Julia Child taping a TV show in her kitchen; photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives
At the age of thirty, Julia McWilliams was adrift. She’d squandered an elite education at boarding schools and Smith College, and had struggled to find meaningful work in the decade since college. She’d suffered a broken heart, but remained unattached. She was a bottle rocket of enthusiasm for life, but lacked an outlet for her energy. Perhaps, she thought, politics was her calling, and a job in Washington led her to an administrative position with the Office of Strategic Servies (OSS) in Ceylon. In Ceylon she met her future husband Paul Child, and through Paul, she discovered her life’s passion: food.
As Bob Spitz writes in “Dearie,” his biography of the woman who became such a force in American food culture her kitchen is preserved in the Smithsonian, “Julia Child was huge.” At six foot three, with strong bone structure and an ample chin, she was physically imposing, but her personality was even larger. Her singular hooting, fluting voice, her saucy sense of humor, her endless appetite for hard work, and her genius instinct for self-promotion made her a natural star. In “Dearie,” published this month in conjunction with the centennial of her birth, Spitz shows that while she had a bone-deep, lifelong love of food, her greatest natural gift was not with a paring knife, but with a TV camera.
Child was not an instinctive cook. Early attempts in the kitchen were disasters (due in part to poorly written, overly vague recipes) and her love of eating didn’t translate into a discriminating palate, at first. It was only when she was overseas with the OSS, first in Ceylon, then China, that she began educating herself (with Paul Child’s help) about what tasted good, and why. After she married Paul and the couple was transferred to Paris, she began her gustatory education in earnest, spending most of Paul’s salary going to restaurants before enrolling in the Cordon Bleu cooking school, where, through dint of sheer hard work and countless hours in the kitchen, she transformed herself into a respectable home chef.
If you’ve seen the movie Julie & Julia or read Child’s memoir, “My Life in France,” the Paris section of Spitz’s book will be familiar, but it is still thrilling to read as Child, by then in her mid-thirties, finally comes into her own, deeply in love with Paul, Paris, and French food. At the Cordon Bleu, she steamrolls an anti-American administrator who won’t let her take the professional course, and charms nearly everyone else she meets. What begins as a three-way collaboration on a book of classic French recipes turns into Mastering the Art of French Cooking, with Julia, predictably, stealing the show. The details of the endless publishing headaches and contract negotiations can drag the narrative in this section, but serve to illuminate how skeptical publishers were at the time about American readers’ appetite for a serious, detailed, complicated cookbook. By comparison, a popular recipe for coq au vin in a best-selling cookbook of the era was 24 words long and had five ingredients. The Mastering recipe took up four pages.
Spitz really hits his stride once Child starts taping the free-spirited cooking demonstrations for WGBH in Boston that would eventually become her iconic show, The French Chef. Child was an instant, if unlikely, star: “There was something intrinsically genuine about this anti-personality, this plain-looking, enormously appealing character in a boxy cotton blouse,” he writes. She wasn’t perky like Rachael Ray, or sultry like Padma Lakshmi, or hyper like Emeril Lagasse, but from day one, Child presented herself as a brand, presaging the era of personality-based TV “food stars.” According to Spitz, this was less due to calculated image grooming on Child’s part than the result of her naturally oversized personality finding its match in the medium.
After The French Chef had run its course, several other books and TV shows followed, some more successful than others (one debacle had Child holding court in a flowing caftan and heavy makeup). Despite ailing health and the devastating loss of her beloved Paul, Child continued to work nonstop throughout her eighties, and kept her enthusiasm for food until the very end, having friends sneak her milkshakes and other forbidden foods when she was in the hospital in her final days. “Dearie” is a compelling portrait of how Child changed the America cooked, and ate, but it’s also a chronicle of one woman’s insatiable appetite for life.