The Life & Legacy of Julia Child

Image from PBS

The following is from a college paper I wrote for a hospitality course in September 2009. It only seems fitting that I post it today to celebrate Julia’s 100th birthday.

The Life & Legacy of Julia Child

Regarded as one of America’s most well known chefs, Julia Child cooked her way into the hearts and television sets of families across the country. In an era of frozen microwavable dinners, her fearless approach to cooking made fancy French cuisine accessible to the “serventless American cooks” and introduced us to butter, cream, bone marrow, and proper cooking techniques (Beck, Bertholle & Child, 1961). However, Julia was not born a natural epicurean; nor did her passion for food start until much later in life (Shapiro, 2007, p.1).

Born Julia Carolyn McWilliams on August 15, 1912, she was the oldest of three children living in Pasadena, California. The first born of Caro and John McWilliams Jr., little Julia grew up on State Street before moving to a larger house on South Euclid Avenue. She lived with both her parents and grandparents for several years before her brother, John McWilliams III, was born in the fall of 1914. At the age of five, Julia’s younger sister Dorothy entered the world.

Growing up, Julia was raised in a society rich with county clubs, tennis, golf, horseback riding, money and sophistication. The McWilliams had hired cooks who prepared most of the meals served at Sunday dinners. Traditional meat and potatoes were served all too frequently at most family meals, while fresh vegetables were picked from their garden. However, Julia felt that the kitchen was a dismal place, and kept her distance and let the hired cooks do their job; yet she always had an appetite for good food. She received an Ivy League education in 1934 from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts before moving to New York City for several years working in advertising. In 1941, Julia took up a volunteer position and moved to Washington D.C. to be a research assistant for a new intelligence agency, the OSS, which would later become the Central Intelligence Agency. It was 1945 when she was sent on assignment to the Far East that would change her life.

While Julia was on assignment in Kunming, China playing a key role in the communication efforts for the Office of Strategic Services, she met an urbane, sophisticated, multilingual Paul Child, also a fellow OSS employee. At forty three years old, he was not only ten years older than her, but a whole four inches shorter. Being from California, Julia had never met someone such as Paul; he was unlike any man she had ever met. He had no religion, few family connections, was an artist, an intellectual, fluent in French and a worldly man. Julia was raised by her Presbyterian father who was a business man and did not see much of the world. Julia and Paul quickly found out that they had very little in common; yet she longed to see the world and Paul was willing to show her.

Julia and Paul developed a “sweet friendship” and continued to learn about each other (Fitch, 1997, p.5). Paul had a twin brother, Charles, living in Pennsylvania while Julia’s siblings and father were in Pasadena. As Julia and Paul grew closer, they both discovered that they had a shared love for good food, drink, and laughter. Paul had traveled the world and spent some time living in Paris, yet Julia had only dreamed of traveling. Julia had grown up surrounded by food in her home, while Paul had dined at some of the best cafes and bistros in all of France. Their passion for food was more than enough to bring these two lovers closer together, and soon Julia began to cook to please her “Paulski.” As World War II ended, Paul and Julia returned to the States and married on September 1, 1946 in New Jersey (Fitch, 1997, p.143).

Not long after their wedding, Paul was reassigned to the American Embassy in Paris, so they packed their belongings and their 1947 steel-blue Buick and boarded a ship on October 27, 1948 to France (Fitch, 1997, p.152). Renting an apartment on rue de l’Universite, Paul introduced Julia to the sights, sounds, and smells of the Paris that he had not experienced since leaving eighteen years ago. Julia and Paul shared many meals together, and he was always impressed by how much food his bride could “put away;” more than anyone Paul had ever met (Powell, 2009, p.48). While Paul was at work, Julia took up various hobbies, but was never as happy as when she was sharing a meal with her beloved husband. It was Paul who inspired Julia to take up cooking, so she learned to cook the food that her husband valued and enjoyed, while using fresh ingredients and focusing on taste and texture as opposed to speed and ease of preparation (Powell, 2009, p.217). Julia’s guide to such dishes was her 1943 edition of The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer (Fitch, 1997, p.148). However, Child had some trouble with the directions and instructions; thus some of her early dishes did not turn out as planned (Fitch, 1997, p.149). Though she had not mastered the recipes in The Joy of Cooking, Julia continued to cook and entertain.

After several enthusiastic suggestions that the expatriate foodie enroll in the Cordon Bleu Cooking School, Julia Child entered the building at 129 rue du Fauboug St.-Honore. The date was Thursday October 6, 1949. She enrolled in a class strictly for professionals; there were eleven ex-GIs and a six foot-two inch Julia (Fitch, 1997, p.175). She was thirty seven years old (Powell, 2009, p.305).

Julia’s course at the Cordon Bleu lasted ten months and after each day of cooking, she would rush home to cook for her husband who would be arriving from work to greet her. It was her enthusiasm and passion that made learning to cook fun for Julia and she was eager to show off the new skills she was learning in class. Cooking became a way to express herself and it was this act of preparing a meal that brought friends together for conversation, good wine, and wonderful food. However, Julia ended her studies at Cordon Bleu early, stating that she “had learned what she could” and that “the recipes were getting repetitive (Fitch, 1997, p.181).” Yet it took more than a year before Julia received a signed diploma from Madame Brassart, the head of the Cordon Bleu Cooking School, after pleading to take the written examination (Fitch, 1997, p.182).

