Child, Julia Carolyn

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Child, Julia Carolyn

(b. 15 August 1912 in Pasadena, California; d. 13 August 2004 in Santa Barbara, California), best-selling cookbook author and television personality.

Child grew up in Pasadena, the eldest of the three children of John McWilliams and Julia Carolyn (Weston) McWilliams. Her father was a prosperous landowner. Her mother, a homemaker, was a lively and sociable graduate of Smith College who, according to family lore, enrolled her daughter at Smith the day Child was born. Child attended Polytechnic School in Pasadena and Katharine Branson School in Ross, California. She then graduated from Smith with a BA in 1934, tried her hand at advertising and journalism, and finally settled on volunteer work. During World War II she joined the Office of Strategic Services and spent 1944 and 1945 at its headquarters in Kandy, Ceylon (later Sri Lanka), and Kunming, China. In both posts Child took charge of the registry, in which streams of personnel and intelligence data were processed and filed.

Soon after arriving in Kandy, Julia met Paul Child (1902–1994), the head of the presentation division at the Office of Strategic Services headquarters and an artist, teacher, poet, and black-belt martial artist. He was also a knowledgeable food lover. In Paul Child’s company she found herself tasting and discussing food seriously for the first time. After the war, hoping to marry Paul, she went home and tried to learn to cook, but the results were mixed. Julia had the palate but not the instincts, and there seemed to be no teacher or cookbook that could save her from the chicken that burned black or the duck that exploded in the oven. Paul married her anyway, on 1 September 1946. He became a full partner in Child’s career—adviser, photographer, dishwasher—and she credited her success to his inspiration and support. The couple had no children.

The Childs spent their first two years together in Washington, D.C., where Paul worked for the United States Information Agency. In November 1948 Paul Child took up his first overseas post, at the American Embassy in Paris. Child was quickly enraptured by Paris—the streets and markets, the people, the language, and the most delicious food she had ever tasted. In the fall of 1949 she started taking cooking lessons at Le Cordon Bleu, where her mentor was the chef Max Bugnard, an elderly master who had been an apprentice to the great chef Georges Auguste Escoffier.

In the traditional, hands-on classes at Le Cordon Bleu, cooking finally began to make sense to Child. She discovered that French cooking was based on rules, not ineffable mysteries. There was a system of themes and variations in which basic procedures, once mastered, could be taken in many directions. She learned what could go wrong and how to fix it, and she learned to engage her senses of touch, sight, smell, and taste as she worked her way from raw ingredients to finished dish. Such skills and habits had been falling away from the American kitchen for years as the values of the burgeoning food industry permeated domestic culture and put efficiency and sanitation at the center of cookery. Six months after entering Le Cordon Bleu, Child left with a very French passion for food and a very American desire to spread the gospel.

In January 1952 Child and two French friends, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, opened a tiny cooking school for Americans. The school, called L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes, was located in Child’s kitchen. At about this time Child was also examining a manuscript on which the other two women had been working—a French cookbook for Americans. Child tested a few recipes, found them vague, and in conjunction with her friends reconceived the entire project. They decided the book should make traditional French cooking accessible to Americans by guiding them step by step through every procedure. Only ingredients available in American supermarkets would be used, and every recipe would have to work perfectly and taste authentically French before the authors would sign off on it. Bertholle eventually lost interest in the work, but for nine years Child and Beck cooked and argued their way through dishes such as quenelles, pâté brisée, and cassoulet. They corresponded avidly as Paul Child was transferred to Marseille, France (1953); Bonn, Germany (1954); back to Washington (1956); and finally to Oslo, Norway (1959).

Beck, Bertholle, and Child had a longstanding contract with Houghton Mifflin Company, but to their disappointment the company rejected the manuscript on the grounds that the recipes were far too challenging for American home cooks. Editors at Alfred A. Knopf, in contrast, saw the book as revolutionary and believed there was a market for it. Knopf published Mastering the Art of French Cooking in October 1961, just as the Childs were settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after Paul Child’s retirement. Reviewers greeted the book as a masterpiece, but it was home cooks, thrilled to find themselves turning out excellent French food, who made it a classic.

In January 1962 the host of a book review program on Boston’s fledgling public television station, WGBH, invited Child to appear on the show. Child brought eggs and a hot plate and prepared an omelet, exhibiting such ease and good humor that the station executives asked her to develop a proposal for a series on French cooking. Three pilot programs were aired in the summer of 1962, prompting a spurt of delighted fan mail. The French Chef (1962–1973) was launched and made Child one of the most famous and beloved figures in twentieth-century television.

