A Week to Remember: Julia Child

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Julia Child holding a mallot over her head

Julia Child was born on August 15, 1912. For forty years, Child was one of America’s most beloved chefs, bringing French cuisine to America through her cookbooks and television shows.

Child grew up in Pasadena, in a prominent and well-connected family; her grandfather had been lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. She spent her high school years at a boarding school near San Francisco, where she was a talented athlete, playing golf, tennis, and basketball.  She graduated from Smith College in 1934 with a degree in history, and worked for several years as an advertising copywriter.

When the United States entered World War II, Child wanted to join the Women’s Army Corps or the U.S. Navy WAVES, but at six feet two inches, she was too tall to be accepted. She made her contribution to the war effort by going to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency. She began work as a typist at OSS headquarters in Washington, but because of her education and skills, she was soon promoted to a position as a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division.

Among her assignments was to assist in the development of a shark repellent. The military needed a way to keep sharks away from underwater bombs, so that they would not detonate at the wrong time. Child’s role was primarily to mix the various formulas that the scientists on her team devised; the repellent they finally developed is still in use today.

During the war, Child was posted to OSS offices in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) and in China. It was in China that she met Paul Child, and they were married in 1946. Paul was a gourmet who enjoyed fine dining, and it was through him that she first began learning how to cook. In 1948, Paul was assigned to Paris by the State Department, and it was there that Julia began to seriously study cooking. She attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school, and studied privately with several noted chefs. At one of her cooking clases, she met Simone Beck, who was working with Louisette Bertholle on a French cookbook for Americans; Beck and Bertholle asked Child to join their project.

In 1951, the three women began offering informal cooking lessons to American women in Child’s Paris kitchen. They spent the next decade developing and fine-tuning their recipes, which Child translated into English. The collaboration was a slow one, especially after the Child family moved back to the United States; trans-Atlantic mail was slow, and phone calls were expensive.

4 Julia Child books

Mastering the Art of French Cooking (e-book | print) was published in 1961, and was a best-seller. The book was so popular that Child and Beck (without Bertholle this time) spent another decade preparing a second volume (e-book | print). As part of the promotional campaign for the book, Child appeared on a book review program on WGBH-TV in Boston, where she prepared an omelet. The segment got such favorable audience response that WGBH asked Child to do a cooking series for them.

The French Chef premiered in 1963, airing on WGBH and other stations in the National Education Television network. (NET was the forerunner of today’s PBS.) The technology of the era meant that episodes were filmed in a single take, with no editing; that meant that Child’s occasional blunders and mistakes were part of the show. The good humor and charm with which she handled those slips helped to make The French Chef popular. The show ran for a decade, winning Child a Peabody Award and an Emmy. She made the cover of Time magazine, with the headline “Our Lady of the Ladle.”

For thirty years after The French Chef ended, Child was a regular presence on television, gradually diversifying her repertoire beyond French culture. She became so much a part of the culture that she was parodied by TV’s sketch comedy shows, played by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live and by John Candy on SCTV.

In 1989, Child released what she thought of as her major work, a book and instructional video series called The Way to Cook (print | DVD). In her television programs of the 1990s, she frequently played host to guest chefs, and made two different series in collaboration with Jacques Pépin. Most of her 90s television was filmed at her home, in a kitchen designed by Paul Child to be both a functional kitchen and a television studio. That kitchen is now on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

In 1995, Child established the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts. The foundation was mostly inactive until after her death, but it now makes grants to other non-profits to support work in the culinary arts and food-related professions.

Child’s last television series ended in 2000, and in 2001, she moved to a retirement community. She died on August 13, 2004, of kidney failure.

Jennet Conant writes about the Childs’ years with the OSS in A Covert Affair (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). Several interviews and magazine articles about Child are collected in Julia Child: The Last Interview (e-book). There are two full-length biographies of Child, Bob Spitz’s Dearie (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) and Noël Riley Fitch’s Appetite for Life (e-audio | print). Child is the subject of a volume in the PBS American Masters series, Julia Child: America’s Favorite Chef (streaming | DVD).

In 2002, blogger Julie Powell began her “Julie/Julia Project,” in which she spent a year cooking every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Child was reported to have thought that this was too much of a stunt, and not really taking the cooking or the food seriously. Powell later compiled her experience into the book Julie & Julia (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), which was later adapted as a film (DVD), starring Meryl Streep as Child and Amy Adams as Powell.

Child’s memoir, My Life in France (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), was published posthumously; it was written in collaboration with her grand-nephew, Alex Prud’homme, who continued her story in The French Chef in America (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

Also This Week

August 14, 1909

Stuff Smith was born. Smith was a jazz violinist and singer of the swing era. He first came to prominence in the mid-1930s, with the hit songs “If You’re a Viper” and “I’se a Muggin,” but most of his recordings date from the last decade of his life. He spent his last few years living in Denmark, where he was buried when he died in 1967. A selection of Smith’s music is available for streaming at Hoopla and Freegal.

August 15, 1914

The Panama Canal was opened. The French had begun constrution in 1881, in what was then a province of Colombia, but abandoned the project after about a decade. The United States purchased the French land and equipment from the newly independent Panama in 1904, and completed the Canal. Under a 1977 treaty, control of the Canal was ceded to Panama in 1999. David McCullough tells the story of the Canal’s construction in The Path Between the Seas (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

August 13, 1949

Philippe Petit was born. Petit is a high-wire artist, best known for his 1974 walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York. In his 45-minute walk, Petit crossed between the towers eight times. Trespassing charges against Petit were dropped in exchange for his giving a free performance for children in Central Park. The story of Petit’s walk has been re-told in several forms: Mordecai Gerstein’s picture book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (e-book | print); the 2008 documentary Man on Wire (streaming | DVD); and the 2015 bio-pic The Walk (DVD), starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit.

August 17, 1959

Jonathan Franzen was born. Franzen is a novelist and essayist who found himself in the media spotlight in 2001 when his third novel, The Corrections (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), was a selection of Oprah Winfrey’s popular book club. Franzen expressed his worry that the Oprah logo might make male readers less interested in his book, and Winfrey un-selected his novel. Franzen and Winfrey eventually resolved their differences, though, and his next novel, Freedom (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), was an Oprah book club selection in 2010.