Food for Thought
The Iron Willed Chef
Remembering the peerless Julia Child
I'm a decent cook. My mother could easily pass for a gourmet chef. My maternal grandmother is a culinary goddess of the Southern variety whose kitchen, whether she happens to be cooking at the time or not—will make your mouth water just for the magical place it is. My mother learned the basics of the craft from her mother, then took it to many other levels courtesy of magazines, cookbooks and her own intuition. I gleaned bits and pieces from both my mother and grandmother, and we spend at least one day every year cooking and baking together around Christmastime. It's been a wonderful, tasty education, and while I'm by no means TV-chef material, cooking is in my blood—part of who I am as much as music or anything else.
I've watched the cooking shows on The Food Network for tips, taken recipes from magazines and even own a significant number of specialty cookbooks. But outside of family influence and various other sources, there's only one other person on the planet that inspired me to cook my way to a higher plane. She was Julia Child, who died on Friday, Aug. 13, in her home state of California, just two days shy of her 92nd birthday. Of her own passing, Child would probably have said something like, “That's no excuse not to have cake.” But for some of us, the event was roundly sad, like losing a cherished great aunt who made the best cookies.
Of her nearly 92 years, Child (born Julia McWilliams) spent almost 60 of them cooking up a storm. Over the course of her first three decades of life, the mischievous Child whiled away her time as an extroverted tomboy who enjoyed golfing, swimming, tennis and, at six-foot-two by the time she graduated private high school, basketball. She graduated from Smith College in 1934, after which she wrote advertising copy for several years in New York City and worked as a volunteer for the American Red Cross. She thought she might like to be a novelist.
But in 1944, partly in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Child took a job with the Office of Strategic Services, which sent her to India, where she met future husband, OSS officer Paul Child. The couple were married and living in Washington, D.C. two years later, which is when Julia Child, already a Renaissance woman by all measures, began to tackle cooking, first simply to please her husband and guests at the dinner table. Then, as fate and the State Department would have it, the couple were sent to France in 1948, where Child was free to explore the finer restaurants in Paris while her husband worked as an exhibits officer for the United States Information Agency. Soon, she enrolled at the Cordon Bleu in a class for professional chefs, despite the fact that she was anything but at the time. And thus began the career of the woman who will be forever remembered as "The French Chef," first as co-author of the seminal and rather encyclopedic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, then in 1962, as host of her first, and now-famous, decade-long television series.
During the ensuing 40 years, Julia Child appeared in eight television series bearing her name, published countless magazine and newspaper articles on cooking and cranked out books on the subject as if they were mere crêpes. But it wasn't her celebrity that was most endearing. Julia Child was pure joy in constant, tireless motion. She ambled around her TV kitchen with superior confidence and often humorous, less-than-superior grace. She got eggshells in the batter. She'd lose half a potato pancake during a pan flip and simply return it to the pan, assuring her audience that in cooking, as in life, its OK—indeed sometimes even grand—to make mistakes. She stuck her fingers in things and tasted them, swilled wine as she cooked with it and made gigantic, glorious messes as she went. Julia Child, as much as she taught us to cook, taught us to relish food, wine, life and the art of cooking as if she were teaching the ways of the Kama Sutra.
In recent years, a moderately hunched over Julia Child continued to rule the world of televised cooking shows, though more often than not, she invited guest chefs to do the cooking for her while she dutifully watched, passed utensils and commented in her trademark yelpish voice. There will no doubt be many Iron Chefs, Naked Chefs, Fat Ladies and Emerils to come, but there will simply never be another Julia Child. Thanks for the lessons, Julia; for reinventing the American kitchen and our attitudes about laughter and food, love and life. Toujours bon appétit!