Child, Julia (1912—)

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Child, Julia (1912—)

Julia Child made cooking entertainment. A well-bred, tall, ebullient woman who came to cooking in the middle of her life, Julia Child appeared on television for the first time in the early 1960s and inaugurated a new culinary age in America. Blessed with an ever-present sense of humor, a magnetic presence in front of the camera, and the ability to convey information in a thoroughly engaging manner, Julia Child spirited Americans away from their frozen foods and TV dinners and back into the kitchen, by showing them that cooking could be fun.

For someone who would become one of the most recognizable and influential women in the world, it took Julia Child a long time to find her true calling. She spent the first 40 years of her life in search of her passion—cooking—and when she found it, she was unrelenting in promoting it. But like so many privileged women of her generation, Julia Child was not brought up to have a career. Born on August 15, 1912 into the conservative affluence of Pasadena, California, Julia McWilliams was the daughter of an aristocratic, fun-loving mother and a well-off, community-minded businessman father. Raised in a close family, who provided for her every need, Julia was a tree-climbing tomboy who roamed the streets of Pasadena with her passel of friends. Her childhood was full of mischievous fun, and food formed only the most basic part of her youth. Her family enjoyed hearty, traditional fare supplemented by fresh fruits and vegetables from nearby farms.

By her early teenage years, Julia was head and shoulders taller than her friends, on her way to becoming a gigantic, rail thin 6 feet 2 inches. Lithe and limber, the athletic teenager enjoyed tennis, skiing, and other sports, and was the most active girl in her junior high school. When she graduated from ninth grade, however, her parents decided it was time for Julia to get a solid education, and so they sent her to boarding school in Northern California. At the Katherine Branson School for Girls, Julia quickly became a school leader, known, as her biographer Noël Riley Fitch has written, for "her commanding physical presence, her verbal openness, and her physical pranks and adventure." As "head girl," Julia stood out among her classmates socially, if not intellectually. She was an average student, whose interests chiefly lay in dramatics and sports and whose greatest culinary delight was jelly doughnuts. But her education was solid enough to earn her, as the daughter of an alumna, a place at prestigious Smith College in Massachusetts.

In her four years at Smith, Julia continued in much the same vein as in high school. She was noted for her leadership abilities, her sense of adventure, and, as always, her height. At 6 feet 2 inches, she was once again the tallest girl in her class. At Smith, she received a solid education. But, as Julia would later remark, "Middle-class women did not have careers. You were to marry and have children and be a nice mother. You didn't go out and do anything." And so after graduation, Julia returned home to Pasadena. After a year, however, she grew restless and returned to the East Coast, hoping to find a job in New York City. Sharing an apartment with friends from Smith and supported mostly by her parents, Julia found a job at Sloane's, a prestigious home-furnishing company. She worked for the advertising manager, learning how to write press releases, work with photographers, and handle public relations. She loved having something to do and reveled in the job. Having always been interested in writing, Julia also began submitting short pieces to magazines such as the Saturday Review of Literature. Her life now had some larger purpose.

But Julia's stay in New York would only last a few years. Unhappy over the breakup of a relationship and worried about her mother's health, Julia returned home to Pasadena, where her mother died two months later. As the oldest child, Julia decided to stay in California to take care of her father and soon found work writing for a new fashion magazine and later heading up the advertising department for the West Coast branch of Sloane's. But by the early 1940s, with America at war, Julia had grown impatient with her leisurely California life. A staunch Rooseveltian Democrat, Julia wanted to be a part of the war effort and so applied to the WAVES and the WACS. But when her height disqualified her from active service, Julia moved to Washington, D.C., where she began work in the Office of Strategic Services, the American branch of secret intelligence.

With her gift for leadership, Julia quickly rose in the ranks, working six days a week, supervising an office of 40 people. She still dreamed of active service, and when the opportunity arose to serve overseas, she jumped at the chance. In early 1944, 31-year-old Julia McWilliams sailed for India. In April, she arrived in Ceylon, where she went to work at the OSS headquarters for South East Asia. Although she considered the work drudgery, she loved being in a foreign country, as well as the urgency of the work at hand. She met many interesting people, men and women, not the least of whom was a man ten years older than she, an urbane officer named Paul Child.

Stationed in Ceylon and later in China, Julia and Paul became good friends long before they fell in love. She was fascinated by his background—a multilingual artist, he had lived in Paris during the 1920s and was a true man of the world. One of his great passions was food, and he gradually introduced Julia to the joys of cuisine. In China, the two friends would eat out at local restaurants every chance they could. She would later write: "The Chinese food was wonderful and we ate out as often as we could. That is when I became interested in food. There were sophisticated people there who knew a lot about food … I just loved Chinese food."

Julia recognized it first—she had fallen in love. It took Paul a little longer to realize that he was head-over-heels for this tall, energetic, enthusiastic Californian. In fact, after the war, the two went their separate ways, only coming together later in California. In their time apart, Julia had begun perfunctory cooking lessons, hoping to show off her newfound skills to Paul. By the time they decided to drive across country together, they knew they would be married. Julia and Paul Child set up house together in Washington, D.C., awaiting Paul's next assignment. When they were sent to Paris, both were ecstatic.

Julia's first meal upon landing in France was an epiphany. She later reflected, "The whole experience was an opening up of the soul and spirit for me … I was hooked, and for life, as it turned out." While settling in Paris, Julia and Paul ate out at every meal, and Julia was overwhelmed by the many flavors, textures, and sheer scope of French cuisine. She loved everything about it and wanted to learn more. In late October 1949, Julia took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at the Cordon Bleu cooking school. It was the first step in a long journey that would transform both her life and American culinary culture.

The only woman in her class, Julia threw herself into cooking, spending every morning and afternoon at the school and coming home to cook lunch and dinner for Paul. On the side, she supplemented her schooling with private lessons from well-known French chefs, and she attended the Cercle des Gourmettes, a club for French women dedicated to gastronomy. There she met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The three soon became fast friends and, after Julia graduated from Cordon Bleu, they decided to form their own cooking school geared at teaching Americans in Paris. L'Ecole des Trois Gourmands was formed in 1952 and was an instant success. Out of this triumvirate came the idea for a cookbook that would introduce Americans to French cuisine.

With the help of an American friend, the idea was sold to Houghton Mifflin. The most popular American cookbooks, The Joy of Cooking and Fanny Farmer, were old classics geared toward traditional American fare. Julia envisioned a cookbook that would capture the American feel of The Joy of Cooking in teaching Americans about French cuisine. For the next ten years, Julia and her companions labored tirelessly over their cookbook. Even when Paul and Julia were transferred, first to Marseille then to Bonn, Washington, and Oslo, the Trois Gourmands remained hard at work. Julia was meticulous and scientific, testing and re-testing each recipe, comparing French food products to American, keeping up with American food trends, and polishing her writing and presentation style. Less than a year from the finish, however, Houghton Mifflin suddenly pulled out and it seemed that the project would never come to fruition.

Then Knopf stepped in and in 1961, shortly after Julia and Paul returned to the United States for good, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was released. An immediate success, the cookbook, with its superb quality, clear and precise recipes, and unique pedagogical approach to cooking, became the standard against which all other cookbooks would come to be judged. At 49 years old, Julia Child was hailed as a great new American culinary voice. In a country where most people's meals consisted of canned items, frozen foods, and TV dinners, the food community hailed her classical training. As Karen Lehrman wrote in "What Julia Started," "In the 1950s, America was a meat-and-potatoes kind of country. Women did all of the cooking and got their recipes from ladies' magazine articles with titles like 'The 10-Minute Meal and How to Make It.' Meatloaf, liver and onions, corned beef hash—all were considered hearty and therefore healthy and therefore delicious. For many women, preparing meals was not a joy but a requirement." Julia Child would change all that.

