Julia Child was born in Pasadena, California on this day in 1912. Following her graduation from college, Child moved to New York City, where she worked as a copywriter.
Later Child actually worked for the OSS during World War Two, where she began her career as a typist, but was soon given a position as a top secret researcher working directly for the head of OSS.
In 1944 she was posted to Sri Lanka, a republic on the island of Ceylon which became independent of the United Kingdom in 1948, where Child cataloged and channeled highly classified communications for the OSS’s clandestine stations in Asia.
While in Ceylon, she met her husband Paul Cushing Child, also an OSS employee, and the two were married in 1946 in Lumberville, Pennsylvania.
Paul Child later joined the United States Foreign Service and in 1948 the couple moved to Paris where Paul was assigned as an exhibits officer with the US Information Agency.
It was in the city of Rouen in northern France, after dining on a meal of oysters, sole meunière, and wine that Julia Child recalled her first culinary revelation, describing her meal as “an opening up of the soul and spirit.”
In Paris, she decided to attend Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and later studied with Max Bugnard and other chefs.
It was after joining the women’s cooking club Cercle des Gourmettes that she met Simone Beck, who was writing a French cookbook for Americans with her friend Louisette Bertholle.
Beck suggested Child work with them to increase the book’s American appeal.
In the early fifties, Child, Beck, and Bertholle taught cooking to American women in Child’s Paris kitchen, referring to their impromptu school as L’école des trois gourmandes, “The School of the Three Food Lovers.”
The three authors collaborated and wrote the 734-page “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” which was first published in 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The book became a best-seller and received critical acclaim, in part because of the American interest in French culture in the early 1960s. The book was praised for its useful illustrations and attention to detail, and is still in print today.
Child’s second book, “The French Chef Cookbook,” 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.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Child was the star of numerous television programs. During those years she produced what she considered her magnum opus, entitled “The Way To Cook,” which was published in 1989. In the 1990s, she hosted four more TV series.
In 2001, she moved to a retirement community in Santa Barbara, California, and on August 13, 2004, Child died of kidney failure at her retirement community home, two days before her 92nd birthday.
Child’s collaborative effort and huge American success with “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, along with her subsequent books, and famous cooking shows had an impact on generations of food lovers.
Julia Child was in many ways one of a kind, from her gangly six foot, two inch frame to her ungainly, strangely melodic voice.
Michael Pollan, one of the country’s leading experts on food, described Julia Child’s voice as “like nothing I ever heard before or would hear again until Monty Python came to America: vaguely European, breathy and singsongy, and weirdly suggestive of a man doing a falsetto impression of a woman.”
“How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.”
The rest of Michael Pollan’s article “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch” makes excellent reading.