Julia Child became a recognizable household name for her contribution in bringing fine French cuisine into American homes. A chef, author and television host, even after her death, Child still makes an impact in many people’s kitchens daily.
Born to the name Julia Carolyn McWilliams in 1912 in Pasadena California, the oldest of three children, Julia was grew up in a wealthy household. Her father, John McWilliams, invested early in California real estate and became an influential landowner, while her mother, Julia Weston, was an heiress to a paper company. Additionally, her grandfather, on her mother’s side was the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.
Educated at elite prep schools, Julia not only grew to be well educated, but also a prankster measuring at 6’2” tall -- taller than anyone in her class. Despite the master cook she would become, Julia didn’t spend much time in the kitchen during her childhood.
In fact, in 1930, she enrolled in Smith College with aspirations to become a writer. While in college she played sports and attempted unsuccessfully to get her work published by the New Yorker. After graduation, Julia moved to New York to work as a copywriter at W&J Sloane, a home furnishing company.
Service During War
Like many, Julia joined the war effort. Too tall to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps, she took on a post by volunteering for the newly developed Office of Strategic Services as a typist. Due to her education, she quickly rose to a different post where she began working as a secret researcher. In this role, Julia traveled to a variety of posts in Washington, DC, China and Sri Lanka, where she became involved with one of her colleagues, Paul Child. While in Sri Lanka, Julia got her first experience in the cooking world, but not in the way one might think. She was tasked with finding a solution for how to stop sharks from setting off OSS explosive devices. Her solution? Experimentation with concocting shark repellent mixtures.
Introduction to French Cuisine
Paul and Julia returned to the U.S. after the war and were married in 1946. Though from New Jersey, Paul spent time living in Paris and introduced Julia to French cuisine, and, in 1948 when Paul was assigned as an exhibits officer for the US Information Agency in Paris, the couple moved to France. During this time, Julia attended the renowned Cordon Bleu cooking school.
While at the Cordon Bleu, Julia joined Le Cercle des Gourmettes, an exclusive women’s cooking circle in Paris. In this group, Julia formed friendships with fellow Cordon Bleu students, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Beck and Bertholle were working on a French cookbook for Americans and brought Julia into their goal. For more than a decade, the three tested recipes and experimented with cuisine for consideration in the cookbook. The conclusion? A 734 page cook book weighing three pounds. Due to this extensive detail, the women’s original publisher denied the manuscript.
However, in 1961, Alfred A. Knopf saw the value in bringing a cookbook of this sort to America and published the manuscript under the title, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book not only was pervasive in its details, but it also included illustrations -- all this contributing to the cookbook remaining a bestseller for half a decade. Still today, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a staple in many American kitchens.
From Publishing to Television
Julia promoted Mastering the Art of French Cooking locally with television stations in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and due to the very high responses received, WGBH asked Julia to film her own series, “The French Chef.” The show, which premiered in 1962, helped change the way Americans related to food, cooking and cuisine. In her very first episode, Julia showed audiences how to cook an omelette. Due to the show’s immediate success, it was soon syndicated to 96 stations throughout the U.S., which prompted Julia into becoming a nationally recognized TV personality.
The French Chef ran for a decade, winning numerous awards such as the prestigious Peabody. The show was so popular that it became the first to run captions for deaf audiences. Julia went on to be incredibly successful with multiple television shows such as Julia Child and Company, Julia Child and More Company and Dinner with Julia’s. She also founded the American Institute of Food & Wine in 1981. Not to mention the slew of cookbooks she went onto write, which included Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs (1995), Baking with Julia (1996), Julia's Delicious Little Dinners (1998), and Julia's Casual Dinners (1999).
Julia was the first woman to ever be inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame in 1993 and in 2000 she was named with one of France’s highest honors as the Legion d’Honneur. Her influences in American culinary culture that the Smithsonian National Museum of American History showcases Julia’s kitchen.
In 2004, Julia died from kidney failure, but she is described to have vibrant and working up until her last days.