Julia and Paul settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a decision that would ultimately make Julia Child a household name. As the home of many of the country's finest institutions of higher learning, Cambridge boasted the best-funded educational television station, WGBH. Early in 1962, WGBH approached Julia about putting together a cooking show. Filmed in black and white in rudimentary surroundings, the show was a success from the very start. Julia Child was a natural for television. Although each show was carefully planned and the meals meticulously prepared, on-air Julia's easy going manner, sense of humor, and joie de vivre shone through, making her an instant hit.

Within a year, Julia Child's The French Chef was carried on public television stations around the country and Julia Child was a household name with a huge following. As Karen Lehrman describes, "Julia may or may not have been a natural cook, but she certainly was a natural teacher and comedian. Part of the entertainment came from her voice alone, which can start a sentence on a bass note and end of falsetto, and elongate in different keys several seemingly random words in between. But she also had an exceptional presence, a keen sense of timing and drama, and a superb instinct for what's funny. Most important, she completely lacked pretension: She played herself. She made noises (errgh, oomph, pong), called things weird or silly, clashed pot lids like cymbals, knocked things over, and in general made quite a mess. 'When, at the end of the program, she at last brings the finished dish to the table,' Lewis Lapham wrote in 1964, 'she does so with an air of delighted surprise, pleased to announce that once again the forces of art and reason have triumphed over primeval chaos."'

For the next 30 years, Julia Child would appear on television, but because she viewed herself as a teacher, only on public television. Supported by Paul every step of the way, Julia would transform cooking from a housewife's drudgery to a joyous event for both men and women. In doing so, she changed the culinary face of America. She became a universally recognizable and much loved pop culture icon. Her shows became the object of kindhearted spoof and satire—the best of which was done by Dan Ackroyd on Saturday Night Live —and her image appeared in cartoons. But mostly it was Julia herself who continued to attract devoted viewers of both sexes, all ages, and many classes. As Noël Riley Fitch wrote, "The great American fear of being outré and gauche was diminished by this patrician lady who was not afraid of mistakes and did not talk down to her audience." Julia-isms were repeated with glee around the country, such as the time she flipped an omelet all over the stove and said, "Well, that didn't go very well," and then proceeded to scrape up the eggs and put them back in the pan, remarking, "But you can always pick it up if you're alone. Who's going to see?" Her ability to improvise and to have fun in the kitchen made her someone with whom the average American could identify. As Julia herself said, "People look at me and say, 'Well, if she can do it, I can do it."'

As America got turned on to food, be it quiche in the 1970s, nouvelle cuisine in the 1980s, or organic food in the 1990s, Julia stayed on top of every trend, producing many more exceptional cookbooks. The Grande Dame of American cuisine, Julia Child remains the last word on food in America. Founder of the American Institute of Wine and Food, Julia Child continues to bring together American chefs and vintners in an effort to promote continued awareness of culinary issues and ideas both within the profession—which, thanks to Julia, is now among the fastest growing in America—and among the public. Popular women chefs, such as Too Hot Tamales, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Miliken, abound on television, thanks to Julia who, though she did not think of herself as a feminist, certainly liberated many women through her independence and passionate commitment to her career. Karen Lehrman has written, "Julia Child made America mad for food and changed its notions of class and gender." A uniquely American icon, Julia Child not only transformed the culinary landscape of this country, but she became a role model for men and women of all ages and classes.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Child, Julia. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.

Fitch, Noël Riley. Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. New York, Doubleday, 1997.

Lehrman, Karen. "What Julia Started." U.S. News and World Report. Vol. 123, No. 11, September 22, 1997, 56-65.

Reardon, Joan. M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters: Celebrating the Pleasures of the Table. New York, Harmony Books, 1994.

Villas, James. "The Queen of Cuisine." Town and Country. Vol.148, No. 5175, December 1994, 188-193.