Julia Child at the Miami Book Fair International of 1989
My earliest and most ardent memories of Julia Child are tied to my grandparents on my mother’s side. As a young child, I spent a good deal of time with them. My grandparents and their three daughters were refugees during WWII. In 1950, by way of luck and my grandfather’s ability to demonstrate his woodworking skills in a European State Department office, they came to America. Adjacent to my grandmother’s kitchen was a small dining room, where I sat diligently for lunch or dinner. These meals always had two identical traits: They were multi-coursed and European in style, and their occurrence at the same time every day was sacrosanct. Via the small television tucked in the corner of the dining room, my 6-year-old eyes noted my grandmother Rose seemed to have an oddly voiced doppelganger, who was generous, funny, statuesque and an ebullient force to be reckoned with.
From my perspective at the time, my grandmother and Julia Child had a lot in common. Chef Child was famously 6 feet 2 inches tall. Although my grandmother did not reach her stature, she was a substantial woman. Like Julia, she hacked up whole chickens in front of me, concocted steaming soups whose taste was greater than the sum of its parts and produced all manner of dishes tied with string, diced, reduced, pressed or roasted. Both women talked to me as they cooked; both seemed to intimate that I could someday do this, too; and both occasionally got caught up in the breathless fun of what they were doing – and, for moments, forgot about me completely.
Today marks what would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday. Passing away at the age of 92, just two days shy of what would have been her 93rd birthday, she is still ever-present in the American culinary scene, and arguably one of the major reasons we have one. In researching Chef Child, it was hard to find contributions from her that we – as Americans, eaters or home cooks – have not claimed as part of our culinary culture. I think she would have liked it that way.
Put simply, Julia Child made cooking cool. She hit the ground running when the world was ready for change; WWII was won with technology, the space race was on, and Madison Avenue was telling the world that Campbell’s soup dumped over chicken was a form of culinary advancement. She stood by the idea that with fresh ingredients and patient guidance, anyone could create delicious food from scratch.
She touched, supported, encouraged and engaged the generation of chefs who were young in her twilight years. Without them, we simply wouldn’t have the dining culture we have now, nor would we have the impetus to watch, write or talk about food the way we do. What she did in her 70s and 80s on television prefaced all of us who work in that medium. As I have forged my own food personality path, Julia has been there bit by bit, like a line prompter from the opera pit. I used to say, “But for the grace of [Anthony] Bourdain and [Andrew] Zimmern go I and “Wisconsin Foodie.’” The truth is she got there two decades before any of us.
She all but codified the importance of James Beard after his passing, ensuring that his house is an aspirational location for every American chef to cook in and that his posthumous foundation’s award eventually became the Oscars of food.
As we celebrate what would have been her 100th birthday, I hope that more than just foodies are taking notice. She culled what was dashing and best about European cuisine and made it both her own and distinctively American. With verve, she gave us a shove out to the culinary sea and created one of the best guidebooks ever written for that adventure. We should always love her for that.