Julia Child

TV cook who demystified French cuisine
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Julia McWilliams, cook and writer: born Pasadena, California 15 August 1912; married 1945 Paul Child (died 1994); died Santa Barbara, California 13 August 2004.

Julia Child, television superstar and bestselling author, helped a generation of Americans to master the art of French cooking by sheer force of personality. Child's large heart matched her frame. She stood well over six feet tall and wore size 12 shoes. Shortly after her marriage, when the Childs' Washington apartment caught fire, Julia's first instinct was to fling her custom-built shoes through the window to safety.

Simplicity, common sense, informality and an absence of condescension were the hallmarks of her television cookery programmes. "Remember, you're alone in the kitchen," she once remarked, as she swept back into her frying pan a pancake that she had tossed but failed to catch.

Julia Child demystified French cooking and her programmes were always fun to watch. She leavened the deadly seriousness of the early offerings on America's Public Television System and rapidly built a large and devoted following. Once, when she was entertaining my wife and myself at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, our lunch was constantly interrupted by both waiters and customers seeking her autograph. One woman approached our table. "Is it the real . . . ?" she timidly asked. "I am Julia Child," came the answer. "I am glad you watch the programmes."

Julia Child's massive coffee table book The Way to Cook was published in 1989. It sold for $50 in the United States and for £25 in the United Kingdom. Despite its price, four American printings, amounting to 220,000 copies, were made, even before publication, and it was the first cookery book ever to be a main selection of the Book of the Month Club.

We were staying at her house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time and watched her set off for promotional television chat shows. She took with her two bags, a small one with a change of clothing and a larger one containing her television make-up. At the age of 77, she was still concerned about her appearance on camera. But this sprang from professionalism rather than from vanity.

There was little in her early history to foreshadow her culinary success. She was born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, California in 1912, to the kind of family for whom dinner meant well-done lamb with mint sauce, prepared by the family cook. After studying History at Smith College ("I had some vague idea of being a novelist or a basketball star") and a stint in an advertising agency, she joined the wartime Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, and was sent to Ceylon. There she met Paul Child, a high- ranking official in OSS, a man of great charm 10 years her senior. He was the twin brother of Charles Child, the distinguished American painter. Paul, too, was an artist, a musician, an excellent photographer and a keen epicure.

Paul and Julia married after the war and lived in Washington, where he worked for the United States Information Agency. In 1948 the Childs were transferred to the American Embassy in Paris. It was Julia's first real opportunity to relish French cuisine: "I wasn't just in love," she said, "I was in hysterics for about five years."

She decided to attend classes in Cordon Bleu cooking where she learnt not only to create good meals but also good kitchens. "My first chef told me that a chef does not sit," she said. The trouble with many American kitchens, designed by people who did not cook themselves, was that the worktops were too low and tired the back. Her own kitchen in Cambridge was designed by her husband. It had green pegboard walls hung with copper pots and pans, a huge stainless steel stove with six gas burners, a butcher's block and an outsized mortar and pestle bought in a French market.

Julia Child's experience in Paris resulted in her producing, in collaboration with two Frenchwomen, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, her first cookery book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 1961. Alfred Knopf, the publisher, sent Child and Beck on a promotional tour of America. During an appearance on a television literary programme, Child made an omelette on camera. This resulted in an invitation to prepare a cooking series for WGBH, the Boston public television station near her home. It began in 1962, and paved her way to fame.

Many more cookery books, often illustrated by Paul Child, followed, including The French Chef Cookbook (1968), From Julia Child's Kitchen (1975), Julia Child and Company (1978), Julia Child and More Company (1979) and The Way to Cook. There were videos, a regular cooking spot on ABC's Good Morning America, and another series, Dinner at Julia's. She received the two most coveted television awards, the Peabody and the Emmy, as well as many honorary degrees. In 1966 she appeared on the front cover of Time magazine.

She was in great demand as a speaker, and took part in food conferences in Oxford, France and many other places. She founded in 1981 the American Institute of Wine and Food. In 1989 the library at Radcliffe College (now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) opened a cookery section named after her. The study in her large old-fashioned clapboard house at Cambridge was fully equipped with up-to-date office machinery, on which Child produced books, articles and a vast correspondence with friends around the world.

The Childs loved France and maintained a house near Grasse which they visited regularly until a series of strokes curtailed Paul Child's mobility. They also had a West Coast apartment in a condominium in Santa Barbara and, following Paul's death in 1994, in 2001 Julia moved to live there permanently.

Julia disliked pretentiousness of any kind. With admiration I once watched her take from an officious waiter, in a fashionable Thames-side restaurant, one of those outsize pepper mills, and forestall a deluge which might have spoilt her carefully ordered dish.

One factor making for the success of her cookery books and programmes was her happy acceptance of helpful short cuts. The last time I dined at her house, I wondered what kind of an exotic dessert the famous French chef would provide after a particularly busy day. It turned out to be vanilla ice-cream from the local drugstore, topped with a teaspoonful of bourbon whiskey, and sprinkled with instant coffee. It was delicious; I can even make it myself.

Leonard Miall

Comments