Julia Child: Still cookin' after all these years

At 87, America's most famous and influential chef is about to serve up a new book and a new TV series, and again take us into her culinary embrace.

Published August 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I am surrounded by men and boys. We all sit with glowing screens in front of us, headphones on, viewing bits of history at New York City's Museum of Television and Broadcasting. The guys are laughing their heads off at the Marx Brothers, Jack Parr and Jerry Seinfeld. But I am laughing loudest as I watch the first episodes of Julia Child's "The French Chef."

"You must have the courage of your convictions," trills a black-and-white Child as she pan-flips a large potato pancake. Losing half of the contents onto the electric range cooktop, she scrapes up the errant potatoes with her spatula and puts them back in the pan, assuring me, her momentary confidant, that it's OK to make a mistake -- no one sees us alone in the kitchen anyway. As an adult, I find this reassuring. I, like Child, am not a natural born cook.

Pre-Emeril, pre-Fat Ladies, long before the rise of Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Wolfgang Puck and without the magic of editing, Julia Child was re-outfitting the American kitchen and re-educating the American palate. In the process she became the most important culinary figure this country has produced, as well as one of the century's most admirable women. As befits a woman who stands 6-foot-2, Child has done everything in a very big way.

Raised in Pasadena, Calif., Julia McWilliams, privileged and mischievous (she once impressed her friends by scaling a fence to freedom after being apprehended for hurling mud pies at passing cars), was unfamiliar with the family kitchen, where a hired cook was in charge. She instead preferred playing in her family's backyard tennis court, writing and performing plays and smoking her father's cigars while hiding with her pals (McWilliams' father found this hobby so distasteful he offered her a $1,000 bond if she promised to give up smoking until she was 21. She took the deal, and after collecting the dough on her 21st birthday, began puffing away, as many as two packs a day for the next 30 years).

Her career as a cut-up continued at Smith College, her mother's alma mater. She played on the school's basketball team, where she excelled at the "jump ball" portion of the game, and studied enough to get by. Equipped with a new 1929 Ford convertible, McWilliams ferried her all-girl crew to Prohibition-era speakeasies and found that driving with the top down was a benefit when one of the girls overindulged. Train trips home to California for holidays meant four-day cross-country parties during which McWilliams' highly developed sense of fun kept everyone laughing. She later declared, "I was an adolescent nut. Someone like me should not have been accepted at a serious institution." Nevertheless, she graduated from Smith and returned to California with ideas of becoming a lady novelist. Not yet a cook, but always a hostess, McWilliams was again the life of the party. But she was also the quintessential good citizen, volunteering with the Pasadena chapter of the American Red Cross until World War II broke out.

At a time when women were being told to get out of the kitchen and into the factories, McWilliams, who had never been in the kitchen in the first place, headed to Washington in a flurry of patriotism. Landing an administrative position with the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, she pushed papers by day and hosted cocktail parties by night. And when it was announced that volunteers were needed to staff new overseas bases, McWilliams lost no time signing up and departing for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by way of India.

After a month-long journey on the high seas with 3,000 soldiers, McWilliams, one of only a handful of women, arrived in Ceylon to begin her new job as a research assistant in America's first intelligence organization. While the trip alone would've done in many, McWilliams was thrilled to be surrounded by sophisticated international spy-types. Soon promoted to administrator, she was required by her job to process highly confidential documents. While somewhat bored by deskwork, she was enthusiastic about being part of such an organization. The drudgery of the job was partly alleviated by the glamour of a top-secret clearance and the exotic location. Plus, she met Paul Child.

Having dated many of the OSS women, he had a reputation as both a loverboy and a lover of food. Although these were two areas the still-naive McWilliams knew little about, she and Paul Child struck up a friendship. As well as being an artist and photographer, multilingual and sophisticated, he was in charge of building the war room at the command. McWilliams found him extremely impressive.

In their off hours, Paul Child would lead the staff on expeditions to local restaurants, sampling the local cuisine and avoiding the uninspired fare of the OSS mess hall. In Ceylon and later in Kunming, China, where they were both stationed next, McWilliams discovered the joy of eating. Almost better than that, she discovered the joy of talking about eating. She was intrigued by Paul and his smart circle of friends, and she never tired of listening to them consider the food they were eating or about to eat. A sensualist, Paul Child had lived in Paris and often described for McWilliams the rich and delicious French cuisine he loved. His talk of quenelles was hypnotic. McWilliams was smitten and, finally, so was Child. They married when they returned to the United States.

At the age of 34, Julia Child began learning to cook for her new, food-loving husband. As was the custom for new brides, Child referred to Irma Rombauer's bestselling "The Joy of Cooking" for direction. Ever the optimist, she was not discouraged by her early failures in the kitchen.

Paul Child soon accepted a government post in Paris and his wife's life was transformed. Upon arriving, the couple immersed themselves in the national French pastime: eating. For Julia Child, to taste the food that had been so articulately described to her years before was a revelation. Diving into French culture, she shopped the markets, learned the language and got to know her neighborhood butcher. With her Michelin guide in hand, she explored Paris. She learned about cheese and drank wine. She later described herself as being "in hysterics for months" as her love affair with food became all consuming. Finally, at the age of 37, Child enrolled in Paris' famed Cordon Bleu cooking school.

The only woman in her class, she worked tirelessly. She tried out new dishes on her husband and outfitted her home kitchen with the tools of her new trade. Her family fortune kept the couple supplied with truffles, and she entertained often, sometimes incapacitating friends with epic amounts of butter and cream. The owner of the Cordon Bleu thought she lacked natural cooking ability but had extraordinary stamina.

