The history of Julia Child is the biography of an American hero. She not only inspired a nation to begin cooking French food, she also became an iconic figure to housewives and working women alike. Today her legacy lives on in the many cooking shows we now watch on channels like the Food Network and PBS, and her cookbooks continue to be a staple in almost any epicurean's repertoire.
The Amazing Life of Julia Child
Julia Child was born Julia Carolyn McWilliams on August 15, 1912. She was the oldest of three children all born to a wealthy family, which employed a family cook to prepare classic New-England-style dishes. She attended the elite San Francisco Katherine Branson School for Girls, where she was the tallest student in her class at six feet, two inches. In 1930 she went to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts where she earned a degree in English. Upon graduation Child moved to New York City where she worked for a prestigious home furnishings company in the advertising department.
World War II
At the beginning of World War II, Child transferred to Washington D.C. to volunteer as a research assistant for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). She worked directly for the head of the OSS, General William J. Donovan, as a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division. She was ultimately sent on assignment to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1944 where she helped communicate top secret documents between U.S. government officials and intelligence officers.
A year later she was deployed to China where she met her husband-to-be Paul Cushing Child. The pair married in 1946 and moved to Washington D.C. Her husband, who had lived in Paris as an artist and poet, joined the U.S. Foreign Service and the pair moved to Paris when he was assigned a post as an exhibits officer with the U.S. Information Agency.
While in Paris, Child developed a palate for fine French food and cuisine, and became so interested in French cooking that she applied for and landed a position at the extremely prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school. She was the school's first female student. After her six-month training Child joined a women's cooking club called Cercle des Gourmettes, where she met fellow female chefs and Cordon Bleu students Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The trio began to work on a cookbook that was supposed to help make French cooking more appealing and accessible to mainstream Americans. It took them 10 years to complete. Meanwhile, Child and her husband moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The two-volume, 800-page masterpiece titled Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961 by Houghton Mifflin. The book was immediately considered a groundbreaking work and was a best-seller. The authors had crafted a helpful guide for American's to prepare French cuisine. It included illustrations, excellent attention to detail and was written in a way that made the complex cuisine accessible.
Due to the success of the cookbook, Child started to write articles for magazines and also penned a column for The Boston Globe. A 1962 appearance on the National Educational Television station of Boston (WGBH), in which she showed viewers how to cook an omelette, led to Child's landing a television cooking show.
On February 11, 1963 "The French Chef" debuted on WGBH. An immediate success, the show ran for a decade, winning the Peabody and Emmy Awards. While not perfect in her presentations, she was loved for her enthusiasm for cooking, a distinct voice and her unpretentious manner in the way she presented French cuisine to the mainstream American public.
While working on her television show, Child also compiled a second cookbook, The French Chef Cookbook, which was a collection of recipes that had been on the show. She followed this book up with another bestseller, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 2.
Over the next decade Child made appearances on Good Morning America and also starred in a few more television programs, "Julia Child and Company," "Julia Child and More Company," and "Dinner at Julia's." She also produced a book and instructional video series titled "The Way To Cook," published in 1989.
The Final Years
In the 1990s Child was inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame, she also wrote four more cookbooks--Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs, Baking with Julia, Julia's Delicious Little Dinners, and Julia's Casual Dinners--and appeared in more television specials. Her last book, titled My Life in France, was written about her life with her husband in post-World War II France.
Following a 40-year career in the food industry, Child received the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honor in 2000, and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003. She also received honorary doctorates from Harvard, Johnson & Wales University, Smith College and Brown University.
Sadly, Child died of kidney failure at her assisted-living home in Montecito, California, just two days before her 92nd birthday.
Julia Child's Legacy
Julia Child left behind a legacy of cooking that no other chef has been able to match before, during or since. She has been an inspiration to generations of cooks, and her cookbooks will ensure she remains one for generations to come.