Three Cheers for Julia
Most people remember Julia Child as the effervescent television personality who created one of America’s first cooking shows, “The French Chef ,” which premiered on WGBH in Boston in February 1963. The show was huge hit, setting Julia on a path she would follow for the rest of her life, one that would cast her legacy as one of our nation’s most iconic and influential people, and would eventually revolutionize our relationship with food and the people who produce it.
Like most kids growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I watched Julia on TV regularly. I remember marveling at the fact that she had two ovens in her kitchen. I never failed to be impressed by the fancy table settings at the end of each episode, when she would sit down to serve whatever incredible delight she had just created.
It wasn’t until much later, though, when I was in my 30s and had learned more about Julia’s life, that I began to appreciate what a brave, intelligent and remarkable woman she was. Born in 1912, Julia defied convention by choosing her own path. In the process, she challenged both the traditional role of women in society and the idea that at some point a person can be too old to reinvent themselves — an attitude we still struggle with today.
Born into an upper-middle-class Southern California family, Julia, whose birth name was McWilliams, was expected to marry young and live the life of a society housewife. Instead, after graduating from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in 1934, Julia worked in New York City as an advertising copywriter. When World War II began, Julia was turned away from the Women’s Army Corps because of her height (she was 6 feet 2), so she joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, where she worked as a research assistant — a job that eventually required her to board a ship by herself and sail halfway around the world to work in offices in China and what today is Sri Lanka.
Julia married fellow OSS employee Paul Child in 1946, an artist and photographer 10 years her senior — of whom her family strongly disapproved — when she was 34 years old. The couple moved to Paris, where Paul continued to work for the government and Julia, at age 36, enrolled in the male-dominated Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.
Julia eventually went on, with the help of fellow female chefs Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, and husband Paul, to produce the now-legendary 726-page cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” After being rejected by scores of publishers for nearly a decade, and endless revisions, the book was finally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1961. More than 1.5 million copies have been sold, according to the food website TheDailyMeal.com.
Julia was invited to discuss the book on a WGBH talk show, where she opted to make an omelet. Her skills and personality so impressed viewers that the appearance eventually led to the launch of Julia’s television career at age 50 and her many other cookbooks, but it was her unflappable spirit, natural curiosity and work ethic that made it all possible. She refused to give up until she reached her goals, no matter how difficult and discouraging things must have been at times. She didn’t let her age, the fact she was a woman, or other people’s opinions stop her from doing what she wanted. Almost as important, she never believed she was extraordinary, and she wasn’t afraid to make mistakes.
Julia believed that being able to cook delicious food would make people’s lives, and the world, better. “If I can do it, you can do it,” was her favorite thing to say whenever she demonstrated a technique that was particularly difficult, and she meant it.
I keep a photograph of Julia Child beside my desk. She is my inspiration, my hero and often my muse. Like her, I didn’t discover what I was meant to do until later in life: I was 36 when my first magazine article was published. This year, at age 47, I will publish my first novel.
I think of Julia often when I feel discouraged, when I feel like I might be too old to accomplish anything more notable than I already have, or that I’m not talented or smart enough to reach the goals I’ve set for myself.
“Nonsense!” I hear Julia say.
And so I go back to my keyboard and keep writing.
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