By Bill Daley, Tribune Newspapers
August 15, 2012
Julia Child was television's beloved "French Chef." Though she was actually neither French nor a chef, she led generations of viewers enchanted by her ebullient personality and practical, can-do cookery into the kitchen. The impact of that still reverberates through American culture.
"People would not be eating as well today without Julia,'' says Judith Jones, the legendary Knopf editor who championed Child's first book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," in 1961. "Julia gave people a sense of pride in cooking."
Aug. 15 would have been Child's 100th birthday. Publishers are releasing biographies. Special dinners are being hosted, including one for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where the kitchen from Child's house in Cambridge, Mass., is on display. Home cooks and bloggers are cooking Child's recipes and posting the results online. Writers, like me, are writing about her anew.
"What's left to say about Julia?" asks Betty Fussell, who profiled Child in "Masters of American Cookery: The American Food Revolution & the Chefs Who Shaped It" back in 1983. "A lot of people have said a lot about Julia — including Julia."
Indeed. Her story had been retold enough that the outline is fairly familiar. Julia was a very late-bloomer. She didn't marry Paul Child until she was 34 (unusual in the 1940s). She discovered cooking as a passion after arriving in Paris at age 36. She burst onto the American culinary scene with "Mastering" at the age of 49 and became a TV phenomenon at 51.
Child did not look like the typical 1960's TV star. She was tall, about 6-foot-2, and dressed for the camera in a sensible skirt and blouse adorned with the badge of her old cooking school in Paris. Her voice warbled dramatically.
"Very early in her life, I think she realized — forgive the pun — she had to go big or go home," says Karen Karbo, whose book, "Julia Child Rules," will be out in 2013. "She decided to pursue her own path."
Child chose to be the life of the party in an America hungry for all sorts of things, not the least of which was her boeuf bourguignon. Watching Child cook French food on TV "made it OK to like eating and become interested in how food was made," Fussell says. "She was so much the right person at the right time. As her husband said, she was a natural born entertainer. She was so much at ease with herself and with her audience."
Yet by the late 1980s, some may have wondered if the Julia Child phenomenon had run out of steam. Her beloved husband was ailing and needed skilled nursing care. Although she appeared regularly on ABC's "Good Morning America," her last TV series had been in 1983. Her 1989 book, "The Way to Cook," was marketed as a career-capper. She was 77.
"Julia used to say if you were off the tube, you were dead," says Geoffrey Drummond, the TV producer who provided Child's career with a second window in the 1990s. He had thought she was retired, that she'd want only peripheral involvement in a new TV series. He was wrong on both counts.
"She said, 'No way. If I'm involved in a show, I'm involved in every bit of it,'" he recalls. The resulting 1993 series, "Cooking With Master Chefs," was followed in quick succession by three more, plus TV specials.
"In a way, that 10-year period was a bit of a renaissance for Julia," Drummond says. "It brought her back into mainstream activity at a time when a very different population was watching cooking on television. … Julia was riding this whole other wave."
Child was able, as Drummond notes, to introduce new culinary talents to an appreciative audience, people like Lidia Bastianich, Rick Bayless, Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Palmer, Nancy Silverton and Charlie Trotter.
Even today, eight years after her death at age 91, Child is still making a difference. Food historian Barbara Haber zeroes in on Child's backing of various gastronomical and educational initiatives, from Boston University's culinary arts program, to the James Beard Foundation to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, where Child's papers are deposited and Haber was once book curator.
"Julia supported institutions and institutions have a life of their own," she says. "Her interest in young people was extraordinary and speaks to her character."
Fillets of sole meuniere
It was a plate of buttery, sauteed sole dished up on her first day in France that set Julia Child on the course toward culinary fame and fortune. This recipe was published in her last cookbook, "Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes From a Lifetime of Cooking."
For 4 fillets up to 1/2-inch thick and 5 to 6 ounces each. Just before sauteing, season the fish with salt and pepper and turn in flour, shaking off excess. Heat the butter and oil in the pan until the butter foam begins to subside, lay in the fillets, and saute for about a minute on each side, just until the fish begins to take on a light springiness to the touch. Do not overcook — if the fish flakes, it is overdone. Remove to a hot platter, and sprinkle a tablespoon of minced fresh parsley over the fish. Rapidly wipe the pan clean with paper towels (so flour residue will not speckle the butter to come — or use a fresh pan). Heat 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter in the pan, swishing it about and letting it brown lightly. Remove the pan from heat, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon and, if you wish, toss in a spoonful of capers before spooning the hot butter over the fish.
Makes: 4 servings
Read Bill Daley's Printers Row Journal story about Julia Child's legacy as a writer -- as well as his interview with Child biographer Bob Spitz. Visit chicagotribune.com/printersrow.