Julia Child has had an extraordinary impact on American culture. One only need note the rise of the Food Network, the spread of celebrity chefs, the ubiquity of wine at restaurants, and the overwhelming trend of foodie-ism to gauge the depth of her influence. She was a groundbreaker, too, as a successful career-woman and a popular television personality among men and women alike, when being a housewife was the norm for women of her class.
Bob Spitz, author of the bestselling "The Beatles," has compiled a comprehensive and compelling biography in Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, that also functions effectively as a history of 20th-century American culture on topics ranging from the evolution of the O.S.S. to the quirks of public television. At 530 pages, it’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s sure to satisfy those with appetites whetted by the memoir turned film, "Julie and Julia," who crave more of Child’s early life and later success.
Julia McWilliams’ youth was remarkable only for her outsized personality and utter lack of interest in cooking. Born to a wealthy Republican Pasadena family, she was raised to be a demure debutante. The only signs of future celebrity lay in her role as adventurer, instigator, and rule-breaker, whether by claiming leads in schoolyard skits, smoking, or being rescued from the chimney of a vacant house she’d broken into. She wasn’t much of a student at prep school or at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass., where socializing fueled her more.
She was rescued from a decade of empty social engagements by the war. At 30, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she landed a job, first as a typist in the Office of War Information, and then at the O.S.S. It was this move that led to her travels in South Asia where she met Paul Childs, perhaps the greatest influence in her personal and professional development. Ten years her senior, Paul was instrumental to Julia’s exposure to other cultures and burgeoning interest in food. Paul was also difficult in ways, as an artist with a thwarted career, stuck in a series of unrewarding governmental jobs. Their marriage makes for a moving read, in particular the balance Julia struck between her devotion to him and the practical choices she made to move forward with her career once Paul’s health deteriorated later in life.
That career began with a desire to improve her cooking and was spurred on by the fascination and awe she felt for French cuisine. Culinary curiosity led to lessons at Le Cordon Bleu, inspiring experimentation in her tiny Parisian kitchen to a degree that brings innovators like Bill Gates to mind. In fact, Child could easily be a case-study in Malcolm Gladwell’s "Outliers," as a woman who achieved immense success, in part due to circumstance, but most strikingly, because of the time she devoted to her craft. Spitz emphasizes that “[h]our upon hour was devoted to cooking, analyzing, tasting, recalibrating, cooking again and again and again and again,” to perfect the recipes that would comprise her chef d’oeuvre, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."
Her childlessness, part chance and part choice – here, Spitz’s account is uncharacteristically spare – left Julia free to pursue cooking and authorship at full tilt. (See Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent controversial, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” for possible correlations between ultra-successful career-women and opting out of motherhood.) Her television career was sparked by an appearance on WGBH, where she was a natural, charming the audience with her down-to-earth sensibility while entertaining them with her quirky humor, qualities that endured throughout her long and storied career. Here, too, hours of practice off-screen and support from now-retired Paul were as key to her success as was her unique sense of play.
Her timing was good, too. The experimentation and translation of recipes in the 1950’s led to the launch of her series "The French Chef" in the early 1960’s, just as JKF introduced a new era of chic by hiring an actual French chef for the White House. (Imagine the fallout were the Obamas to pull this “elitist” move today!)
Mainly, though, Julia Child’s life makes for a fascinating read less for its circumstances than for her complexity and strength of character: After a decade in Europe, she became an American icon, embodying domesticity, yet promoting women’s rights through Planned Parenthood, as well as in restaurant kitchens, and working tirelessly out of love of her art until her death in 2004. What better way to celebrate her centenary!
Elizabeth Toohey is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.