Chef, author, and television personality Julia Child was passionate about long-form cooking in an era when most American women were deeply in love with their can openers. She co-wrote the thorough, exhaustively tested “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” for a country content with casseroles and Jell-O molds. She became the star of her own cooking show, “The French Chef,” as TV was coming into its own, long before channels devoted solely to food would seem anything but mad. It is easy to see her as ahead of her time, but it is more accurate to say she was right on schedule for ours. Her career wasn’t a predictor of things to come. It helped shaped them. Without her, US food culture would be very different.
The publication of a new biography, “Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child,” coincides with what would have been her 100th birthday on Aug. 15. By Beatles biographer Bob Spitz, the book chronicles her life story in great detail, although many will already know the basics from the 2009 film “Julie and Julia,” in which she was played by Meryl Streep. And the reach of her influence today is clear: Her centennial is being marked by PBS retrospectives, special menus at restaurants nationwide, all-Child dinners created by food bloggers and home cooks, and a social-media celebration, JC100, hosted by her longtime publisher (and Spitz’s), Knopf.
What was it about Child that made the nation adore her — enough to collectively drop the can opener, take up the whisk, and buy a proper omelet pan? Spitz argues it was her willingness to be herself. When Child made her appearance on public television, a manufactured media persona was not yet required. There was room in front of the camera for a 6-foot-3, middle-aged woman who sounded like a jolly, highly cultured Muppet. And when Child attempted to flip a potato pancake, lost half of it on the stovetop, returned it to the pan, and told her viewers, “You can always pick it up if you’re alone in the kitchen, whooo is going to see?,” she gave them the freedom to make mistakes. It wasn’t that American housewives weren’t interested in preparing “gourmet” food. They were intimidated. She introduced the then-radical notion that cooking could be fun.
Watching “The French Chef” was as aspirational as it was practical. What could be more sophisticated than, as Child called it jokingly, “La Kweezeen”? And who better to acclimatize America to French food and culture than this enthusiastic, relatable ambassador? She herself lacked purpose until a fateful 1948 lunch in Rouen when her husband, Paul, introduced her to sole meuniere and her second great love, cooking. “A meal was about to change Julia Child’s life,” as Spitz writes. She had always felt special, she just wasn’t sure what to do about it. “Dearie” quotes from her own writings, after she was fired from a PR job with a home-furnishing company in 1940: “When I was in school and later, I felt I had particular and unique spiritual gifts . . . That I was meant for something, and was like no one else. It hadn’t come out yet, but it was there warm and latent. Today, it has gone out and I am sadly an ordinary person.”
Of course, she wasn’t.
“Dearie” — which takes its title from the endearment Child so frequently used — dwells on these early years, when she lacked direction and drive. It begins with her girlhood in Pasadena, Calif., then takes readers chronologically through each chapter of her life. Child was born to the conservative McWilliams clan (her father vocally despised the French) and established herself early as a rule breaker, a mischief maker, and a natural leader. She also ate like a horse, and about as indiscriminately. “[F]ood was nothing but fuel to Julia,” writes Spitz. Like her mother before her, she attended Smith College, where she was an undistinguished student who excelled at sports, drama, and drunken hell-raising; she aspired to marriage, but any career ambitions were fuzzy. After graduation, she eventually landed a job as a girl Friday, living in New York on a tiny salary and an allowance from home. It was “Girls: The Prequel.”
Child’s aimless, unconfident years can be reassuring to read about. They are an inspiration for late bloomers everywhere — just not necessarily for readers. “Dearie” doesn’t pick up until Child hits 30 and moves to D.C. to get involved in the war effort. Before that, it’s all suitors, society, and self-doubt. Other biographers are more concerned with insight and context. Spitz is a completist, not a curator. He details every real estate transaction, friendship, relocation, and career development, giving them all equal airspace. “Dearie” could have been a lot more succinct, and thus more compelling. Then again, so could many of the Harry Potter books. For readers in love with the subject, more is often more.
And the more interesting Child’s life becomes, the more interesting the book does. In 1942, she landed an administrative position at the Office of Strategic Services. Was she a spy? If not quite, she wasn’t a file clerk, either — she handled, and was intimately familiar with, classified intelligence. Remembered OSS member Fisher Howe, “Those files practically ran the Secretariat, with all its operational and sensitive intelligence. It had to be handled very carefully, which was entrusted entirely to Julia.” The work brought her to places like India, Ceylon, and China, and into the orbit of Paul Child — career diplomat, gifted artist, romantic, crank.
When he was reassigned to Paris, Julia Child’s culinary awakening began. She enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu, where she learned to cook alongside a rough group of GIs. She met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom she would write the impossibly influential “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” (Spitz’s account of the volume’s success makes one nostalgic. Will there ever again be a book bought by so many that isn’t poorly written erotica?) It paved the way for television appearances and more books — and for food culture as we know it today, with its celebrity chefs, 24/7 food television, obsessive “foodies,” and countless bloggers who document every bite they eat, every dish they cook, in painstaking detail.
Child’s relationships were as formative as her work. She connected with the likes of Alice Waters, whom she precociously called elitist, and James Beard, who became a dear friend. When he died, his house was to be sold. Child, irate, helped raise the money to buy and preserve it. Thus the James Beard Foundation was born. She was a great champion of upcoming chefs — Jody Adams, Wolfgang Puck, Lydia Shire, Jasper White — even when they diverged from her beloved French cooking. “Like Julia, thirty years earlier, they were about to change the way Americans ate. She recognized what their contribution would mean. It was everything she wanted: new blood, fresh ideas, real commitment, forceful personalities, ambition, youth.” Her support paved the way for the restaurant scene as we know it. It is difficult to imagine what food in America would look like without Child. And it is difficult to imagine someone like Child finding her place today. Our television food personalities are macho, meat-eating men and pert, pretty women who return the focus to the kind of convenience Child persuaded us to renounce, at least some of the time.
By the end of “Dearie,” Child has emerged as the woman we know: passionate about food, wine, and men, dismissive of the “food police,” advocate of all rich things in moderation. Spitz portrays her as irreverent and un-P.C., potty-mouthed, sometimes contrary, and always willing to laugh at herself. (She found Dan Aykroyd’s portrayal of her on “Saturday Night Live” hilarious.) She worked tirelessly and made herself available to all — anyone who had a question could just look her up in the phone book and give her a call.
The book offers enlightening and surprising details — Child, who lobbied for equal treatment of women in the culinary world and was a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood, was homophobic until a friend developed AIDS; she loved Costco hot dogs as much as a fine French meal; she was originally booked on the American Airlines flight to Los Angeles on Sept. 11, 2001.
However, Spitz is often a clunky storyteller, prone to redundancies, dangling modifiers, and ham-handed turns of phrase. Both Childs, quoted throughout the book, had a real way with words, particularly Paul, who penned long, thoughtful letters nearly every day of his life. Their voices show up Spitz’s. He writes breathlessly, with many italics and exclamation points, unable to resist a silly joke or pun.
Perhaps there is a reason for his giddiness. He traveled with Child in Sicily in 1992, deciding afterward he wanted to write her biography. “If I have to admit to one prejudice confronting this book it is that I had a powerful crush on her. Sorry. Deal with it,” he writes. In that, he was far from alone.
It was 1962 when Child first hit the airwaves. By 1980, when she began appearing on “Good Morning America,” Spitz writes, “[f]ood — cuisine — was storming the mainstream culture, and television was, in large measure, carrying the flag. You could turn on any channel at any time in the morning and encounter a chef demonstrating a picture-perfect dish.” Child didn’t arrive early to the dinner party. She threw it. And everybody came.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.