Happy Birthday, Julia Child!

Celebrating the woman who changed how we cook. Aug. 15 marks the 100th birthday of Julia Child.

Terry Boyd
Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

To mark the 100th anniversary of Julia Child’s birth, PBS.org recently invited a number of chefs and food bloggers to share tributes to Julia, to tell a little about how the seminal cookbook author, TV personality and larger than life person had influenced them. They were kind enough to include me on their list.

You’ll find Julia sprinkled throughout the pages of Blue Kitchen (and it’s interesting that we all feel comfortable enough with her to call her that, not Ms. Child – but that was the kind of warmth and comfort she always inspired). There are actual recipes, of course, starting with Potage Parmentier, the simple six-ingredient potato leek soup she made for her beloved husband and collaborator Paul almost every day. And there was Skate Meunière with browned butter and capers, based on the life-changing sole meunière Julia ate on her first day in France with Paul.

But Julia is elsewhere on Blue Kitchen, too. A few summers ago, when we took a trip to Washington, D.C. and made a pilgrimage to her kitchen at the Smithsonian, I shared that experience here. And when the movie "Julie & Julia" came out and we, like just about every other food geek, saw it the first weekend, I wrote a piece about what Julia taught us and why we could use a few more Julias today.

So looking for something new to say about her for this PBS tribute was a bit of a challenge. Many of the other tributes mentioned her well-documented fearlessness or her embracing life to the fullest, both qualities I strive for with varying (and usually limited) degrees of success. But another Julia quality came to mind as I thought about her and how she had influenced me and my cooking: Stay curious.

Julia grew up in a comfortably well-to-do, conservative Pasadena household. She could have easily fallen into a California ladies-who-lunch life of parties and perhaps a pet charity or two. Instead, she went to work for the OSS and met her husband Paul in Ceylon. When they moved to Paris and she fell in love with French food, she went to one of the best cooking schools to learn more about it.

Her curiosity about everything caused her to devour life, not just live it. Even on her later cooking shows, in which she shared cooking duties with other chefs, this acknowledged kitchen virtuoso was delighted to learn from her guests. You could see her watching them intently, occasionally commenting on some technique they employed, some ingredient they added, with a statement that often began with some version of “Oh, now that’s interesting….”

Staying curious is something I’m good at. My magpie eye is always looking for some shiny new object to snatch up. In cooking, those shiny objects can take the form of ingredients or techniques I’ve never tried, a new kitchen tool, or even a random phrase on a vague menu description. As with many food writers – especially those of us who write about our own cooking – every once in a while, I hit a wall. I ask myself why I’m doing this. Inevitably, within the next day or two, I’ll see something that channels my inner Julia, stirring my curiosity and making me think “Oh, now that’s interesting….”

Julia’s birthday is Aug. 15. You can read more tributes to the woman who changed the way America cooks on PBS Food.

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