Julia Child was the classic late bloomer. It took her half a lifetime to figure out what she wanted to do with herself, and thank goodness she did or our own lives would be different. At least our culinary lives.
Child was nearly 50 when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published and over that monumental threshold when she made a splash on TV, a medium that she loved and that loved her in return for the rest of her life. It is not hyperbole to say that Child, who died in 2004 just two days before turning 92, was one of the most influential culinary figures of the 20th century. She changed the way we cooked, coming along at a time when TV dinners threatened a complete takeover of the American kitchen.
Timed to her 100th birthday on Aug. 15, Bob Spitz's exhaustive biography Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child travels some familiar terrain but also unearths new details, especially about her early days and her love of pranks. Even as a child she was known as a fun-loving troublemaker, a trait she maintained throughout her life. "Without pleasure there was no payoff" for Child, who was offended by conformity and sought to prove that throughout her life.
Much of Child's story is well-known. Julia McWilliams was the daughter of privilege, growing up pre-Depression in idyllic Pasadena, Calif. She graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts and then went on to become an advertising copywriter in New York. She dreamed of writing novels, but early efforts were dashed by poor grammar.
She went on to work at the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C., and was posted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1944 and then to China. While in Ceylon, she met Paul Child, who also worked for the OSS. They fell in love and were married in 1946. Their devotion to each other is well-documented, with him eventually becoming her manager. A widely printed photo from a PBS set shows him wiping her brow. They never had children, and he died 10 years before she did.
Paul Child was eventually posted to Paris, where Julia Child had her culinary awakening. She had not been much of a cook before that, but her appetite for life bloomed in the city of abundant food.
She wanted to learn how to cook like the French, and her husband encouraged her to enroll in classes at the acclaimed Cordon Bleu cooking school. Her tenure there was rocky — the 6-foot-3-inch American woman was quite a startling figure in the mostly male classes — but it led her to the cooking club Cercle des Gourmettes. There she met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, and the three of them would eventually craft a cookbook that translated French cooking for an American audience. Their relationship was not without rancor, and she eventually become the face of the project.
Spitz, a seasoned biographer with books about the Beatles and Bob Dylan, can be a clunky writer. He overuses exclamation points, making some sentences seem like a teenager's tweets. "Paris! Was it really possible?" and then several paragraphs later, "In Paris! Julia and Paul were giddy with anticipation." Okay, we get it.
He also has a tendency to use cringe-worthy food analogies, like Child taking in the "whole samosa" of India, a play on the phrase "whole enchilada."
In general, though, Spitz does a wonderful job of painting a complete picture of Child, not just perpetuating the Dan Aykroyd Saturday Night Live parody, which, by the way, she loved.
By the end of the book, Spitz, whether he means to or not, lays out a case that Julia Child might not have been Julia Child had she peaked 15 years earlier or 15 years later. Child was in the right place at the right time to make a huge impact on the cultural landscape. Plus she had that indomitable spirit.
Her promotion of Mastering the Art of French Cooking coincided with the early, heady days of the John F. Kennedy White House, when the country was not only enamored of him but of the first lady and her interest in all things French.
Fledgling public television was in need of someone to take it beyond smoking men sitting at tables talking about books. Child's supreme self-confidence radiated from the screen, convincing even the most novice home cook that she could conquer a souffle.
Child became good friends with powerful cookbook author James Beard at the height of his influence. With her typical loyalty, she spearheaded the fundraising effort to establish the James Beard Foundation and give it a permanent home in Beard's New York brownstone after his death.
Had Child come along 15 years later, she would not have been able to maintain as much autonomy as she did. She refused endorsement deals, a common practice in today's media landscape.
In her last shows on PBS, the network she remained loyal to, she paired with chef Jacques Pépin, who often disagreed with her but usually let her have her way. Even to the end, she was a bit of a scamp, irritating Pépin and putting off some Kendall-Jackson Winery executives in the studio audience when she surprised them all on air by saying the day's meal would be paired with beer and not wine.
Another reminder that Julia Child did it her way.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.