Today is the birthday (1912) of Julia Carolyn Child, U.S. chef, author, and television personality. She is recognized for bringing French cuisine to the U.S. public with her debut cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which rarely now gets acknowledged as a coauthored work, and her subsequent television programs, the most notable of which was The French Chef, which premiered in 1963. Child is not well known in Europe, and, in fact, I had never heard of her until I migrated to the U.S. in 1975. Even then I didn’t know her for the simple reason that I did not own a television. I bought my first television in 1998 because my son pestered me into it. I still watch none myself. I have one in my apartment now and have never even turned it on. I had one in my apartment in Argentina with 104 cable channels; I watched local cooking shows, and occasionally turned it on if I had trouble sleeping.
I will watch cooking shows, but the “celebrity chef” is abhorrent to me. Emeril Lagasse, is, in my eyes, a buffoon and his audiences are no better. Why would you applaud because Emeril has just added bacon or garlic to a dish? I used to be impressed with Anthony Bourdain despite the self-crafted “bad boy” image. But his no nonsense, “honest” view of world cuisine fell apart for me when he started doing shows on places I knew intimately. His show on Argentina is an absolute travesty. He missed or misinterpreted just about everything about Argentine cuisine, and his thoughts on asado (the crown jewel of Argentine cooking) still make me cringe.
Julia Child comes from a different era, when television chefs were there to inform and demonstrate. As a teen I gleaned a lot from them, including from the Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr. Sure, he was teetering on the brink of celebrity, but had not fallen off the edge – yet. I still have not seen more than half a dozen of Child’s shows, but I like her straightforward approach as she savagely whacks a chicken in bits with a cleaver, or tells the audience to stop being so picky about cream and butter. Honesty, especially in the kitchen, is good for the soul.
Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams in Pasadena, California, the daughter of John McWilliams, Jr., a Princeton University graduate and prominent land manager, and his wife, the former Julia Carolyn (“Caro”) Weston, a paper-company heiress whose father, Byron Curtis Weston, served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.
Child attended Westridge Polytechnic School from fourth grade to ninth grade, then the Katherine Branson School in Ross, California, which was at the time a boarding school.At six feet, two inches (1.88 m) tall, Child played tennis, golf, and basketball as a child and continued to play sports while attending Smith College, from which she graduated in 1934 with a major in English.
Following her graduation, Child moved to New York City, where she worked as a copywriter for the advertising department of upscale home-furnishing firm W. & J. Sloane. Returning to California in 1937, she spent the next four years writing for local publications, working in advertising, and volunteering with the Junior League of Pasadena.
She joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) after finding that she was too tall to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) or in the U.S. Navy’s WAVES. She began her OSS career as a typist at its headquarters in Washington, but because of her education and experience soon was given a more responsible position as a top secret researcher working directly for the head of OSS, General William J. Donovan. As a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division, she typed 10,000 names on white note cards to keep track of officers. For a year, she worked at the OSS Emergency Rescue Equipment Section (ERES) in Washington, D.C. as a file clerk and then as an assistant to developers of a shark repellent needed to ensure that sharks would not explode ordnance targeting German U-boats. In 1944 she was posted to Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where her responsibilities included “registering, cataloging and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications” for the OSS’s clandestine stations in Asia. She was later posted to China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat. For her service, Child received an award that cited her many virtues, including her “drive and inherent cheerfulness.” As with other OSS records, her file was declassified in 2008, and, unlike other files, her complete file is available online (http://media.nara.gov/oss/McWilliams_Child_Julia.pdf )
While in Ceylon, she met Paul Cushing Child, also an OSS employee, and the two were married September 1, 1946, in Lumberville, Pennsylvania, later moving to Washington, D.C. Paul was known for his sophisticated palate, and introduced his wife to fine cuisine. He joined the United States Foreign Service, and in 1948 the couple moved to Paris when the US State Department assigned Paul there as an exhibits officer with the United States Information Agency.
