Julia Child

Fifty years ago, one new PBS show opened with a high-pitched voice, sounding on the verge of a girlish giggle, warmly announcing, “Hello, I’m Julia Child. Welcome to the ‘French Chef,’ and the first show on our series in French cooking.” In that very first episode, Child cooks boeuf bourguignon, providing the kind of simple but useful advice – not to overcrowd the pan, use wooden spatulas – that made her famous. The series, which lasted for ten years, combined with the success of her French cuisine cookbooks, turned Julia Child into a household name. With a side dish of her infectious enthusiasm, Child introduced to America a new kind of soul food.

Julia Child is almost universally recognized as bringing French cuisine to America. However, the history of French cuisine in America is slightly more complicated than that; back in 1784 Thomas Jefferson sent his domestic servants to France to learn French cooking techniques.  It is more accurate to say Mrs. Child popularized cooking not only in the French manner but also on television, reintroducing Americans to the concept of a thoughtfully prepared home meal.

“Julia Child took such joy in what she did – whether trussing a chicken or flambéing a crepe – she infected the whole country with a love of the finer things,” says Adam Roberts, founder of food blog “The Amateur Gourmet” and author of best-selling book “Secrets of the Best Chefs.” “That, more than anything else, is her major contribution. Not just teaching us how to cook French food (though she did that too), but to make us understand the pleasures therein.”

Also noteworthy was that she reached millions of people.  “She was the first person cooking on television,” says Fern Berman, the publicist for Child’s television shows for over a decade. “She knew how to do it, how to draw people in. Most people wouldn’t cook boeuf bourguignon on their first show, but…that was Mrs. Child.”

Berman is one of the founders of Starchefs.com, the first online magazine devoted to all things food. After working with Child as her publicist for over a decade, the two became close friends. Berman credits Child’s approachability as one of the main keys to her success.

“She was not a chef,” says Berman. “She was a teacher.” After a pause, she added, “People just loved her.”

Born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, Calif. in the late summer of 1912, the future chef grew up in a rather privileged environment; her father was a real estate investor and her mother, heiress to the Weston Paper Company, was a housewife. From a young age, Child demonstrated a curious mind and headstrong spirit.

Nicknamed “JuJu,” “Juke” and “Jukies,” the young Child showed a precocious ability for schoolwork and sports at the Katherine Branson School. After her graduation from Smith College in 1934, Child moved to New York City. She tried her hand at copywriting, but found that living off the $18 a week left her wanting. After a few other jobs did not work out, she volunteered for the Red Cross as a stenographer, and developed a fantasy to join the military. Rejected by both the Navy and Army, reportedly for being too tall at 6-foot-2, the 29-year-old enlisted in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, and moved to Washington.

She eventually was transferred to Sri Lanka in 1945. There, Child’s life changed forever – she met Paul Child, another OSS agent.

A whirlwind year of romance later, the two married in Massachusetts. However, the post-honeymoon bliss stateside was cut short when Paul was reassigned to the American Embassy in Paris. While en route to Paris, the Childs dined at a restaurant in Rouen in 1948. In her book “My Life in France,” written with her husband’s great-nephew, Alex Prud’homme, Child describes this first meal of oysters, sole meuniere, wine and cheese as an “epiphany,” calling it “the most exciting meal of my life.” Somewhere between the first course and her last glass of wine, Child became obsessed with French cooking.

In an interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air” show on Nov. 14, 1989, Child recalled that first taste of French cuisine. “I was very much impressed with the food and I just…having started in cooking after we got married, I thought that I would go to the Cordon Bleu.”

After six months of formal training, she partnered with two other members from her class, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, and formed L’Ecole de Trois Gourmandes, or The School of the Three Gourmands. Together, they began Child’s dream: writing a cookbook on French cuisine for an American audience.

“Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” the two-volume cumulative effort of the three cooks, is now considered a culinary opus. It was the bestselling cookbook for five years after it was published in 1961, and after the release in 2009 of a hit movie starring Meryl Streep as the big personality chef, at least an additional 22,000 copies sold.

In a 2005 A&E special biography on Julia Child, chefs, restaurant owners, and authors discussed the influence of the 734-page cookbook. Its accessibility helped popularize the book, with some calling it “groundbreaking.”

“It was one of the first books to present everything in a step-by-step approach, which made it easy for people to follow and learn,”says Josiah Citrin, chef owner of Melisse Restaurant in Santa Monica, in the biography.

Despite the fact the cookbook was a group effort, in America the name associated with “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was not Simone Beck or Louisette Bertholle. That would be Julia Child. Why her over the other two? Why did she become a national sensation?

All signs point to Child’s remarkable debut on a Boston public television in 1963. Child was a guest on “I’ve Been Reading,” a book review show, to promote the cookbook. In an oft-quoted anecdote, the amiable chef brought along her own whisk, hot plate and eggs, making a perfect French omelet on-air. After an unprecedented number of viewers wrote and called in their exuberant praise for the segment, Child scored her show “The French Chef.”

Child’s legacy is she simplified a style of cooking people at the time felt intimidated by. Child showed a nation fed on processed and pre-packaged foods that French cooking was not just about food. It was about enjoying life. Child, with her trademark humorous and carefree manner, inspired the nation with her contagious enthusiasm.

EllynAnne Geisel, a writer for Huffington Post, interviewed Child two years before her death in 2002.

Why do we still remember her?  “We got to know her over a long period of time as an author, a speaker, a television personality, a chef,” says Geisel. “She was not a ‘domestic diva.’ She was an original.

She brought us into her home.”