Julia Child (born Julia Carolyn McWilliams August 15, 1912 – August 13, 2004) was an American chef, author and television personality, who introduced French cuisine and cooking techniques to the American mainstream, through her many cookbooks and television programs. Her most famous works are the 1961 cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the television series The French Chef, which premiered in 1963 and showcased her sui generis persona.
Born Julia Carolyn McWilliams to John and Julia Carolyn ("Caro") McWilliams in Pasadena, California. She grew up eating traditional New England food prepared by the family maid. She attended Polytechnic School from fourth grade to ninth grade and then The Branson School in Ross, California. After graduating in 1934 from Smith College—where at six feet, two inches (1.88 m) tall she played basketball—with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, she moved to New York City and worked as a copywriter for the advertising department of upscale home-furnishing firm W. & J. Sloane. After returning to California in 1937, shortly before her mother died, she spent four years at home, writing for local publications and briefly working in advertising again.
She volunteered with the American Red Cross and, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) after being turned down by the United States Navy because she was too tall. She began her OSS career at its headquarters in Washington, working directly for General William J. Donovan, the leader of OSS. Working as a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division, she typed ten thousand names on white note cards used to keep track of officers.
For a year, she worked at the OSS Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section in Washington, D.C., where she was a file clerk and also helped in the development of a shark repellent to ensure that sharks would not explode ordnance targeting German U-boats. In 1944 she was posted to Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where her responsibilities included "registering, cataloguing and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications" for the OSS's clandestine stations in Asia, and where she met her future husband, a high-ranking OSS cartographer. She was later posted to China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.
Following the war, she lived in Washington, D.C., where she was married on September 1, 1946 to Paul Cushing Child. Child, a Boston native who had lived in Paris as an artist and poet, was known for his sophisticated palate He joined the United States Foreign Service and introduced his wife to fine cuisine. In 1949, they moved to Paris after the US State Department assigned Paul there as an exhibits officer with the United States Information Agency. The couple had no children.
Child repeatedly recalled her first meal in Rouen of oysters, sole meunière and fine wine as a culinary revelation. She described the experience once in The New York Times as "an opening up of the soul and spirit for me". In Paris, she attended the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and later studied privately with Max Bugnard and other master chefs. She joined the women's cooking club Cercle des Gourmettes where she met Simone Beck who, with her friend Louisette Bertholle, was writing a French cookbook for Americans and proposed that Mrs. Child work with them to make it appeal to Americans.
In 1951, they began to teach cooking to American women in the Childs' kitchen, calling their informal school L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes (The School of the Three Happy Eaters). For the next decade, as the Childs moved around Europe and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the three researched and repeatedly tested recipes. Child translated the French into English, making the recipes detailed, interesting, and practical.
The three would-be authors initially signed a contract with publisher Houghton Mifflin, which later rejected the manuscript for being too much like an encyclopedia. Finally, when it was first published in 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, the 734-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a best-seller and received critical acclaim that derived in part from the American interest in French culture in the early 1960s. Lauded for its helpful illustrations, precise attention to detail and for making fine cuisine accessible, the book is still in print and is considered a seminal culinary work. Following this success, Child wrote magazine articles and a regular column for The Boston Globe newspaper.
A 1962 appearance on a book review show on the National Educational Television (NET) station of Boston, WGBH led to the inception of her television cooking show after viewers enjoyed her demonstration of how to cook an omelette. The French Chef debuted February 11, 1963 on WGBH and was immediately successful. The show ran nationally for ten years and won Peabody and Emmy Awards, including the first Emmy award for an Educational program. Though she was not the first television cook, Child was the most widely seen. She attracted the broadest audience with her cheery enthusiasm, distinctively charming warbly voice, and unpatronising and unaffected manner.
Child's second book, The French Chef Cookbook, was a collection of the recipes she had demonstrated on the show. It was soon followed in 1971 by Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two, again in collaboration with Simone Beck, but not with Louisette Bertholle, with whom they had ended their partnership. Child's fourth book, From Julia Child's Kitchen, was illustrated with her husband's photographs and documented the color series of The French Chef, as well as providing an extensive library of kitchen notes compiled by Child during the course of the show. The French Chef had the distinction of being first television program to be captioned (opened) for the deaf in 1973. It was to demonstrate the feasibility of captioned technology.
Julia Child at the Miami Book Fair International of 1989
In the 1970s and 1980s, she was the star of numerous television programs, including Julia Child & Company and Dinner at Julia's; at the same time she also produced what she considered her magnum opus, a book and instructional video series collectively entitled The Way To Cook, which was published in 1989.
She starred in four more series in the 1990s that featured guest chefs: Cooking with Master Chefs, In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs, Baking With Julia, and Julia Child & Jacques Pépin Cooking at Home. She collaborated with Jacques Pépin many times for television programs and cookbooks. All of Child's books during this time stemmed from the television series of the same names.
Beginning with In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs, the Childs' home kitchen in Cambridge was fully transformed into a functional set, with TV-quality lighting, three cameras positioned to catch all angles in the room, a massive center island with a gas stovetop on one side and an electric stovetop on the other, but leaving the rest of the Childs' appliances alone, including "my wall oven with its squeaking door." This kitchen backdrop hosted nearly all of Mrs. Child's 1990s television series.
Child was a favorite of audiences from the moment of her television debut on public television in 1963 and her personage—a striking hybrid of gravitas and camp—was a familiar part of American culture and the subject of numerous references. In 1966, she was featured on the cover of Time with the heading, "Our Lady of the Ladle". In a 1978 Saturday Night Live sketch, she was affectionately parodied by Dan Aykroyd, continuing with a cooking show despite profuse bleeding from a cut to the thumb. Jean Stapleton portrayed her in a 1989 musical, Bon Appétit!, based on one of her televised cooking lessons. The title derived from her famous TV sign-off: "This is Julia Child. Bon appétit!". She was also the inspiration for the character "Julia Grownup" on the Children's Television Workshop program, The Electric Company (1971–1977), and was portrayed or parodied in many other television and radio programs and skits, including The Cosby Show (1984–1992) by character Heathcliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) and Garrison Keillor's radio series A Prairie Home Companion by voice actor Tim Russell.
Much of Child's shopping took place at Savenor's Market, located on Kirkland Street just inside the Cambridge line. Jack Savenor (1922-2000) expanded his business to include imported pates, exotic game, fresh seafood and specialty foods, and Savenor's Market was the source for meats during the run of Child's PBS series. With continual on-air mentions, the location gained an international fame, and Jack Savenor made more than a few guest appearances on her television shows.
In 1981, she founded the educational American Institute of Wine and Food in Napa, California with vintners Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff to "advance the understanding, appreciation and quality of wine and food", a pursuit she had already begun with her books and television appearances.
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