When I was very young and feeling flu-y, my mother would tuck me up on the living room couch. She’d bring me a glass of ginger ale with ice cubes and a handful of saltines, and she’d turn the TV on. There wasn’t too much on daytime TV back then, and sometimes Mom would settle on a funny cooking show. The lady on the show was tall and had a squawky, excited voice, and I remember watching, through a fevery, plugged-sinus haze, her throwing her head back to laugh delightedly.
She was different from the tightly corseted, red-lipsticked, glamor girls on other stations, that cooking lady was. She was comforting and large and very, very real. I would drop off to sleep as she brandished some kitchen tool or other, and I’d wake hours later, refreshed and fuzzy-headed, to a TV screen gone dark, and to the bustle of my brothers coming in from school.
Decades later, I would discover Julia Child’s cookbooks, and just thinking about her brought back that comforting, nourishing feeling.
I got very serious about cooking in my mid-thirties, home with a little one and stretching dollars to cover a one-income budget. I was determined that food could be both economical and splendid, and I haunted the local library for cookbooks as well as leisure reading. And it seemed that every cookbook I read somehow pointed back to one common source: Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
I borrowed that book many, many times from the library’s shelves. Finally, I ordered it and its companion volume, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two.
Mastering became my go-to book for a really tasty–or “flavorsome,” as Child wrote– roasted chicken. And I decided to learn to make my own sauces–it’s crazy, I told myself, to pay hard money for someone else’s bottled version of what I could make, fresh, at home. Mastering was my primer.
And sometimes I would read it just to read it–just because that wonderful, lusty voice was present there. “If you are interested in price alone,” Child wrote in ‘Chapter Six: Poultry,’ “you will often wind up with something that tastes like the stuffing inside a teddy bear…”
And in the sauces chapter, Child inspired: “Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking, yet there is nothing secret or mysterious about making them.”
Her words made me smile, gave me confidence, hearkened me back to that cozy, sick-day comfort of long years ago. So I began to wonder about the woman herself.
I was pleased to discover there were many, many books by and about Julia Child–even before the advent of Julie and Julia brought her, once again, into mainstream conversation.
So I read about her wholesome California childhood in a sporty, outdoorsy family. She was a tall girl, Julia was: she topped out at 6’2″, but she seemed to have friends and suitors and to not be terribly worried about her height. She and her equally tall sister, Dort, were busy and popular all through school. And Julia went on to an east coast college (she went to Smith, and she liked it, too). But after college, she seemed hard put to settle in; she was restless and bored and nothing seemed to quite click.
And then,–World War Two, and Julia winds up doing war work in Washington, where she’s selected to go overseas, to the exotic East, where she meets Paul, where life changes utterly and completely.
What a wonderful real life romance, the tall, gawky girl becoming the well-loved woman. She was well-loved by a man who opened new vistas for her, new worlds of books and art and music. She gave Paul security and devotion; together they made a daring, intrepid team.
After the War, Paul’s work took them to Paris, where Julia, again, floundered. She dabbled in this and that–painting, hat-making–until finally, fortunately (for her and for us), she enrolled in a French cooking class. You know what they say about the rest.
The French Chef in America tells the after-story–after Mastering became a best-seller, a staple in every cook’s kitchen; after Julia became, because of her poorly paid but very visible television appearances, a celebrity. Paul, who had always been the dominant partner became–quite happily it seems–his famous wife’s help-meet. He painted; he helped on the set; he photographed and sketched her culinary creations. They traveled, always, together.
They were, she insisted, a team, and so they remained, through bad health and turbulent times, through fame and changing relationships and new friends and losses and houses in Cambridge and France. They were, Paul and Julia, an intensely creative pair.
Julia outlived Paul by many years, and she died, still vibrant and vital and working, just a sliver shy of her 92nd birthday.
This part of her story is written by her grandnephew, Paul Prud’homme. He co-authored My Life in France with Julia, and he wrote the rest of the story solo. The French Chef in America reads like a novel; it shines with Prud’homme’s affection for his aunt.
And it makes me realize, at this stage in time, just what an impact that squawky-voiced lady had on our culture. She opened the door, Julia did, for chefs like Alice Waters and Jacques Pepin to make their impact on American cuisine. I believe her television show, The French Chef, created a whole new genre–Guy Fieri, say, owes his paycheck to the pioneering work of Julia Child. She even inspired bubbly comedy. Prud’homme writes that she and Paul kept a videotape of Dan Ackroyd’s ‘Julia’ skit next to their TV. When visitors came, they would ask, eagerly, “Did you see Julia on Saturday Night Live?” and they’d play the clip and laugh uproariously.
It was Julia, Prud’homme contends, who inspired the Swedish Chef on the Muppet Show.
And, of course, she helped United States citizens evolve the way we cook. She tugged us gently and relentlessly away from Spam and cream of mushroom soup; she dragged us into patisseries and boulangeries and she made us go to the farmers’ market and taste lettuces picked fresh that morning. Oh, we still like our comforts and conveniences, of course, we do; but Americans have developed a palate and a taste for fresh, honest, wholesome food.
Fresh, honest, and wholesome: that’s the kind of food Julia Child inspired us to eat, and that’s how I picture her out-sized personality. Head back, laughing, no apologies for height or blunders, she led us, collectively, down a whole new path. She taught us the joy and verve and finesse of cooking. And she laughed when we dropped the chicken, and she crowed when our soufflés rose and crested. She encouraged and cajoled and nourished us, that gawky girl from California. She found her passion and she followed it, and she shared it with the world.