Julia Child was a serious cook who always seemed to be having fun. Whether she was teaching Cordon Bleu cuisine to Americans on her famous TV show, The French Chef, or gallivanting around Provence, France, with her husband Paul, she lived life with gusto. In the days that I lived in Cambridge, MA, we were neighbors for a short time, and I occasionally walked by her on the sidewalk. She was elderly by then but carried heavy bags of fresh groceries easily, her large frame dwarfing mine as we passed each other. I was thrilled by each wordless encounter!
In celebration of Julia Child’s centennial, here are some interesting tidbits worth knowing about the Master Chef.
Wherever you are, Mrs. Child, happy 100th birthday and ‘Bon Appetit!’
Julia Carolyn McWilliams was born on August 15, 1912, into a prosperous family that lived in Pasadena, CA. She traveled east to attend Smith College in MA, graduating with a BA in history. Foreshadowing her culinary career, she chaired the Refreshment Committee for her senior prom.
When the U.S. joined World War II in 1941, Julia left her job in advertising and applied to the U.S. Navy. They turned her down because of her height (6'2"), so she joined the Office of Strategic Services (The OSS, precursor of the CIA), first in Washington and then in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China. She met Paul Cushing Child while in Asia, and they married in 1946. He was ten years her senior and very sophisticated; the couple had a long and happy marriage until his death in 1994.
Julia in her kitchen in 2002. After the war, the Childs moved to Paris, France, where Julia was introduced to the sublime tastes of French food. In her engaging autobiography, My Life in France, she writes of her first French meal—sole meunière—which would change the way she understood food. Eventually she would study under Master Chef Max Bugnard at the renowned Cordon Bleu cooking school while her husband worked for the U.S. Information Agency there. (Cordon Bleu is simply French for Blue Ribbon but sounds much more elegant to American ears.)
While in Paris, Julia met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, her co-authors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, perhaps the most comprehensive French cookbook ever published in the US.
Paul Child contributed to his wife's success through his skill as a photographer. Not only were her cookbooks illustrated by his helpful photos, but he also helped rig cameras for her series that showed techniques from the cook's perspective, which are much more instructive than the traditional audience viewpoint. This revolutionized the way people could learn cooking from a television show.
Promoting her book on Boston public television in the early 60s, Julia turned out to be quite engaging on camera. By 1963 she had her own how-to cooking show. Her exuberant delivery and firm belief that gourmet cooking was within everyone's ability helped turn The French Chef into a long-running hit on PBS.
She had an enormous influence on American cooking, receiving several awards for her television presentations and her numerous books, which brought sophisticated French techniques and an appreciation of fine ingredients to households across the U.S. By 1978, when she was lampooned on Saturday Night Live in an hysterical skit featuring Dan Aykroyd, it was clear she had a much greater cultural impact different than any chef of her generation. The U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom was another clue!
Child lived a long and active life, dying two days before her 92nd birthday in 2004. She ate French onion soup as her last meal. She bequeathed her house in Cambridge to Smith College and her kitchen to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where it is on display in Washington D.C. as a cultural landmark. In the world of film, Child was portrayed by Meryl Streep in the popular flick, Julie and Julia (2009).
Every aspiring cook in an American kitchen and every chef featured on T.V. owe a debt of gratitude to Julia Child. She’s changed the potential for dinner in the 20th century and today.