After Cooking School, Julia met two other women, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who had written a “little French cookbook” for an American audience (Fitch, 1997, p.188). These three Gourmettes, as they were called, began a cooking school of their own in January 1952 named L’Ecole des Trios Gourmandes (Fitch, 1997, p.189). They gave their first class in Julia’s kitchen to three American women, and they met twice a week from January thru May (Fitch, 1997, p.195). It was through all the preparation and writing out recipes that the trio began to formulate a plan to produce a cookbook that made French cooking accessible to the Americans who were cooking chicken pot pie, corned beef hash, Jell-O, carrot-raisin slaw, and macaroni and cheese.

According to Paul, “it was Louisette who had the initial idea to teach American’s how to cook French food, and it was she who had the best social contacts;” yet she did not express the same desire “for professional success” that Julia and Simone exuded (Fitch, 1997, p.192). However, it was Louisette who introduced Julia to Irma Rombauer, the author of Julia’s first cookbook as a bride. Rombauer had just revised The Joy of Cooking with her daughter and it was aimed at the middle class housewife, thus any “fancy” or fussy recipes had been deleted, much to Julia’s dismay (Fitch, 1997, p.195). Julia had developed a deep love for French food and for two of her heros–Georges-Auguste Escoffier and Marie Antoine Carême, the founders of traditional French cuisine. This love for food and an admiration of her heros led her to continue work on what would become a cookbook unlike anything ever seen before. Mastering the Art of French Cooking would change the history of food and cooking forever, and would launch Julia Child’s career as the first celebrity chef.

Published by Alfred A. Knopf in October 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a ten year collaboration between Julia, Simone, and Louisette that made French cooking less intimidating for the typical home cook (Child & Prud’homme, 2006, p.229). The 524 recipes included in their first volume were written to incorporate traditional kitchen equipment such as a food mill or garlic press; gadgets never thought to be used in classic French recipes. The other innovation which set their cookbook apart from all others; writing directions for cooking some dishes ahead of time. By informing readers on when to stop in the recipe and how to reheat, Julia proved that you did not need a live-in maid or cook to prepare such cuisine. Being both the perfect cook and hostess now seemed possible.

With the instant success brought on by a best selling cookbook, the three women suddenly became household names. However, it was Julia Child who would become even more popular. At the age of forty nine, Child became a published author and a new career was born. Making live appearances at Bloomingdale’s and the Today show with John Chancellor, a “rave review” in the New York Times by food editor Craig Claiborne, and traveling to Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco and back to New York City; Julia and Simone helped the cookbook become a landmark in food history (Fitch, 1997, p.276).

Living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Julia and Paul had hopes of settling down after years of working for the government and testing hundreds of recipes. Yet it was an invitation to appear on a Boston educational program that caught Julia’s attention and gave her a chance to pitch the cookbook to the Boston audience. The response to Albert Duhamel’s interview was so great that the local television station, WBGH-TV, scheduled three pilot programs to feature Julia cooking. On June 18, 1962 Julia Child filmed her first television pilot of The French Chef, where she taught the art of the French Omelet, and is where she added the last two words, bon appétit, that would become her signature sign-off (Fitch, 1997, p.279). After filming three pilots of The French Chef, the Boston public had found a woman who could demystify French cooking similar to that being served to the Kennedy family in the White House. Julia and Paul worked harder and longer on the television pilots than they thought they ever would, but Julia’s love of teaching was what drove her to work harder. The black and white television series ran a total of 119 programs, with each episode lasting 28 minutes and 52 seconds (Fitch, 1997, p.287). Julia was fifty years old when she launched her television career (Shapiro, 2007, p.8).

On the first episode, which aired February 11, 1963, Julia demonstrated how to properly and confidently prepare Boeuf bourguignon and French Onion soup (Child, 1963). What made Julia’s television program so successful was the simple display of courage that she oozed; she made the viewer feel as if they too could prepare such cuisine. Two other factors that made the series so progressive: it was filmed in “real time,” so there was no stopping; and that Julia showed the finished product off at the end of the show, sampling the dish with a glass of wine at a dining room table (Child, 1963). Besides being one of the first shows on television about the art of cooking, it was these factors which made The French Chef so popular.

Yet it was her on-air mistakes that made America fall in love with the tall, red headed cook with a strange voice. Anything that did not come out of her mouth correctly made her all the more human and lovable. Her recovery from any kitchen disaster only added to the effectiveness of her teaching and also made for several humorous television moments that kept her audience tuning in every week. Instead of resorting to frozen or canned foods, Julia Child insisted that fresh ingredients be used whenever possible. In an era of TV dinners, Tang, Spam, and Shake n’ Bake, she made it her mission to change the way America viewed cooking and eating (Fitch, 1997, p.301). For her television show, The French Chef, Julia received a Peabody Award in 1965 and an Emmy Award in 1966 (Mellowes, n.d.). She also wrote an accompanying book, The French Chef Cookbook, published in 1963 which recounted all 119 episodes with all the recipes printed in the order in which they were aired (Child, 1963, p.vii).

