History Stories

The humor for which celebrity chef Julia Child would become known and loved—slightly wry, don’t-worry-I-know-what-you’re-up-against humor—appeared in the very first sentence of her very first book:

“This is a book for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children’s meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.”

As the remainder of the foreword and the rest of 1961’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume One” made clear, Child wanted her readers to have no illusions: She was their friend, their co-conspirator in the world of crème fraîche and boeuf bourguignon, their expert but gentle guide to demystifying a delicious art that many at the time believed could not be mastered except under the live tutelage of a stern, toqued chef.

The influence of that 51-year-old book and its American author still resonates widely today.

Child, who would have turned 100 on August 15 (she died in 2004 at 91), parlayed the success of her first book into a publishing and television career that had no precedent among her peers, according to Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation and former editor-in-chief of Family Circle magazine.

“She was on TV before any other female stars like Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray and Lidia Bastianich, and she was a larger-than-life role model for women in the industry and for homemakers alike,” Ungaro said recently. “She domesticized fine cooking for the American public and made it fun.”

Another example of Child’s irresistible wit: In 1987, David Letterman asked the famous chef, “Have you ever cooked something, Julia, that turned out just awful?” Child acknowledged that she had, and Letterman wondered what she did in such situations. The reply, which met with big laughs all around: “Oh, I give it to my husband.”

Jokes aside, Child was devoted to her supportive husband, Paul. It was because of his career, in fact, that she first found herself in France, surrounded by the cuisine that would define her own.

Julia Carolyn McWilliams’ journey began with her birth in 1912 in California, where she enjoyed a very comfortable childhood. She graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1934, at a time when women could be “either nurses or teachers,” as Child once remarked. She found some work in advertising, though, thanks to her writing skills, and because of her stature—well over 6 feet—she considered playing post-college basketball as well.

But after the United States entered World War II, Child sought to become a spy. She was hired by the Office of Strategic Services, which decided to use her as a file clerk instead.

Stationed in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), Julia met another OSS employee, Paul Child, a serious food aficionado a decade her senior. Their romance grew slowly, but they married in 1946 and moved to France about a year later for Paul’s job.

There, while her husband worked, Child decided to improve her culinary skills. She met Frenchwomen Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck through a cooking club, and the three became so adept that they opened a school in Paris called L’École de Trois Gourmandes. From there, the idea and then the manuscript for what would become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” simmered for years, undergoing many revisions and even a rejection from the original would-be publisher.

When the book (with co-author credits for Bertholle and Beck) was finally published by Knopf in 1961, Child was again living in Massachusetts. She appeared on “I’ve Been Reading,” a serious book program produced by Boston’s public television station, WGBH. Rather than just sit and chat, Child brought her own equipment and prepared an omelet on a hot plate—a demo that caught the eye of enthusiastic viewers who wrote in their praises. WGBH offered her an initial series of 26 shows, paying her $50 for each one. As more and more public television stations began to carry “The French Chef” after its 1963 debut—when Child was already past 50—her renown and career grew.

Her height, distinctive warbly voice and blithe way of incorporating gaffes into her broadcasts all contributed to her distinctive persona, but it was of course her skill and talent and palpable love of cooking that were the bedrocks of her success.

Many of Child’s techniques and recipes are timeless: how to make custards and mousses, poach a fish filet in white wine, chop an onion properly, brown a roast to perfection. A few, of course, were probably always—and remain—for only the most bold and intrepid home cooks. For instance, in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume Two,” co-authored with Beck, Child concludes the recipe for cochon de lait, farci à la Trébizonde (roast suckling pig stuffed with rice, sausages, apricots and raisins) with these suggestions: “Stick flowers in the eyes, and … [fill] its mouth with a shining red apple or a tangerine … Bring the pig to table or parade it around the room, so that everyone may enjoy its splendor.”

The relative scarcity of contemporary porcine parades notwithstanding, Child’s legacies are genuine and numerous. The current slew of instructional, entertainment and competition cooking shows on television—indeed, entire cooking- and food-centric cable channels streaming into our homes 24/7—may well not have existed in their current form were it not for Child’s groundbreaking, decades-long popularity.

“Julia was an original,” remarked fellow Smith graduate Carole Murko, the host of “Heirloom Meals Radio” on the Sharon, Connecticut, NPR affiliate. Child’s on-air performances showed “she was fearless and comfortable in her own skin,” qualities that the best media hosts today emulate, according to Murko, a specialist in American family recipe history who was the keynote speaker at Smith’s annual Julia Child Day in 2011.

In print, Child’s many cookbooks and other writings remain staples of her publishers’ backlists, and several new biographies of Child for adults and children hit shelves this year. Moviegoers saw Meryl Streep step into Child’s apron in her Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated turn in 2009’s popular “Julie & Julia.” And at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., the intact spices-to-spoons kitchen in which Child cooked and tested recipes for decades in her Cambridge, Massachusetts, home—and in which three of her TV series were filmed—is on display from August 15 through September 3 this year.

Significantly, Child was the inspiration behind the creation of the foundation named for her late friend and mentor, James Beard. The organization sponsors fundraising dinners cooked by noted chefs 220 days a year in its Greenwich Village headquarters to raise money for culinary students’ financial aid. To date, the foundation has given $4.3 million to deserving future chefs, Susan Ungaro noted.

The list of additional ways Child’s influence lingers today could satisfactorily stuff the aforementioned cochon de lait, but to some devotees, one stands out. “Personally,” Ungaro said warmly, “I like that she made it possible for women to think it was okay to have a glass of wine while cooking dinner.”

Bon appétit!

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