Chef extraordinaire Julia Child would have been 100 today. After her death on Aug. 13, 2004, at the age of 91, AJC chief dining critic John Kessler penned the tribute below, as well as his personal remembrances of Child.
Kessler called her a “cultural touchstone, an incomparable personality, an iconoclastic voice of reason and a great wit.” We hope you enjoy his appreciations of Child as so many readers did when they were first published eight years ago.
AMERICA’S FRENCH CHEF: JULIA CHILD, 1912 – 2004:
By John Kessler
When Julia Child spoke, people mimicked. They trilled. They warbled. But they never quite got it.
The unique beauty of that voice wasn’t in the inimitable teeter of its pitch inasmuch as in its expansive wit, generosity and resonant affirmation of all the delicious possibilities of life.
Julia Child, the iconic cookbook author and television star, died early Friday morning at her home in Montecito, Calif., a few days shy of her 92nd birthday. Her longtime editor, Judith Jones, had spoken with her recently and said that although her mind was still sharp, her physical health had been deteriorating.
“She’s the pre-eminent figure in American food, ” said author Calvin Trillin. “She’s the reason we started to take food seriously.”
We loved her for it. Long before the word “omnimedia” was coined, Child captured America’s fancy in the early 1960s as both star of the PBS series “The French Chef” and author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Between the two, Child sent an entire generation of home cooks down a different path. Before Child, dinner was basic beef stew. After Child, it was boeuf bourguignon with each cube of meat seasoned and seared, then long simmered in a broth redolent with wine, bacon and herbs.
“What she taught us were the principles, ” Jones said. “It was the difference between careless cooking and good cooking.”
Julia McWilliams, a Californian who attended Smith College, never grew up with good food. In fact, she didn’t get started in her culinary pursuits until age 36, after her interest in espionage landed her a career with the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. Her job landed her postings in Washington, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China during World War II. Along the way, she met and married Paul Child, also a civil servant. In 1948, when he was posted to the American Embassy in Paris, Julia began taking classes at the famed Cordon Bleu culinary institute.
That led to the opening of her own cooking school with two French colleagues, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertolle, called “L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes.” Pooling their experiences and recipes, the three collaborated on “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, ” which was first published in 1961 and went on to become one of the definitive English-language cookbooks of all time.
An inspiration in kitchens across the nation
A generation of American home cooks followed these meticulously detailed and then-exotic recipes. They were time-consuming but always rewarding — proof that the fine French food we had tried in Paris restaurants could be reproduced in a Marietta kitchen.
Yet it wasn’t until the Childs had moved to Massachusetts that Julia became a recognizable media celebrity for her appearances on the PBS television series “The French Chef.” The program first aired in 1963 when she was 51. She earned both an Emmy and a Peabody award. Julia continued her relationship with PBS throughout her life. After the lengthy run of “The French Chef, ” she turned her focus to American contemporary cooking with a number of different series.
She also continued writing cookbooks, among them a companion volume to “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, ” written with Beck in 1970, and a definitive, amply illustrated book of basic techniques and recipes called “The Way to Cook, ” published in 1989.
In her later years, Julia continued to give culinary demonstrations and appeared at fund-raisers for PBS and the American Institute of Wine & Food.
Paul Child died in 1994. In late 2001, Julia Child, a longtime resident of Cambridge, Mass., moved to Santa Barbara to an assisted living facility. The couple had no children, but Child is survived by a sister, Dorothy Cousins, and several nieces and nephews. She was writing an autobiography with the help of a great-nephew when she died.
— Meridith Ford, also an AJC staff writer at the time, contributed to this article.
– John Kessler: My personal remembrances of Julia Child
– For the AJC Food & More blog