In collaboration with two French foodies, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Child formed "L'ecole des Trois Gourmandes" and began teaching French home cooking to American women in Paris. The students started early in the morning and worked until lunch, at which point they'd eat their lessons with wine. As she taught the classes, Child came to recognize the importance of dependable and accurate master recipes that would enable the students to produce consistent dishes. Taking recipes already assembled by her French partners, she began the arduous task of structuring, testing and rewriting them to fix flaws. As her husband's career moved the couple around Europe, Child remained in constant contact with Simone Beck (known as Simca) by mail, working toward their goal of publishing a new and comprehensive French kitchen manual for an American audience. After nearly a decade, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I" was complete.

The book made approachable a formerly intimidating and unpronounceable cuisine. The textbook format, complete with diagrams, offered the "servantless American cook" an opportunity to adapt professional French techniques to the home kitchen. Child translated not only methods, but names -- French Baked Beans sounded much more achievable, though less sexy, than the foreign and mysterious "cassoulet." The book was a sensation and, along with more accessible airline travel, was significantly responsible for the American embrace of all things French that took hold in the 1960s. Soon after the book's release, the Childs bought a house in Cambridge, Mass., and Paul Child, who possessed an all-consuming adoration for his wife, devoted himself to supporting her booming career, which was about to get even bigger.

Child had been invited to appear on public television to promote her new book. With the idea that she'd demonstrate a dish from the book rather than just talk about it, she arrived at Boston's WGBH studios toting eggs, a whisk and a hot plate. The studio had no cooking facilities, but Child proceeded to whip up an on-air omelet, which happens to be the perfect starring dish for TV: familiar, one main ingredient, and, in the hands of a trained professional, pure showmanship. Taking only a couple of minutes to prepare, the illustrious omelet commanded a full 10 pages of text and detailed illustrations in Child's book. The audience went wild. WGBH received letters demanding more of Julia Child and quickly asked her back to shoot a pilot. "The French Chef" series turned out to be public television's greatest success, winning an Emmy in 1965. Child, always a staunch supporter of educational television, accepted payment of $50 for each show, donating the balance of her salary to the station.

She's an unlikely TV star, to say the least. Perpetually sounding as though she'd just gotten off the tennis court, and with an implacable, reedy accent, she fluttered about her TV kitchen. But her enthusiasm and can-do attitude were infectious, and the frequent gaffes offered opportunities to show the home cook how to repair a dish if it should stick or spill. Child had fun. Given to imagery ("the dough should feel like a baby's bottom") and colorful language ("use the electric mixer and go whole hog"), she preached the advantages of a modern, well-stocked kitchen.

"The French Chef" was equal parts cooking instruction and performance art and it had wide appeal. Housewives, college professors, foodies and non-foodies: Everyone loved Julia Child. Vogue magazine food writer Jeffrey Steingarten remembers rushing home from class at Harvard Law School to his black-and-white television and jotting down ingredients and instructions on his legal pad. Right after the show, he'd go to Savenor's market "and I'd see Julia there. I'd stalk her in the aisles," he says, his eyes twinkling.

Child has starred in eight television series since then and published 11 books. She founded the American Institute of Wine and Food, an educational center devoted to the culinary arts. She has won too many awards to list. She is a unique American treasure who succeeded in a time when women supposedly couldn't prosper in her notoriously sexist field. And, as with everything she has done, she did it all with great style and humor.

Her influence cannot be overstated. Thirty years ago, Child raised the food consciousness of Americans and forever enhanced the sophistication of their appetites. When frozen convenience foods were standard fare in American homes, she proposed that we learn how to cook, and what's more, how to eat.

Sara Moulton, executive chef of Gourmet magazine and host of the TV Food Network's "Cooking Live," says "Julia urged us to be more aggressive consumers, to go into our supermarkets and demand leeks and demand shallots. Now leeks and shallots are everywhere." Moulton, a shining example of today's TV chef, worked with Child on her second television series, "More Company."

"Cooking should be fun," she says. "I learned that from the master. Julia didn't just share what she knew. She made you want to do it to."

Legendary editor Judith Jones, Child's editor since her first book, credits her with another important contribution. "She was the voice of sanity, and has remained the voice of sanity, telling us to eat a little of everything, stressing moderation; she's like a voice in the wilderness." Indeed, Child's nutritional advice has always been sound. Today, as books like "The Zone" and the suspect "Eat Right for Your Type" top the bestseller lists, Child, an energetic and healthy 87 years old, shows us that a joyful life of moderation may well be the key to longevity as opposed to a cranky existence without bread, potatoes or foie gras.

This fall, Child will publish a new book edited by Jones, "Julia and Jacques Cook at Home," in which she cooks alongside Chef Jacques Pepin. Besides offering back-to-basics instruction, it will feature a dialogue between the two culinary masters and illustrate the joy of taking a dish and making it one's own, using a good recipe as a foundation. "This book is seminal in that it shows nothing is written in stone," Jones says. "Cooking isn't fun if you simply stick to a formula."

Thanks to a new 22-part companion series for PBS, we will also soon see Child's familiar frame in her familiar home kitchen, once again teaching us how to, among other things, "fearlessly boil up sugar into caramel."

Until then I'll be watching reruns of "The French Chef" on the TV Food Network, observing with fascination as she clarifies chicken stock with egg whites in the classic French method, absorbed by her thoroughness as she describes different methods of making ice cream. She closes each show with a culinary fortune cookie, every bit as reassuring as when she long ago insisted, "You must have the courage of your convictions."

"Italian meringue is the sleeping beauty of this story," she trills. "Take her into your culinary embrace.

"Bon appetit!"

By Kathryn Kellinger

Kathryn Kellinger works in New York with Vogue food columnist Jeffrey Steingarten and is also food stylist for the Metro Learning Channel.

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