Child, Julia

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

(1912–2004), writer of two influential post-war cookery books, who also persuaded a generation that French cooking was both fun and worthwhile through her television performances in the 1960s. Born in comfortable circumstances in California, she was educated at Smith College. In the Second World War she served in the registry of the Office of Strategic Services mainly in the Far East. There she met her husband, the artist and photographer Paul Child. Until 1961, he pursued a career in the United States Information Service and then the regular foreign service (rising at last to the rank of cultural attaché in Oslo), with Julia fully playing the part of diplomatic wife as he was posted first to Paris, then to Marseilles, and to Bonn. Perhaps better to master that role, she took a full-time course in cookery at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris in 1949–50. While studying, she fell in with her future collaborators Louisette Bertholle and, more important, Simone Beck. The trio combined to start a cookery school (Les Trois Gourmandes) in Bertholle’s kitchen in 1952, teaching tiny classes of American women. Bertholle and Beck had already written a short book explaining French cookery and it was Bertholle who first proposed a large extension to that work. This was the germ of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volume I, which was finally published in 1961, having been through many vicissitudes. Volume II appeared in 1970 under the authorship of Beck and Child alone. The earnest length of each recipe set a marker for american cookbook production for some time to come. The first volume had prompted a short appearance on public educational television in Boston (now Julia’s home town) and this developed by stages into a full-blown series broadcast from 1963 called The French Chef. Her natural manner, her mature demeanour, her clear explanations (without patronizing her audience), her almost legendary gaffes, her singular voice and accent combined to seduce an ever-widening public. By 1966 she was on the cover of Time magazine. Although she wrote other books and made more TV programmes, none eclipsed those of the 1960s. Towards the end of her active later life, she promoted and supported both the American Institute of Wine and Food and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. In an America sinking beneath mountains of unpleasant manufactured food, her advocacy of French cookery, good materials, and careful preparation was a vital step towards reclaiming the kitchen. Her apparent sophistication happily combined with the arrival of Kennedy in the White House to turn many Americans away from TV dinners and towards good butchers. It was also the start of a torrent of home dinner parties that may have ruined many a friendship. Her rediscovery by the food blogger Julie Powell (2005), and the film that followed, have cemented her place in America’s affections.