Did Julia Child Really Bake Bread Using Asbestos?

In the latest episode of HBO's "Julia," the uncertainty around Julia Child's new show "The French Chef" is gone. The program has been syndicated across the country, and audiences are clamoring for more episodes. She's so in-demand, in fact, that tension has begun brewing between Child and her friends. Work on "Mastering The Art Of French Cooking: Volume Two" is ongoing, and Child is determined to include a primer for making authentic French breads at home — something her co-author Simone Beck tells her is impossible. Because she was needed on the set of "The French Chef," she tasks her husband Paul Child and editor Judith Jones with the grueling task of researching and testing bread recipes. 

The scenes of Paul and Jones in the Child's Cambridge, Massachusetts kitchen (set to songs from the musical "My Fair Lady") are truly funny. With all the windows shut on the hottest day in August to recreate bakery conditions, they test dozens of methods to inject heat and steam into the oven — crucial components that give baguettes their signature texture and crust. After endless failures and deformed loaves, the duo finally achieves their perfect loaf. That night, they toast to the key to their success at a celebratory dinner: an asbestos floor tile. Yes, asbestos! 

Why asbestos seemed ideal for baguettes

In "Mastering The Art Of French Cooking: Volume Two," Julia Child writes that there are several components home bakers need to make authentic French baguettes: The right flour, proper kneading, slashing the dough, and creating a "simulated baker's oven," which includes a hot baking surface and steam. To create the steam, she instructs readers to place a hot brick into a "pan of water in the bottom of the oven." An asbestos tile seemed like best option for the hot baking surface at the time.

Asbestos is a fibrous, fire-proof mineral that's been widely used for millennia in everything from clothing to weapons to car parts. Scientists discovered in the early twentieth century that asbestos exposure causes cancer. However, Child can be forgiven for putting it to use in her kitchen; at the time, the danger was unknown to the public at large. Asbestos was used to make home building materials through most of the century — like the cement-asbestos floor tiles that Paul Child tests for baking French bread in "Julia." Because the tile could get very hot in the oven without cracking, it seemed like the perfect surface to give, as Child writes, "that added push of volume" to the loaves. 

Asbestos was even recommended in Julia Child's cookbook

In her biography "My Life In France," Julia Child writes that in 1970, the second volume of "Mastering The Art Of French Cooking" had just published, which suggested using an asbestos tile for baking French bread. Child was also planning to demonstrate baking with the tiles on her show, "The French Chef." Editor Judith Jones was at a dinner party in New York when she overheard a doctor discussing his research into cancer caused by asbestos, and immediately realized they had a problem. Jones made several inquiries, and though it was difficult to get a definitive answer at the time, she and Child decided they couldn't recommend the asbestos tiles any longer. 

Child writes that she and Paul spent an entire week testing other kinds of tiles. (This sounds like the inspiration for the bread testing scenes in "Julia.") They settled on "ordinary red floor tiles." Instead of specifically asking her audience to avoid asbestos, Child simply directed them to use the red tiles. Knopf, her cookbook publisher, took a similarly subtle approach with subsequent printings of "Mastering," changing the recommendation in the French Bread section from asbestos to red floor tiles. (Some remnants remain in the book, however — one heading reads "For sliding the dough onto hot asbestos.")

Fortunately, home bakers today have an easy-to-find and safe choice for baking homemade baguettes: King Arthur Baking says a pizza stone will work beautifully.