Child repeatedly recalled her first meal in Rouen as a culinary revelation; once, she described the meal of oysters, sole meunière, and fine wine to The New York Times as “an opening up of the soul and spirit for me.” In Paris, she attended the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and later studied privately with Max Bugnard and other master chefs. She joined the women’s cooking club Le Cercle des Gourmettes, through which she met Simone Beck, who was writing a French cookbook for the United States with her friend Louisette Bertholle. Beck proposed that Child work with them, to make the book appeal to North Americans. In 1951, Child, Beck, and Bertholle began to teach cooking to U.S. women in Child’s Paris kitchen, calling their informal school L’école des trois gourmandes (The School of the Three Food Lovers). For the next decade, as the Childs moved around Europe and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the three researched and repeatedly tested recipes. Child translated the French into English, making the recipes detailed and practical.
The three would-be authors initially signed a contract with publisher Houghton Mifflin, which later rejected the manuscript for seeming too much like an encyclopedia. Finally, when it was first published in 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, the 726-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a best-seller and received critical acclaim. Lauded for its helpful illustrations and precise attention to detail, and for making fine cuisine accessible, the book is still in print and is considered a seminal culinary work. Following this success, Child wrote magazine articles and a regular column for The Boston Globe newspaper. She would go on to publish nearly twenty titles under her name and with others. Many, though not all, were related to her television shows.
A 1962 appearance on a book review show on the National Educational Television (NET) station of Boston, WGBH, led to the inception of her first television cooking show after viewers enjoyed her demonstration of how to cook an omelette. The French Chef had its debut on February 11, 1963, on WGBH and was immediately successful. Here’s the first episode:
This is not the feisty Julia people came to know, but it’s very good.
The show ran nationally for ten years and won Peabody and Emmy Awards, including the first Emmy award for an educational program. Though she was not the first television cook, Child was the most widely seen in the U.S. She attracted the broadest audience with her cheery enthusiasm, distinctively charming warbly voice (which makes her sound mildly tipsy to my ears), and unpatronizing and unaffected manner. In 1972, The French Chef became the first television program to be captioned for the deaf, albeit in the preliminary technology of open captioning.
Child’s use of ingredients like butter and cream has been questioned by food critics and modern-day nutritionists. She addressed these criticisms throughout her career, predicting that a “fanatical fear of food” would take over the country’s dining habits, and that focusing too much on nutrition takes the pleasure from enjoying food. In a 1990 interview, Child said, “Everybody is overreacting. If fear of food continues, it will be the death of gastronomy in the United States. Fortunately, the French don’t suffer from the same hysteria we do. We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life.”
Julia Child’s kitchen, designed by her husband, was the setting for three of her television shows. It is now on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Beginning with In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs, the Childs’ home kitchen in Cambridge was fully transformed into a functional set, with TV-quality lighting, three cameras positioned to catch all angles in the room, and a massive center island with a gas stovetop on one side and an electric stovetop on the other, but leaving the rest of the Childs’ appliances alone, including “my wall oven with its squeaking door.” This kitchen backdrop hosted nearly all of Child’s 1990s television series.
In 2001, Child moved to a retirement community, donating her house and office to Smith College, which later sold the house. She donated her kitchen, which her husband designed with high counters to accommodate her height, and which served as the set for three of her television series, to the National Museum of American History, where it is now on display. Her iconic copper pots and pans were on display at COPIA in Napa, California, until August 2009 when they were reunited with her kitchen at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
On August 13, 2004, Julia Child died of kidney failure at her retirement community home, Casa Dorinda, in Montecito, California, two days before her 92nd birthday. Her last meal was French onion soup. Child ended her last book, My Life in France, with “… thinking back on it now reminds that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite – toujours bon appétit!”
Here is her second show on The French Chef, French Onion Soup – a great favorite of mine that I have made for decades. I don’t normally embed videos any more because they take up so much disk space. But I have embedded this one as a special tribute to a fellow cook who likes to laugh in the kitchen.