Child, Julia (1912–)

views updated

Child, Julia (1912–)

American cooking teacher, cookbook author, and television personality who almost single-handedly pioneered the epicurean cooking revolution of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, taking the mystery out of the preparation of French cuisine. Born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, California, on August 15, 1912; daughter of John and Carolyn (Weston) McWilliams; Smith College, B.A., 1934; married Paul Child (an artist-sculptor), in September 1946 (died, May 1994).

Selected writings: (with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle) Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol. I, 1961); The French Chef Cookbook (Alfred A. Knopf, 1968); (with Simone Beck) Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol. II, 1970, rev. ed., Alfred A, Knopf, 1983); From Julia Child's Kitchen (Alfred A. Knopf, 1975); (with E.S. Yntema) Julia Child and Company (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978); (with Yntema) Julia Child and More Company (Alfred A. Knopf, 1979); The Way to Cook (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989); Cooking at Home with the Master Chefs (1993); (with Nancy Verde Barr) In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

Julia Child was very much a late bloomer, not finding her métier as the most famous chef in America until she was well into middle age. Raised in Pasadena, California, she graduated from Smith College in 1934 with a degree in history, then worked as a copywriter for an ad agency in New York. During World War II, she joined the Office of Strategic Services, serving as a clerk in a document center in Ceylon, where she met her husband Paul Child, an artist-sculptor. After the war, the couple settled in Washington, D.C. They lived there until 1948, when Paul was assigned to the American Embassy in Paris as the exhibits officer for the U.S. Information Agency.

Child's experience in Paris changed her life. "From the beginning, I fell in love with everything I saw," she said. After taking French lessons at Berlitz and studying at the famed Cordon Bleu, she began giving informal cooking lessons in her Left Bank apartment. With the assistance of established French chefs Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle , the classes eventually developed into L'École des Trois Gourmandes. The success of the school prompted the three women to collaborate on a cookbook adapting French culinary techniques to American kitchens. Twelve years in preparation, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, a year after Paul's retirement and the couple's move to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The New York Times hailed it as the "finest volume on French cooking ever published in English." A second volume, co-authored with Beck, was published in 1970.

It was Child's appearance as a guest on a Boston educational television show called "I've Been Reading," whisking eggs while she chatted about her book, that led to "The French Chef," a cooking show that ran for nine years and turned her into a national institution. In an interview for an article in The Boston Globe (March 6, 1997), Child told Jack Thomas that the moment was just right. "At the time," she said, "French cooking was the cat's whiskers. Most of what people ate in this country was a kind of terrible ladies'-magazine food, awful!" Combining a hearty and authoritative manner with a droll sense of humor, Child attracted an ever-increasing number of aspiring gourmets. Thomas wrote that watching the show was "the equivalent of tuning to Wyeth on art or Updike on writing…. She'd mince an onion with blinding speed and, using a cleaver, amputate the wings of a chicken—THWACK! THWACK!—with the authority of an executioner." On camera, nothing rattled her, even the inevitable mishaps. During one show, after a flipped omelet rained down on the stove, she told viewers, "Well, that didn't go very well. See, when I flipped it, I didn't have the courage to do it the way I should have. But you can always pick it up," she confided while returning pieces of egg to the pan, "and if you're alone, who's going to see!" By 1966, the series was carried on 104 stations, and Child appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and in cartoons in The New Yorker. The television show also led to the publication of her first solo book, The French Chef Cookbook, in 1968. Seven subsequent television programs (including a second series of "The French Chef"), as well as six one-hour videos called The Way to Cook, provided the basis for nine additional cookbooks.

Child has twice received awards from the French government, including the prestigious National Order of Merit in 1976. In the United States, she has been the recipient of a Peabody Award (1966) and an Emmy (1966) for "The French Chef" series. In 1997, slowed only slightly by some stiffness in her knees, Child still kept an exhausting schedule. Appearing weekly in a PBS series, "Baking with Julia," and promoting a companion cookbook, she was also active in the Association of Culinary Professionals and the American Institute of Wine & Food, which she founded with vintner Robert Mondavi in 1981. That year, she spent 200 days on the road, appearing at culinary events around the country. In his article for the Globe, Jack Thomas asked Child to speculate on her obituary. "It would say that Julia Child encouraged home cooking and the pleasure of food," she told him over a second glass of luncheon wine, "that she made it a respectable hobby, something fun and creative and not drudgery."


"From Omelets to America," in Maclean's. Vol. 106, no. 49. December 6, 1993, p. 48.

Green, Carol Hurd, and Mary Grimley Mason. American Women Writers. NY: Continuum, 1994.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Thomas, Jack. "Julia Child: Still Cookin'," in The Boston Globe. March 6, 1997, pp. E1 and E4–5.

suggested reading:

Bridges, Linda. "The Food Police," in National Review. Vol. 44, no. 20. October 19, 1992, pp. 64–65.

Chesnoff, Richard Z. "The Real Joy of Cooking," in U.S. News & World Report. Vol. 119, no. 12. September 25, 1995, p. 79.

"Child, Julia," in Current Biography 1967. NY: H.W. Wilson, pp. 66–69.

Davidson, Susy, "Views from Twin Peaks," in Food Arts. Vol 4, no. 10. December 1991, pp. 54–57.

"Eat, Drink and Be Sensible," in Newsweek. Vol. 117, no. 21. May 27, 1991, p. 52.

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

Gilbert, Lynn, and Gaylen Moore. Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Have Shaped Our Times. NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1981.

Hall, Trish. "Simone Beck, a Cook, Dies at 87; Co-Wrote Book With Julia Child," in The New York Times Biographical Service, December 1991, p. 1391.

Lawson, Carol. "Julia Child Boiling, Answers Her Critics," in The New York Times. June 20, 1990, p. C8.

O'Neill, Molly. "Savoring the World According to Julia," in The New York Times Biographical Service. October 1989, pp. 996–997.

Saxon, Wolfgang. "Paul Child, Artist, Dies at 92," in The New York Times Biographical Service. May 1994, p. 708.

Shapiro, Laura. "Once More, It's 'Bon Appétit!'," in Newsweek. Vol. 114, no. 15. October 9, 1989, pp. 114–115 and 117.

"Silver Spoon: Julia Child," in Food Arts. Vol. 3, no. 10. December 1990, p. 88.

Whitcomb, Meg. "Julia Child: Life Started Cooking at 50," in 50 plus. Vol. 20, no. 2. February 1980, pp. 20–23.


Julia Child's papers are at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge Massachusetts.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts