Born in 1907, Ginette Mathiot was not destined to be a writer, far from it. Despite her excellent results in high-school, her ambitions to study medicine were rapidly thwarted. "I had the bad luck to be a girl in a family where everything was reserved for a boy, the boy who was studying law", she said in an interview to Le Monde shortly before she died.
She then decided to pursue one of the few acceptable careers for girls at the time, and went on teaching domestic science at the university in the early 30s. This is at that time that she was contacted by one of the famous French editors of the time, Albin Michel.
Albin Michel was looking for the book that would bring a new success to help his publishing company go through the depression. Fascinated by the new advances in domestic science, and especially nutrition, he thought a recipe book including these new principles could be the success he was looking for.
After proposing the book to several experts in domestic science, who all refused, Albin Michel finally got to 23-year-old Ginette Mathiot, who accepted to take on the project with a colleague. Rigorously, methodically, Ginette started testing and writing many classic French recipes, although her rigid family education was still making her feel desperate. "Seven times I have had marriage proposals, but each time the veto of my family was implacable. (...) If people who use my book only imagined how many tears of love I have dropped on the on my recipe notes!" she said to Le Monde journalist.
A few months later Ginette Mathiot is back in the publisher's office with a manuscript. Her parents do not believe the book will be a success, therefore she decides to abandon her copyright in exchange of 8,000 francs to be shared with her colleague, who did not contribute to the book.
Fast forward 78 years. At the time she died, the book had sold about 5 million copies. Reason of the success – which still apply to today:
- Showing that it is possible to learn. I know how to cook was actually quite a defiant title for a book written by a woman, in the male-dominated gastronomy culture.
- Showing nutritious dishes while keeping the cost down
- Clarity and precision in the recipes, down to the "take out the cake, turn off the oven."
I know how to cook is still edited and available in English.