Italian dish. After the episode aired, Italian-Americans sent her scathing letters, offended by everything from her lack of familiarity with lasagna to her bizarre ingredient choices. Here’s the scoop on this culinary scandale.
For Italian purists, lasagna is an occasion. The layered pasta dish is a labor of love to create, from mixing and rolling homemade noodles to making sauce from scratch to carefully layering the meat, cheese and noodles. It’s a special occasion dish that, done right, is a true showstopper.
Rather than sharing the pride and joy of Italian cookery with her viewers, Julia declared that lasagna was “a great way to use up leftovers,” and proceeded to prepare what she called Lasagne a la Francaise. During the half-hour show, she called lasagna “peasant food,” used canned tomatoes and a generic “Italian seasoning” mix in her sauce, and—sacrilege!—forgot to add garlic.
To top it off, she admitted that she didn’t know exactly how lasagna should be assembled. Then, she started layering, and things got really weird.
Julia Child’s Unusual Lasagna Recipe
To appreciate the oddness of Julia’s lasagna, it’s worth going layer by layer:
In addition to her homemade tomato sauce, she made a white sauce with wine and onion—so far, so good.
She boiled boxed pasta noodles to al dente—again, right on track.
Here’s where things take a turn. As Julia layered the noodles into the pan, she admitted that she wasn’t sure how Italian cooks did it. Uh-oh. The ratio of noodle to sauce to meat is important, lest cooks end up with dry, sauce-less bites or sodden, over-stuffed pockets.
As she layered, she added “yesterday’s roast, be it poultry, veal or pork.” Diced, cubed or ground? No matter! Other leftovers, she advised, could be tossed in as well. Cooked spinach? Go ahead! Poached eggs? Sure. Mushrooms? Just fine.
In between emptying her crisper drawer onto the sheets of pasta, Julia also managed to slather on cottage cheese.
Shockingly, Julia’s recipe also called for saffron threats and dried orange peel, a Mediterranean twist that veers closer to Morocco than Italy. (Nothin’ wrong with that, maybe, but it’s far from authentic.) Curious? Watch the full episode here.
It’s understandable that Italian-American cooks were upset by the recipe. At the time, many Americans might not have heard of lasagna, and Julia Child’s introduction was probably not ideal.
Today, home cooks are more familiar with a diverse array of cuisines, and recipes are more casual, simplifying complicated processes to suit a hectic lifestyle. Even Taste of Home is guilty of besmirching the classic: our most popular lasagna recipes include versions with buffalo chicken, Mexican spices and even lasagna made with ravioli.
It’s also fair to note that, even as Julia Child’s cookbooks contain precise renderings of time-honored dishes, her TV show revealed a confident, casual cook who might forget the garlic or add too much cottage cheese, but who soldiered on without apologizing. Now that’s a model worth following.