She wanted to be a spy, and she did work (supposedly as a file clerk) for a World War II-era intelligence agency that preceded the CIA. But it’s impossible to imagine what the culinary arts would have been, had Julia Child not taken a Cordon Bleu course in Paris as a young bride and found her true calling in food.
Generations of women became confident and capable cooks by reading her many bestselling books including "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (which she said could have been subtitled "French Cooking from the American Supermarket") and "The Way to Cook," or by watching "The French Chef" (the longest-running program in the history of public television) and her several later series. She pioneered cooking on TV before the Food Network, before chefs were rock stars. She introduced her audience to “the chicken sisters” (Miss Capon, Ms. Fryer, Mrs. Roaster, and Mother Hen), ending each show with a jaunty “Bon Appetit!” She allowed for mistakes, even disasters. If a leg of lamb slid off its platter at a dinner party, she gave permission to say, “Not to worry -- I have another one just like it in the kitchen.”
She was an original -- a little wacky and a lot cheeky. That towering frame (over six feet tall). That sonorous voice (part posh boarding school, part cheese grater), skillfully captured by Meryl Streep in the film "Julie & Julia." Asked by David Letterman if she ever cooked anything awful, she answered, “Sure…I give it to my husband.” Apparently, Paul Child didn’t mind -- theirs was a long and devoted marriage. It was his idea to create a pantry in their home with a pegboard to hang Julia’s pots and pans, each marked with an outline so it would be returned to its rightful place. There was a sign on the wall about protecting the garbage disposal (“Beware onion skins”). That kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is now replicated in the Smithsonian, including her 800 knives.
I interviewed Julia at her home a few years after her husband died. She was testing a recipe for mayonnaise that did not require raw eggs, and she’d made chicken salad for our lunch. I was newly vegetarian, but I ate Julia Child’s chicken salad -- I would have eaten fried snake eyeballs if that’s what was on the menu.
She had started “keeping company” with a gentleman who’d also been recently widowed. The two couples had been friends for some years. I remarked that he was a lucky man to be squiring a woman considered by many to be the best cook in the world. “Actually,” she said, “he likes very simple, plain food.” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “But men are good for other things, you know.”
Who knows if she got to be a spy, but she became the first woman inducted into the hall of fame at the other CIA -- the Culinary Institute of America. She was as quintessentially American as her classic tuna fish casserole, but she brought the exotica of souffles and quenelles within our grasp. Her recipes were so precise and detailed that it always seemed like she was right there in the kitchen looking over our shoulders. She still is.
Watch the magic of Julia Child and Martha making the fancy French dessert croquembouche together: