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 as we celebrate her 100th birthday Wednesday, 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 Child biography “Dearie.”
“She let women who watched her feel that they would be heard, that they could do anything she could do,” he 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 Pasadena, Calif., 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 at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, then began work on “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with two French colleagues. It was a game-changing cookbook that, unlike its predecessors, outlined every step of a recipe.
That was a bold change for the American palate in 1961, an era in thrall to the convenience food industry.
It was a time of social – and particularly gender – upheaval in America: The birth control pill was introduced, sexual mores were changing, women were working. Americans were making money, buying houses, supporting the growth of lifestyle magazines, including Gourmet.
And anything French was in fashion. The Kennedys – and their French chef – were in the White House. Jackie wore Chanel and Dior. She spoke fluent French. French food such as coquilles St. Jacques and quiche already had made it into middle class homes, culinary historian Laura Shapiro says, and there were even some French cookbooks around. Soldiers had returned from Europe more worldly, and the advent of inexpensive airline travel meant more Americans were seeing foreign lands.
Then “Mastering” arrived on the scene.
“People were waiting for that book,” Shapiro says.
Yet it got off to a slow start, cookbook editor Judith Jones says. It was helped by a swooning review from New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, but it was when Child got on television that her appeal and message finally saturated the culture.
Child, who died in 2004 a few days short of her 92nd birthday, was an outspoken champion of women’s causes.
In the cooking world, she made it her mission to get women into professional kitchens. She famously took on the Culinary Institute of America, berating the institution for not enrolling enough women, and she regularly kept tabs on the progress of women in the industry.
“Julia always considered herself a feminist. Always. But not in a fundamentalist sort of way,” says biographer Spitz. “When she got to the states and ate in restaurants, she would march into the kitchen and say, ‘How many women are in here?’ She would tell the great chefs, ‘You need more women here.’ ”
But others say such a label is limiting. Sara Moulton, Food Network host and longtime executive chef of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, was one of the young women Child took under her wing.
“What I really understood from Julia Child was that if you really, really want something you shouldn’t let anything get in your way,” Moulton says. “I don’t really think it’s feminism. She would have given the same message to a man. She was willing to go into a man’s world and cook this food that women weren’t cooking. She’s a role model.”