Why You Should Avoid Julia Child’s Killer 1970s Bread Recipe

A loaf of home-baked bread sits atop parchment paper on a regular baking stone, all on the middle rack of a consumer-grade oven. This setup demonstrates an expert-recommended breadmaking method using a regular baking stone, not anything made of asbestos.

Julia Child authored or co-authored hundreds of beloved recipes. But one of them stands out for its hazards more than its taste. Child’s baguette recipe, published in 1970, recommended baking the bread on an asbestos floor tile. Unfortunately, asbestos causes malignant mesothelioma cancer.

At the time of publication, Child was unaware of the dangers of asbestos exposure. When she found out the tiles were hazardous, she found an alternative baking surface. The second printing of her recipe recommended standard red floor tiles. In the meantime, bakers who followed the original recipe may have put themselves at risk of developing mesothelioma.

Malignant mesothelioma cancer develops in the tissues lining certain body parts. It carries a life expectancy of about 18 to 31 months with treatment.

Julia Child’s Recommended Asbestos Tile Might Cause Mesothelioma

No known evidence ties this baking technique to any documented cases of mesothelioma. But experts say inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers can cause this rare cancer. As such, Child’s recommendation may have inadvertently put bakers at risk of mesothelioma.

Bakers who cooked on asbestos tiles may have encountered the mineral in several ways:

  • Breathing in asbestos fibers picked up by steam from the oven
  • Ingesting fibers stuck to the bread’s outer crust
  • Handling the tile to get it into and out of the oven

The period of time between asbestos exposure and the onset of illness is called the latency period. The median latency period for all types of mesothelioma is 32 to 34 years. But it is possible to have a latency period of more than 70 years.

These situations may have allowed bakers to inhale or ingest the mineral unknowingly. People who ate the bread or helped with cleanup might also have been exposed. Once inside the body, asbestos fibers can take years to cause symptoms. Mesothelioma generally takes 10 to 50 years to develop, but asbestos can also cause other conditions.

For instance, asbestosis is a chronic condition in which asbestos fibers cause lung scarring. This scarring can make it difficult to breathe. Asbestosis can take 15 years or more to develop after asbestos exposure.

As of 2022, it has been about 52 years since Child’s original recipe was published. This means bakers who followed it may yet develop mesothelioma or other asbestos cancers.

Cancers Caused by Asbestos Exposure

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer develops directly in the lung tissue. Experts estimate asbestos causes about 4% of lung cancer cases in the United States.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Peritoneal mesothelioma develops in the lining of the abdomen (the peritoneum). It is the second-most common form of mesothelioma.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma develops in the lining around the lungs (the pleura). It is the most common form of mesothelioma.

How Did Asbestos Tile Sneak Into Julia Child’s Baguette Recipe?

Julia Child originally suggested baking bread on asbestos as a simple way for home bakers to get professional results. The recommendation fell in line with her work sharing fine cuisine with home cooks. But the asbestos tile did not land in Child’s baguette recipe on a lark.

Julia Child co-wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking with her friends and husband Paul Child. The team spent almost a year and nearly 300 pounds of flour developing their baguette recipe. The recipe emphasized the importance of creating a baker’s oven at home. The at-home baker’s oven had a couple of important characteristics:

  • A hot baking surface
  • Steam

The team determined fire resistant asbestos tiles provided an ideal baking surface. Dropping a hot brick in a pan of water created the steam necessary for a fine baker’s oven.

Although the bread turned out perfect, the recipe was ultimately changed. Depending on which report you read, Julia’s editor or her niece heard asbestos could cause cancer. After learning this fact, the team knew they could no longer recommend baking on asbestos tiles.

Paul Child reportedly worked in a frenzy trying to find a suitable replacement. The second printing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking suggested baking on a plain red tile.

Asbestos Can Lurk in Unexpected Places

Julia Child and her asbestos baking tile highlight a difficult truth. Asbestos and its dangers can pop up in surprising places. Most asbestos products are no longer sold in this country, but some are. For example, car parts like brakes and clutches may contain asbestos. Some older homes may also hide asbestos building materials.

People can help protect themselves by learning where asbestos products may still be hiding. As for baking bread, experts say a regular pizza stone will get the job done.