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JULIA CHILD: August Marks Birth, Passing, and Remembrance of The Grande Dame of American Cookery 

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by Patricia Perratore-Anis

While channel surfing the other day, I came across a vintage television broadcast of Julia Child and Jacques Pépin preparing some crêpes.  As any foodie in the know can tell you, Julia Child will forever be the Grande Dame of American cookery.  Because of the upcoming anniversary of her passing and the release of a new film based on her life, this might be a good time for our Association to remember this remarkable woman.

Everyone loved Julia Child; at the height of her career, she was a familiar part of American culture and the subject of numerous references. In 1966 she was on the cover of Time Magazine; in 1979 Dan Aykroyd affectionately parodied her in a skit on Saturday Night Live in a fictitious incident that had her continuing to cook despite profuse bleeding from a cut to her thumb.  She probably didn’t mind the SNL skit because while a student at Smith College (small but prestigious university for women) in the 1930’s, Julia Child was legendary on-campus for her practical jokes and pranks. 

Born on August 15, 1912, Julia had a greatness about her, throughout a career that spanned five decades.  Child was six foot two inches tall.  She played basketball in college, where she also became interested in journalism and copyrighting.  She truly led a fascinating life that took her around the globe, a she dabbled in a variety of occupations.  She volunteered with the American Red Cross and, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) after being turned down by the United States Navy because she was too tall. She began her OSS career at its headquarters in Washington working directly for General William J. Donovan, the leader of OSS.  For a time, she worked as a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division, where her job consisted mainly of typing ten thousand names on white note cards used to keep track of officers.

Her next assignment was working for a year at the OSS Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section in Washington, D.C., as a file clerk; here she helped in the development of a shark repellent to ensure that sharks would not explode ordnance targeting German U-boats.  In 1944, she was assigned or “posted” to Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where her responsibilities included “registering, cataloguing and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications” for the OSS’s clandestine stations in Asia, and where she met her future husband, a high-ranking OSS cartographer. She was later posted to China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.

“I learned to cook for the same reason most women do—to please a man,” she said. “I started to cook for the first time after I got married in 1946.  Paul and I had met in Ceylon during World War II when we were both with the OSS, which later became the CIA. It would be nice to say we were spies, but I was a file clerk and Paul was an exhibits officer, doing maps of the Burma Road for Lord Louis Mountbatten. When we moved to Paris in 1948, I tasted the food and thought, ‘well, that’s for me.’ That’s when it all began.”  – Julia Child, from the Smith Alumnae Quarterly (Winter 2002/2003)

So one might say it was 1948 when Julia Child found her true calling—that is, being one of the most revered chefs on the planet.

Over the years Child recalled that her first meal in Rouen of oysters, sole meunière and fine wine was a culinary revelation. She described this experience in 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.  She later apprenticed with Max Bugnard and other master chefs.  Another turning point in her career was when she joined the women’s cooking club Cercle des Gourmettes, where she met Simone Beck who, with her friend Louisette Bertholle, was writing a French cookbook for Americans and proposed that Mrs. Child work with them to make it appeal to Americans.

In 1951, Child, Beck, and Bertholle began to teach cooking to American women in the Childs’ kitchen, calling their informal school L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes (The School of the Three Happy Eaters). 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, interesting, and practical.

The three would-be authors’ manuscript was rejected by Houghton Mifflin as being too encyclopedic.  But the 734-page culinary classic, The Art of French Cooking, was first published in 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf and received critical acclaim, probably due to the strong American interest in French culture in the early 1960s.  The book was praised for its helpful illustrations, precise attention to detail, and for making fine cuisine accessible to the masses.  It’s still in print and is considered a seminal culinary work.  On the wave of the book’s overwhelming success, Julia wrote magazine articles and a regular column for The Boston Globe newspaper.

Her first television show, The French Chef, debuted February 11, 1963 on WGBH television and was immediately successful. 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. She attracted the broadest audience with her cheery enthusiasm, distinctively charming warbly voice, and unpatronizing and unaffected manner.

Child’s second book, The French Chef Cookbook, was a collection of the recipes Julia had featured on the show. It was soon followed in 1971 by Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two, again in collaboration with Simone Beck, but not with Louisette Bertholle, because she has branched out on her own.  Child’s fourth book, From Julia Child’s Kitchen, was illustrated with her husband’s photographs and documented the color series of The French Chef, as well as providing an extensive library of kitchen notes compiled by Child during the course of the show.

The French Chef also had the distinction of being first television program to be captioned for the hearing impaired/deaf in 1973. This program demonstrated the feasibility of captioned technology and helped open a whole new world for the deaf and hearing impaired.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Child starred in numerous television programs, including Julia Child & Company and Dinner at Julia’s, while simultaneously producing what she considered her magnum opus, a book and instructional video series collectively entitled The Way to Cook, which was published in 1989.

In 1981, she founded the educational American Institute of Wine and Food in Napa, California with vintners Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff to “advance the understanding, appreciation and quality of wine and food,” a pursuit she had already begun with her books and television appearances.

Child starred in four more series in the 1990s that featured guest chefs: Cooking with Master Chefs, In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs, Baking with Julia, and Julia Child & Jacques Pépin Cooking at Home. She collaborated with Jacques Pépin many times for television programs and Jacques Pépin cookbooks. All of Child’s books during this time stemmed from the television series of the same names.

Julia Child passed away on August 13, 2004 at her assisted-living home in Montecito, two days shy of her 92nd birthday, probably after uttering ‘Bon appétit,’ the same words used in her sign-offs of her television and radio broadcasts.  Her final meal was French onion soup but her legacy lives on in her books, videos, and the impact she continues to make on the culinary arts.  On August 7, 2009 the feature film, Julie & Julia, depicting Julia Child’s life story, will be released starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child, and Amy Adams as Julie Powell.

About the Authors:

Patricia Anis is photographer and writer covering a variety of subjects from travel to restaurants and family recreation.  You can reach Patty at PattySein@aol.com.

Nick Anis is a food, wine, and travel and technology writer with 24 books in print. Nick’s beats include snow and water sports, and vacation destinations. Nick can be reached by email at: nickanis@aol.com.  

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