Late Bloomers

julia child

Julia Child, Revolutionary Cookbook Author and TV Show Host

January 25, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
Julia Child changed the way Americans approached food, introducing French cooking to the masses at a time when liberalism and a worldlier view were gaining a foothold. Her unabashed style, on display in her PBS cooking show, was endearing, and a recent film and revelations of her career as a spy have sparked a new generation of fans and followers.

Julia Child’s Early Days

Born Julia McWilliams on Aug. 15, 1912, in Pasadena, Calif., Julia was the oldest of three siblings in a wealthy family. She attended Katherine Branson School for Girls, an elite institution in San Francisco, where she towered over her classmates at 6 feet, 2 inches tall, according to The Biography Channel Web site. In 1930, she began classes at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., moving to New York after graduation to work in advertising for the W. & J. Sloane home furnishing company.

In 1941, Julia relocated again, this time to Washington, D.C., where she became a volunteer research assistant for a new government intelligence agency called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Over the next few years, Julia was assigned to Ceylon (which is now Sri Lanka), and China, where she met and began dating Paul Child, who also worked for the OSS. After World War II ended, the couple returned to the U.S. and got married.

In an interview with NPR in the 1980s, Julia talked about what food and eating were like while she was growing up in Pasadena. Her family had a hired cook, and ate “very sensible, New England-type food … You know, roasts and vegetables and fresh peas and mashed potatoes,” she said. Julia noted that her family was “very conservative” and never had wine at the table. And despite eating “very well,” the family never talked about food.

Julia Child’s Notable Accomplishments

Julia’s memoir, “My Life in France,” was published posthumously in 2006. She wrote the book with help from her husband’s great-nephew, Alex Prud'homme, according to The New York Times. Julia began thinking about the book in the late 1960s when she and her husband Paul were in the process of organizing the “hundreds of letters home, piles of black-and-white photographs” and the culinary notes she took in Paris. “My Life in France” describes how Julia became “hooked on French cooking from the very first bite.”

That very first bite was, according to Susan Spano of the Los Angeles Times, “briny portugaises oysters with rye bread, followed by Dover sole in butter sauce and a simple green salad.” Julia described the meal as “the most exciting” she’d ever had. She shared it with Paul, who’d been stationed in Paris as a cultural liaison officer at the U.S. Embassy.

The meal prompted Julia’s burgeoning “penchant for French cuisine” and subsequent enrollment at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, The Biography Channel Web site explains. After a six-month course, Julia teamed with Cordon Bleu classmates Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle to establish the L’Ecole de Trois Gourmandes cooking school. The women aimed to adapt “sophisticated French cuisine for mainstream Americans,” culminating in their cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” an 800-page work published in the U.S. in 1961.

To promote the book, Julia appeared on the Boston public broadcasting station, winning over the audience with her “forthright manner and hearty humor.” She was then offered her own cooking series for television, “The French Chef,” which premiered in 1962 on WGBH, and was broadcast on 96 stations across the country. Julia was given the George Foster Peabody Award in 1964 for her hosting efforts, and an Emmy Award for the series in 1966, according to The Biography Channel Web site.

Watch video clips of “The French Chef,” get recipes and order DVDs of the show on PBS’ Julia Child Web page. 

You can also explore Julia’s home kitchen online. The kitchen was made into an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The Rest of the Story

Sales from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which was considered an instant classic by Knopf editor Judith Jones, helped Julia and Paul purchase “a small house” in Plascassier, Provence. According to Vanity Fair, more than 100,000 copies of the book sold in its first year of publication, and by 1969, 600,000 copies had sold. Royalties from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and from the 10 other cookbooks that Julia wrote now go toward the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, which “promotes cooking as a serious study.”

Julia had a somewhat secret life as a spy for the OSS during World War II, the details of which became more apparent in 2008 when the agency released its official archives. A collection of documents show that Julia was privy to more confidential information than she let on, particularly during her stations in China and Ceylon. Franklin Roosevelt began the OSS as a precursor to the CIA. Now, 750,000 pages of OSS documents, including personal files of all its spies, are a public part of the National Archive. 

The 2009 film “Julie & Julia” tells the true story of a blogger named Julie Powell who documented her yearlong attempt to cook her way through “The Art of French Cooking.” The film also captured Julia Child’s life in Paris as a young cook and wife, introducing a new generation of home cooks to her personality and talents.

Paul passed away in 1994 at age 92. On Aug. 12, 2004, Julia received a call from her doctor saying she was suffering from an infection that required hospitalization, but Julia declined treatment. That evening, she made the French onion soup recipe from her book, and died in her sleep. According to Vanity Fair, “knee surgeries, kidney failure, and a stroke” plagued her last year of life.

A few days later, on what would have been her 92nd birthday, friends and family from all over the world were expected to arrive in Santa Barbara for a party. They all came, despite Julia’s death, and celebrated with old stories, food and drink.

Most Recent Features