Fifty years old and six feet, two inches tall with a breathy, gasping voice never meant for public speaking, Child was an unlikely candidate for television stardom. She turned out to have a genius for the medium. By nature buoyant, witty, and unpretentious, Child projected her personality effortlessly into people’s living rooms. Just as important, she and the program staff figured out how to break each recipe into precisely timed steps so they would appear clear and coherent on screen. Child’s approach, professional yet disarming, persuaded viewers that they, too, could stuff a turkey with homemade pâté, bake brioche, and make perfect hollandaise. For budgetary reasons the shows had to be videotaped without stopping for retakes. When mishaps occurred—a potato pancake that flipped out of the pan, a disintegrating apple tart—Child adroitly changed course and showed how to repair the damage. These near-disasters became legendary.

Many people watched The French Chef for its sheer entertainment value, but a constituency of ambitious home cooks had been growing throughout the postwar years. Despite the increasing popularity of packaged foods and quick recipes, most homemakers still made dinner largely from scratch, and an affluent middle class was eagerly investigating wine, Camembert, and other emblems of sophistication. Recipes for quiche and coq au vin had been circulating well before Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published. By virtue of her telegenic personality and peerless teaching, Child seized the public’s imagination and became the focal point of this nascent gastronomic movement.

From 1963 to 2000 Child was on television, in new programs and repeats, almost without interruption. WGBH produced 209 episodes of The French Chef. Child then changed formats and developed a series called Julia Child and Company (1978), which was followed by Julia Child and More Company (1979). Each series was accompanied by a cookbook of the same name. These shows were far more polished than The French Chef. The budget was more generous and the technology more advanced. In 1983 an even splashier program was unveiled: Dinner at Julia’s (1983–1984) featured elaborate parties staged at an estate in Santa Barbara with Child sporting dressy outfits and much of the cooking done by guest chefs. This series generated Child’s first negative reviews. Many people found the atmosphere silly and artificial. The next four series were more successful, although Child, in her eighties, increasingly turned the cooking over to others: Cooking with Master Chefs (1992), In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs (1995), Baking with Julia (1996), and Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home (1999–2000) with the chef Jacques Pepin. Each series had a companion cookbook. Child’s last production was a retrospective titled Julia Child’s Kitchen Wisdom (2000). Child also appeared regularly on the daily television news magazine Good Morning America, took part in several television specials, and hugely enjoyed a Julia Child spoof by Dan Ackroyd in a 1978 episode of Saturday Night Live.

All of Child’s cookbooks sold well, but Child said her favorite was From Julia Child’s Kitchen (1975), because it was the most personal. In that book Child began moving away from traditional French food and into the wider realm of what she simply called “good cooking.” She also wrote The French Chef Cookbook (1968), a second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1970) with Simone Beck, and The Way to Cook (1989). From 1982 to 1986 Child wrote a monthly column for Parade, the Sunday newspaper supplement.

Child remained active and highly visible until her nineties. Her Cambridge telephone number was always listed, and she made a point of accepting nearly every request for a quote or an interview. Child received numerous honorary degrees, and in 2000 she was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. Unlike most famous chefs Child never allowed her name to be used for commercial purposes. Instead, she put her celebrity to work by supporting schools and organizations that showcased gastronomy as a serious discipline. When Child moved to Santa Barbara in 2001, her Cambridge kitchen was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and later installed as an exhibit in the National Museum of American History. Child died of kidney failure on 13 August 2004 in Santa Barbara. Her ashes were strewn in Santa Barbara and in Maine, where her husband’s ashes were scattered. At her request there was no funeral.

America’s culinary profile changed markedly in the wake of Child’s success. No longer did publishers, restaurateurs, and food companies automatically assume that Americans would never go to the trouble of cooking well. Fast food and junk food remained pillars of the national diet; but imaginative chefs and restaurants, farmers’ markets, ethnic cuisine, and adventurous home cooking took root and flourished. In this transformed environment, Child became an icon. Her core belief—that love and skill are the ingredients that matter most—helped to create modern American gastronomy.

Child’s papers are at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library in Cambridge. Noel Riley Fitch, Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child (1997), is a thorough treatment of Child’s personal and professional life. Laura Shapiro, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (2004), contains a chapter on Child’s career and influence. “Everyone’s in the Kitchen,” Time (25 Nov. 1966); and Calvin Tomkins, “Good Cooking,” the New Yorker (23 Dec. 1974), are comprehensive magazine articles. Obituaries are in the Boston Globe, New York Times, and Washington Post (all 14 Aug. 2004).

Laura Shapiro