Massaging poultry, dropping food and utensils and warbling her way through boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, Julia Child left an indelible mark on American food.
As television’s towering, ebullient French Chef, Child put within reach of the average American a cuisine most had only heard about. Using fresh ingredients and copious amounts of wine, she changed the way we thought about food, demystifying it and placing it firmly at the center of a joyous life.
But with the approach of what would have been her 100th birthday on Aug. 15 (she died in 2004), what’s less obvious is how Child also revolutionized the way women saw cooking — and themselves.
“Julia turned women on to the beauty of making a wonderful meal for the family, not just scraping something together,” says Bob Spitz, author of the new Child biography Dearie (Knopf, $28.95).
“She let women who watched her feel that they would be heard, that they could do anything she could do,” Spitz said. “She wanted women to be proud of what they did. That was so important to her. That pride. She had found it. And she wanted others to find it, too.”
Child didn’t come from pride. Wealth, yes, but pride took longer.
Raised in California, the eldest child of a prosperous land manager and a paper-company heiress, Child went to Smith College, where she partied more than studied and aspired to get married. After college and a series of uninspiring jobs, she joined the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, and was sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It wasn’t until she married Paul Child, an artist and diplomat, and moved to Paris that she found herself.
In France, she studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, then began work on Mastering the Art of French Cooking with two French colleagues. It was a game-changing cookbook that marked a bold change for the American palate in 1961, an era in thrall to the convenience-food industry.
It was a time when advertising and cookbooks told women they had no time to cook, says Laura Shapiro, a culinary historian and author of Julia Child: A Life (Penguin, 2009).
“The whole trend was to make it fast and easy,” says Judith Jones, the editor who rescued Mastering the Art after it suffered multiple rejections from a publisher who wanted it revised to include packaged goods and fewer steps.
“Julia made the distinction between the home cook just cooking, putting it on the table, and cooking with finesse, tasting and understanding what she was doing. She believed that that’s where the joy came.”
It was a time of social upheaval in America: The birth control pill was introduced, sexual mores were changing, women were working. And anything French was in fashion. The Kennedys – and their French chef – were in the White House.
Then Mastering arrived on the scene.
“People were waiting for that book,” Shapiro says.
Yet it got off to a slow start, Jones says. It was when Child got on television that her appeal and message saturated the culture.
The French Chef began airing on PBS in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published, and the underlying messages were strangely similar.
“It was to take your life in your own hands,” Shapiro says. “You have a home and a family, if you’re going to cook, get your hands in the food and do something good. You don’t have to hand this over. Betty Friedan’s big message was ‘Stand up and take charge of your life, it’s yours.’ And Julia said the exact same thing about food and about the meals you feed your family.”