With the release of volume two of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1970, written by Julia Child and Simone Beck, Julia began filming again for The French Chef; but this time the show was filmed in color. She continued to teach and educate her audience about the importance of good cooking and proper techniques. “At the heart of every one of her television programs was a lesson — sometimes spoken outright and sometimes simply clear from the way she worked — about how to approach any task in the kitchen (Shapiro, 2007, p.xviii).” The 72 episodes filmed over the next three years would further enlighten her audience, and taught that French cooking did not need to be complicated; the techniques were more important and would be useful no matter what was being prepared (Child, 1975). And Child remained only on education stations, in syndication on 134 stations nationwide, despite commercial television’s continued competing for her talent (Child, 1975). She refused to be bought (Mellowes, n.d.). This set her apart from any other, and still makes Julia Child stand out among contemporary celebrity chefs or television personalities.

Meanwhile, Julia’s faithful and supportive husband had suffered chest pains, surgery and several strokes. Julia’s manager, photographer, recipe tester, proof-reader, lover, critic, and biggest fan was suddenly unable to support his wife’s career. Julia’s focus became supporting Paul in his struggle for survival. Yet this personal crisis did not stop Julia from continuing to teach and educate others about the passion she had for wonderful food.

By this time, the food world was changing and classic French cuisine had become “quaint” (Mellowes, n.d.). With a new generation of younger chefs, Julia began to promote the profession of cooking, and chefs began to receive the proper recognition they deserved. She also shed the proverbial “French straight jacket” and changed with the times (Mellowes, n.d.). In the late 1970s, Julia Child & Company and Julia Child & More Company were aired portraying Julia as the glamorous hostess. With 13 episodes each, these two series aimed to change the way the public viewed the sixty seven year old cook, but most found it disappointing. Julia continued to reinvent herself with a new cookbook, The Way to Cook, published in October 1989accompanied by a home video series (Mellowes, n.d.).

And if that wasn’t enough, Julia starred in four other television series that spanned 9 years and 94 episodes, with each series accompanied by a companion cookbook (Mellowes, n.d.). Yet Paul Child had grown too ill to celebrate his wife’s accomplishments. On the eve of May 12, 1994, Julia’s biggest fan passed away in his nursing home. While Julia continued to be an advocate of the art of cooking, her health also began to decline. Yet it was her later years of life that also brought her great honor and joy.

For her contribution to food and cooking in America, Julia Child received an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University at eighty years old and became the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame the following year. In 2000, France bestowed Child with the Legion d’Honneur, their highest honor, for her forty year career that made her name synonymous with fine food (A&E, 2009). She was also honored at the James Beard Awards for one of her many book and video series, In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chef’s (Heyhoe, 1996). In August 2002, the Smithsonian Institute unveiled her Cambridge kitchen which was custom built for the six foot-two inch Julia. It is that very kitchen “where she chopped, stirred, and sauteed for forty years” which “proudly proclaims a culinary revolution that transformed the way Americans cook, eat and thank about food (Mellowes, n.d.).”

On August 13, 2004, just two days before her 92nd birthday, Julia Child died of kidney failure at her assisted-living home in California. This American icon who had found her calling late in life became the face of French cooking. She taught us how to chop, julienne, truss a chicken for roasting, make the perfect omelet, bone a duck, and that you “must have the courage of your convictions (Barr, 2007, p.85).” Through it all, Julia Child guided the nation away from convenience cooking and showed us all that there is an art to cooking, and that we should, “above all, have a good time (Beck, Bertholle & Child, 1961).”

Now in it’s forty eighth year, Mastering the Art of French Cooking continues to be a guide to the “servantless American cooks who can be unconcerned with budget, 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 (Beck, Bertholle & Child, 1961).”

For all this and more, we are forever grateful to Julia Child and her legacy.

Long may her soufflés rise.

References

A&E Television Networks (2009). Julia Child Biography. Retrieved August 20, 2009 from <http://www.biography.com/articles/Julia-Child-9246767?part=0>

Barr, Nancy Verde (2007). Backstage with Julia: My Years with Julia Child. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Beck, S., Bertholle, L., & Child, J. (1961). Foreword. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Volume I. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Child, Julia (1963). The French Chef Cookbook. New York: Ballantine Books.

Child, Julia (1975). From Julia Child’s Kitchen. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Child, Julia & Prud’homme, Alex (2006). My Life in France. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Fitch, Noel Riley (1997). Appetite For Life: The Biography of Julia Child. New York: Doubleday.

Heyhoe, Katie (1996). Julia Child: Tipping Our Toques to the True Master. Retrieved August 21, 2009 from <http://www.globalgourmet.com/food/egg/egg0696/julia.html>

Mellowes, Marilyn (n.d.). Julia Child: American Masters on PBS. Retrieved August 19, 2009 from <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/child_j.html>

Powell, Julie (2009). Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. New York: Back Bay Books.

Shapiro, Laura (2007). Julia Child. New York: The Penguin Group.

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