Julia Carolyn Child (néeMcWilliams;[1] August 15, 1912 – August 13, 2004) was an American cooking teacher, author, and television personality. She is recognized for bringing French cuisine to the American public with her debut cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her subsequent television programs, the most notable of which was The French Chef, which premiered in 1963.

Early life

On August 15, 1912, Child was born as Julia Carolyn McWilliams in Pasadena, California. Child’s father was John McWilliams, Jr. (1880–1962), a Princeton University graduate and prominent land manager. Child’s mother was Julia Carolyn (“Caro”) Weston (1877–1937), a paper-company heiress.[2] Child’s maternal grandfather was Byron Curtis Weston, a lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Child was the eldest of three, followed by a brother, John McWilliams III, and sister, Dorothy Cousins.

Child attended Polytechnic School from 4th grade to 9th grade in Pasadena, California.[2] In high school, Child was sent to the Katherine Branson School in Ross, California, which was at the time a boarding school.[3] At six feet, two inches (1.88 m) tall, Child played tennis, golf, and basketball as a youth.

She also played sports while attending Smith College, from which she graduated in 1934 with a major in history.[1][4]

Child grew up in a family with a cook, but she did not observe or learn cooking from this servant, and never learned until she met her husband to be, Paul, who grew up in a family very interested in food.[5]

Career

Following her graduation from college, Child moved to New York City, where she worked as a copywriter for the advertising department of W. & J. Sloane.

World War II

Child 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.[6] 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.[7][8][9]

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.[10] She was later posted to Kunming, China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.[11] When Child was asked to solve the problem of too many OSS underwater explosives being set off by curious sharks, “Child’s solution was to experiment with cooking various concoctions as a shark repellent,” which were sprinkled in the water near the explosives and repelled sharks.[12] Still in use today, the experimental shark repellent “marked Child’s first foray into the world of cooking …”[12] For her service, Child received an award that cited her many virtues, including her “drive and inherent cheerfulness.”[7] As with other OSS records, her file was declassified in 2008; however, unlike other files, her complete file is available online.[13]

While in Kunming, she met Paul Cushing Child, also an OSS employee, and the two were married September 1, 1946, in Lumberville, Pennsylvania,[14] later moving to Washington, D.C. A New Jersey native[15] who had lived in Paris as an artist and poet, Paul was known for his sophisticated palate,[16] 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.[11] The couple had no children.

Post-war France

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 1951, she graduated from the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and later studied privately with Max Bugnard and other master chefs.[17] She joined the women’s cooking club Le Cercle des Gourmettes, through which she met Simone Beck, who was writing a French cookbook for Americans with her friend Louisette Bertholle. Beck proposed that Child work with them to make the book appeal to Americans. In 1951, Child, Beck, and Bertholle began to teach cooking to American 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, interesting, and practical.

In 1963, the Childs built a home near the Provence town of Plascassier in the hills above Cannes on property belonging to co-author Simone Beck and her husband, Jean Fischbacher. The Childs named it “La Pitchoune“, a Provençal word meaning “the little one” but over time the property was often affectionately referred to simply as “La Peetch”.[18]

Media career

Audio
Julia Child On France, Fat And Food On The Floor, Nov 14, 1989, 10:13, Fresh Air with Terry Gross[5]
Video
French Chef; Lasagne a la Francaise, Nov 25, 1970, 28:37, WGBH Open Vault[19]

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[20] was a best-seller and received critical acclaim that derived in part from the American interest in French culture in the early 1960s. 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. Her last book was the autobiographical My Life in France, published posthumously in 2006 and written with her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme. The book recounts Child’s life with her husband, Paul Cushing Child, in post-World War II France.

The French Chef and related books

Main article: The French Chef

A 1962 appearance on a book review show on what was then the National Educational Television (NET) station of Boston, WGBH-TV (now a major Public Broadcasting Service station), 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. 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 warbly voice, and unpatronizing, unaffected manner. In 1972, The French Chef became the first television program to be captioned for the deaf, even though this was done using the preliminary technology of open-captioning.

Child’s second book, The French Chef Cookbook, was a collection of the recipes she had demonstrated 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, with whom the professional relationship had ended. 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 provided an extensive library of kitchen notes compiled by Child during the course of the show.[21]

Impact on American households

Julia Child had a large impact on American households and housewives. Because of the technology in the 1960s, the show was unedited, causing her blunders to appear in the final version and ultimately lend “authenticity and approachability to television.” [22] According to Toby Miller in “Screening Food: French Cuisine and the Television Palate,” one mother he spoke to said that sometimes “all that stood between me and insanity was hearty Julia Child” because of Child’s ability to soothe and transport her. In addition, Miller notes that Child’s show began before the feminist movement of the 1960s, which meant that the issues housewives and women faced were somewhat ignored on television.[23]

Later career

Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

In the 1970s and 1980s, she was the star of numerous television programs, including Julia Child & Company, Julia Child & More Company and Dinner at Julia’s. For the 1979 book Julia Child and More Company, she won a National Book Award in category Current Interest.[24] In 1981, she founded the American Institute of Wine & Food,[25] with vintners Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff, and others, to “advance the understanding, appreciation and quality of wine and food,” a pursuit she had already begun with her books and television appearances. In 1989, she published what she considered her magnum opus, a book and instructional video series collectively entitled The Way To Cook.

In the mid 90s, as part of her work with the American Institute of Wine and Food, Julia Child became increasingly concerned about children’s food education. This resulted in the initiative known as Days of Taste.

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 cookbooks. All of Child’s books during this time stemmed from the television series of the same names.

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.[26][27] 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.”[28]

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 stove top on one side and an electric stove top on the other, but leaving the rest of the Childs’ appliances alone, including “my wall oven with its squeaking door.”[29] This kitchen backdrop hosted nearly all of Child’s 1990s television series.

Last years and death

Child in 1994

After the death of her beloved friend Simone Beck, Child relinquished La Pitchoune after a month long stay in June 1992 with her family, her niece, Phila, and close friend and biographer Noël Riley Fitch. She turned the keys over to Jean Fischbacher’s sister, just as she and Paul had promised nearly 30 years earlier. Also in 1992, Julia spent five days in Sicily at the invitation of Regaleali Winery. American journalist Bob Spitz spent a brief time with Julia during that period while he was researching and writing his then working title, History of Eating and Cooking in America. In 1993, Child provided the voice of Dr. Bleeb in the animated film, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story.

Spitz took notes and made many recordings of his conversation with Child, and these later formed the basis of a secondary biography on Child, published August 7, 2012 (Knopf), five days before the centennial of her birth date.[30][31] Paul Child, who was ten years older than his wife, died in 1994 after living in a nursing home for five years following a series of strokes in 1989.[32]

In 2001, Child moved to a retirement community, donating her house and office to Smith College, which later sold the house.[33]

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.[34] 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.

In 2000, Child received the French Legion of Honour[35][36] and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000.[37] She was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003; she received honorary doctorates from Harvard University, Johnson & Wales University (1995), Smith College (her alma mater), Brown University (2000),[38] and several other universities. In 2007, Child was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.[39]

On August 13, 2004, Child died of kidney failure in Montecito, California, two days before her 92nd birthday.[40].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!”[32] Her ashes were placed on the Neptune Memorial Reef.

Books in order of publication: