August 15

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    Julia Child

    Julia Child

    On this date in 1912, Julia Child, neé McWilliams, became the first-born child of heiress Dorothy Weston McWillams and Princeton grad and investor John McWilliams Jr. She inherited the Weston family height — topping 6-foot-3, and the Weston “hoot,” a product of unusually long vocal cords. She did not inherit her father’s arch-conservatism. Biographer Bob Spitz writes: “Conformity: There wasn’t so much as a trace of it in her DNA.”

    She went to the Katharine Branson School in 1927 and rebelled against requirements that students attend church and carry a bible to school. “Even as a teenager, Julia was outspoken in her attitude toward religion. ‘She thought it was rot,’ says a family member familiar with her beliefs,” according to Spitz. A Democrat, she once swore she would never vote for a Catholic, “as a Catholic could not be a free man,” until her dislike of Nixon changed her mind.

    She graduated from Smith College in 1934 but was unable to settle on a career or a family. A late bloomer, she took a wartime job with the Office of Strategic Services in 1941, working in intelligence. She met Paul Child on a wartime post in Sri Lanka. After a courtship extending to postwar China, the couple married in 1946. Paul’s diplomatic post took her to Paris. After her legendary first meal in France — sole meuniere — she never looked back. She studied at Cordon Bleu, devoting herself to “mastering the art of French cooking,” as her first cookbook would later be called.

    Two Frenchwomen with a goal of writing a French cookbook in English enlisted Child in their project in the early 1950s. Simone “Simca” Beck provided the family recipes and French authenticity while Child provided rigorous scientific testing. Over the next decade she researched, wrote, tested and rewrote hundreds of recipes, as she and Paul moved through diplomatic postings in Paris, Marseilles, Norway and finally home to the U.S. After many rejections and disappointments, Knopf finally published Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961. The book would transform how some Americans ate, introducing fine cuisine to people used to  Wonder Bread, Jell-O, tuna casseroles and TV dinners.

    WGBH in Boston launched “The French Chef” in 1962. Child at age 50 started an unlikely but nearly four-decade-long TV career. She mesmerized audiences with her skillful live demonstrations, insouciance, improvisation and earthy humor. It was syndicated to over 90 stations, won Peabody and Emmy awards and led to a second book, named after the show. Other shows followed: “Julia Child and Company” (1978), “Julia Child and More Company” (1980) and appearances on “Good Morning America.” Child cooked, researched, wrote and made countless appearances into her late 80s, working with chefs and celebrities in other fields.

    Her other books included a second volume of her classic work, “In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs” (1995), “Baking with Julia” (1996) and “Julia’s Delicious Little Dinners” (1999). She was the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame (1993). In 2000 she received France’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur. Child was a lifelong progressive, actively supporting abortion rights and doing benefits for Planned Parenthood. Her husband’s slow decline and death was a blow, but she kept working until almost age 90, dying of kidney failure just shy of her 92nd birthday in 2004.

    Photo by Elsa Doorman in 1988 under CC 3.0.

    “I hated having to go to church.”

    —Child, quoted in "Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child” by Bob Spitz (2012)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

Freedom From Religion Foundation