After you picture Dan Aykroyd covered in blood (Save the liver!), what is the first thing you think of when you hear the name Julia Child? Cooking of course, and french cooking at that. But I bet you imagined that she was born with a wooden spoon in her hand, then as a little girl at her mother’s apron, learning to roll pastry dough, making yankee pot roast, and boiling peas. Not so.
Here’s what I love about Julia Child: She didn’t even go to France or really know how to cook until she was 36. Her husband, Paul Child, was assigned to work in the U.S. Information Service at The American Embassy in Paris where they moved in 1948 and Julia set up house, only knowing how to cook a few basics. But she fell in love with Paris, with the markets, the language, the people, and most importantly, the food. (France seems to do that to women.) Julia decided she wanted to learn how to cook well, so she enrolled in what was basically the “housewives” class at Le Cordon Bleu and jumped in. She soon realized she wanted much more and signed up for the six month intensive course and was accepted. This was a rare feat for a woman, nevermind a 6′ 2″ American woman. Julia took to cooking like brie takes to baguette.
Julia McWilliams was born and raised in Pasadena in a wealthy family. The family employed a cook so Julia never learned cooking as a young girl. As a teenager, she was sent to the Katherine Branson School for Girls in Marin County (boarding school=no cooking), after which she attended Smith College, as her mother did, studying history and listing her vocational choices as “No occupation decided; Marriage preferable.” Not having met the man to fulfill her vocational choice yet, she started working for the Office of Strategic Services (The OSS, precursor to the CIA) in Washington, D.C. and was transferred to India and Sri Lanka, then China. By the time she met Paul in China, she was well heeled, well educated and well traveled and looking for more. Paul was 10 years her senior and called himself a Gourmet. They fell madly in love, got married and soon moved to Paris. They never had children.
Julia met her future partners in cooking, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck in Paris. They started their own cooking school: L’Ecole de Trois Gourmandes (The School of the Three Gourmands) to teach French cooking to American and French women in Paris. They then decided to write a book to teach French cooking to main stream Americans. Their cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol. 1) took almost ten years of testing, writing, rewriting, retesting and many rejections from publishers before it was finally published in 1961. By this time Julia and Paul were living in Cambridge, Mass. The book became a smashing success. Julia was 49.
Two years later, after an interview and an omelet cooking demonstraton on a Boston TV show, WBGH offered Julia her own show. That too became a huge hit and she was the first celebrity TV chef. The next TV chef wouldn’t come along for five more years. (The Galloping Gourmet himself, Graham Kerr.)
From then on she became an icon with that voice, that wooden mallet, that tv kitchen (which is now in the Smithsonian), that joi de vivre! She wrote more cookbooks, she starred in many other cooking shows, guest starred on The Muppet Show and was made great fun of by Dan Aykroyd. All after the age of 40.
Julia Child inspires me because she never settled on a traditional role for herself and kept finding success, no matter what her age. She worked hard and was endlessly curious about cooking and food. As she said herself: “Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” She also said: “Life itself is the proper binge.” What is not to love about a woman like that?*
Julia died in August 2004 at her home in Montecito, California two days before her 92nd birthday. Never one to remain still or locked into one place, Julia was cremated, her ashes scattered.
If you get a chance, read Julia Child’s book My Life in France (co-written by Alex Prud’Homme) to learn more about her awakening to food and cooking. If you can read it while you are in Paris, as I got to, all the better.
As a fun, contemporary glimpse into the famous cookbook itself (Mastering the Art of French Cooking) I recommend Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell. It is Ms. Powell’s way to figure out her place in the world when turning 30. There are hilarious adventures with aspic and live lobsters.
*Julia Child was not into diets or health food. Two of my favorite quotes regarding these topics are:
“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook”
“I just hate health food”
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