Julia McWilliams Child

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Julia McWilliams Child

Chef, author, and television personality, Julia McWilliams Child (born 1912) probably did more for French-style food preparation than any other gourmet in history.

Julia Child was born to a well-to-do family in Pasadena, California, on August 15, 1912. Her parents, John and Julia McWilliams, raised Julia, her sister, and her brother in comfort; the family had servants, including a cook, and the children were sent to private schools. The children, all of whom were unusually tall, loved outdoor sports. In 1930 Julia went to Smith College in Massachusetts, where she majored in history. After graduation she took a job as a copywriter for a furniture company in New York City and enjoyed an active social life.

At the outbreak of World War II she joined the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, seeking adventure in exotic locales. After a stint in Washington she was sent abroad as she had wished, but she worked as a file clerk, not as a spy, and her experience was distinctly unglamorous—she traveled on troop ships, slept on cots, and wore army fatigues. While in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1943 she met Paul Cushing Child, a member of a distinguished Boston family. Although his particular branch of the family was not rich, he had traveled widely, pursued several careers, and, at 41, was a sophisticated artist working as a cartographer and as the designer of Lord Mountbatten's headquarters. Although she was ten years younger and several inches taller, the two were immediately attracted to each other. He admired her unaffected manner, and she found his affectionate nature and cosmopolitan outlook irresistible. The romance bloomed when both were assigned to China, and it was while there that Child, a noted gourmet, introduced her to cooking.

Although they were in love, Julia and Paul were reluctant to commit to a permanent relationship during wartime. After the war she returned to California, where her conservative Republican father was unenthusiastic about her new beau, who was artistic and a Democrat. She was undeterred, however, and she began to study cooking at a school in Beverly Hills. On September 1, 1946, Julia and Paul were married, and the couple moved to Washington, D.C., where he had taken a position with the Foreign Service.

In 1948 her husband was posted to Paris. Child quickly came to appreciate the French way of life, especially French food. She decided she wanted to learn the intricacies of French cooking and, after studying French at the Berlitz School, enrolled at the famous Cordon Bleu. She made many friends who also were interested in French cuisine, and with two of these, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, she formed a cooking school called L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes (School of the Three Gourmets).

With Simone Beck, Child began working on a cookbook based on their cooking school experiences, and she continued her writing while she followed her husband on several postings throughout Europe. He retired in 1961, and the Childs settled in a large house with a well-equipped kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The year 1961 was a landmark year for the Childs. In addition to her husband's retirement and a major move, Child's book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published. The book, noted for the clarity and completeness of its instructions, its attention to detail and explanation, and its many useful photographs, was an immediate critical and popular success. Child was hailed as an expert and her views and advice were much sought after. She began writing articles on cooking for House and Garden and HouseBeautiful and also had a regular cooking column in the Boston Globe.

In 1963, after an enjoyable appearance on a television panel show in Boston, Child expanded her efforts in television with a weekly 30-minute cooking program, "The French Chef." This proved even more successful than her book: with her admittedly eccentric style, good humor, knowledge, and teaching flair, she became a popular cult figure. Her work was recognized with a Peabody Award in 1965 and an Emmy Award in 1966.

The French Chef Cookbook, a cookbook based on the television series, was published in 1968. Additional television shows, notably "Julia Child and Company" (1978-1979), "Julia Child and More Company" (1980), and "Dinner at Julia's" (1983), were accompanied by well-received cookbooks, and in the 1970s and 1980s Child wrote regular columns for McCalls and Parade magazines and made frequent appearances on "Good Morning America" on ABC. In addition, she was a founder of the American Institute of Wine and Food, an association of restaurants dedicated to the advancement of knowledge about food and wine. In 1989 The Way to Cook, a lengthy cookbook dealing with both basic and advanced subjects, was published, and at age 77 Child happily undertook an extended tour to promote it. She recognized the need for advertisement and frankly enjoyed the attention: "You've got to go out and sell it," she declared. "No sense spending all that time—five years on this one—and hiding your light under a bushel…. Besides, I'm a ham."

Late in 1989 her husband suffered a stroke and had to be moved to a nursing home near Cambridge. She visited daily and called frequently, but found life without her constant companion lonely. Accordingly, she kept busy with a regular exercise routine, lecturing, writing, and working on television programs. She even provided a cartoon voice for a children's video. In 1992 her television show, "Cooking with the Master Chefs," was produced and in 1993 the accompanying cookbook was published. In August 1992, 170 guests paid $100 or more to attend her 80th birthday party (proceeds to the American Institute of Food and Wine). And her place as a gastronomic icon was assured when she became the first woman to be inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame in October 1993.

Child lost her lifelong friend and career partner when her husband died in 1994. Not long after that she was quoted as saying that she had nothing left to write. Nonetheless the years 1995 and 1996 each brought a new book and TV series combination from the indefatigable Child: In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs (1995), and Baking with Julia (1996). In 1997 she celebrated her 85th birthday, once again with a fund raiser for the American Institute of Food and Wine. This one-woman dynamo continues to host an annual luxury tour to Italy for food buffs

Although a staunch advocate of classic French cuisine, Child in the course of her career modified her approach to cookery to reflect contemporary needs and trends, such as developing a repertoire requiring less fat, red meat, and time. Above all, she supported a sensible approach to eating characterized by moderation and including all types of food. She rejected what she called "food fads," which she held responsible for widespread unhealthy attitudes toward eating in the United States. In her work she endeavored consistently and successfully to enhance the public's awareness and appreciation of, and need for, wholesome, skillfully prepared food.

Further Reading

The best single source of biographical information on Julia Child is contained in Mary Ellen Snodgrass' Late Achievers: Famous People Who Succeeded Late in Life (1992). Snodgrass' chapter on Julia Child is well-balanced and well-researched. A brief, breezily-written and appreciative sketch of Julia Child and her career is contained in Gregory Jaynes' "A Holiday Bird and a Free-Range Chat with Julia" (LIFE, December 1989). For a glimpse of the Childs at home, see Charles Grandee, "Grandee at Large: Julia Child—Still Cooking at 76," in House and Garden (June 1989). Julia's relationship with Paul Child is explored in Roberta Wallace Coffey's "Julia and Paul Child" (McCalls, October 1988), which also contains interesting information on Paul's background and career. In an interview, "Eat, Drink, and Be Sensible" (Newsweek, May 27, 1991), Julia Child explains her views on food and the goals of her career.

Additional Sources

Entertainment Weekly, December 10, 1993.

Town & Country Monthly, December 1994.

The Wine Spectator June 30, 1997.

Forbes, May 5, 1997. □

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