One hundred years ago today, Julia Carolyn McWilliams was born in Pasadena, CA. As a California man, born and bred, I am terribly proud to share my home state with the woman who became Julia Child. While I would imagine that anyone reading this blog would have a working knowledge of her life-biographies and memoirs exist, and her formative years as a culinary icon in France have been wonderfully chronicled by the great Meryl Streep and the late and lamented Nora Ephron-it is worth my time to compose a brief history lesson regarding this American icon.
Julia was the eldest of three children, and I do not think that anyone would argue with me when I state that her conservative upbringing chafed upon her. After graduating from Smith College, the 6’2″ Julia (we share the same height) performed desultory copyright work only to be interrupted by the Second World War.
Julia was too tall to enlist in either the WACs or the WAVEs, so she presented herself to the OSS, and she was stationed in Ceylon, where she met Paul Child.
He was the love of her life, and they were married in 1946. Julia’s father did not approve. They were in a minor car accident on the way to Paul’s brother’s home and were married in bandages and casts. Early in the marriage, Julia was not a comfortable chef, and heavily relied on The Joy of Cooking, one of the only cookbooks available at the time.
Paul was assigned to Paris as part of the USFS in 1948, and Julia’s first meal in France was of an import comparable to a Proustian Madeleine. Julia, of course, has baked the Madeleine; I have no doubt that Marcel would approve. Julia’s love affair with France and the French had begun, and it remained with her for the rest of her life.
Julie & Julia will tell you what you need to know about the years leading up to the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, her groundbreaking collaboration with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. When it was published after 10 years of writing, revisions, and searching for a publisher, the book was a great success. But a different technology catapulted her to international fame.
In 1962, Julia-who had no tv-promoted The Book on WGBH, Boston’s public television station, where she did a few food demonstrations and, not surprisingly, charmed everyone who saw her.
She was asked to create a 13 episode series, and upon The French Chef’s airing, a food revolution began in America.
No, people did not dump tea into Boston Harbor, they went in search of omelet pans and mandolins and rolling pins of a reasonable length. Chuck Williams attributes the success of Williams-Sonoma to Julia’s time on television.
Julia filmed 2 seasons of The French Chef, and went on to create Julia Child and Company, In Julia’s Kitchen With Master Chefs, and her final and arguably, most endearing, show Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home, where Julia and Jacques Pepin perform in the kitchen like an adoring and functional George and Martha.
She published a second volume of Mastering…, companion books to her television shows, From Julia Child’s Kitchen, Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, and the tome The Way to Cook, published in conjunction with a video series of the same name.
Though she had some health problems in her later life, Julia remained both publicly and privately active.
Her beloved Paul died in 1994, and Julia followed him in 2004, 2 days before her 92nd birthday. She once attributed her longevity to “gin and beef”, taken in moderation, and her life was a moderate feast: movable and reasonable, she gave us half a decade of pleasurable education. She told us that it’s ok to make a mistake in the kitchen and showed us how to mask those mistakes. She is the epitome of a life beginning again at middle age. She is truly la grande dame of American culinary letters, there has never been, and there will never be, anyone like her.
Appetite for Life, by Noel Riley Fitch, is a comprehensive biography of Julia. My Life in France is Julia’s posthumously published memoir, and is perfectly charming. I would recommend either. But why not have a Juliapalooza and pick up Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, by Bob Spitz, a well reviewed biography published in conjunction with the centennial. You just can’t get too much of Julia.