How Julia Child Made Americans Want To Be French Chefs

Culture | August 15, 2020

Author and cook Julia Child during a 'Tonight Show' segment with host Johnny Carson on March 19, 1980 -- Photo by: Gene Arias/NBCU Photo Bank .

Julia Child was one of the first TV chefs, and with her PBS show The French Chef this large woman -- standing 6'2" in flats -- with the warbly voice inspired Americans to cook better. As an American who hadn't grown up wanting to be a chef, Child felt that all it took was some information and effort, and a suburban kitchen in Peoria could turn out dishes with the taste of Paris or Provence. Child became an evangelist for French cuisine, and for Americans who were unsatisfied with the oddly-shaped, colorful, mayonnaise-drenched dishes of the '50s, classic French fare hit the spot. Child had numerous TV shows over her career, and published upwards of 20 books, none more important than the 726-page Mastering The Art Of French Cooking (1961), which was arguably the most important cookbook of the 20th century.

Julia Child Never Wanted To Be A Chef

Source: (Pinterest)

Julia Child initially wanted to be a novelist, and when she graduated from Smith in 1934, she tried to pursue that dream with The New Yorker, but they turned her down. She got a job as a copywriter. She had no desire to be a chef, but decided to join the war effort during World War II, volunteering with the hopes of being a spy. She served in the Office of Strategic Services, managing communications, which is where she met Paul Child, a diplomat and art lover; the couple married in 1946. In 1948, they moved to Paris, where Paul introduced her to fine French cuisine. As a new bride, the first time she tried to cook for her husband, but the meal was a disaster. And so, while in France, she decided to attend Le Cordon Bleu and eventually graduated first in her class. However, she failed her first exam at Le Cordon Bleu, so she cooked the recipes again at home to learn the recipes she had failed. Her experience encapsulated her attitude, for as she said, “the only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”  

Her Cookbook Almost Wasn't Published

Source: (Mad About Julia)

Her next failure came when she attempted to publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She began working on the cookbook after she joined a women’s cooking club and met Simone Beck, who was working on a French cookbook for Americans. The two of them began working with Louisette Beterholle, a French cuisine expert. The three of them created a cooking school, L’Ecoles des Trois Gourmandes. Child translated French into English, added detail to the recipes, and made the cookbook as interesting as possible. They worked on the cookbook for more than a decade, finally publishing it in 1961 with Alfred A. Knopf after Houghton Mifflin rejected it in 1959 because it was too big. Once it was published, it became a bestseller. Her cookbook revolutionized the cookbook, going into significant detail for each recipe.  

Julia Child Had The 'Eat Fresh' Idea Long Before Subway

With Emeril Lagasse. Source: (PBS)

Prior to Julia Child, while, there were cookbooks authored by women, with Joy of Cooking  being one of the most popular. Cooking during the ‘60s typically revolved around frozen TV dinners, casseroles, and processed foods. Child wanted women to really touch their food as they were preparing it, encouraging them to learn how to cut up the chicken rather than buying pre-cut packaged chicken. She also wanted people to eat fresh, real ingredients rather than pre-packaged food.    

Julia Child Introduced Us To The Artichoke

Source: (Facebook)

Her recipes were not upscale cuisine, but rather traditional French cooking that everyone could do in their own homes, making dishes like coq au vin accessible. However, she also introduced unusual ingredients, such as artichokes. Child inspired adventurous cooking, as she said, “Cooking is like love; it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” Although the ‘80s and ‘90s ushered in a fear of fat, Childs continued to use butter and cream in her cooking, and implored people to “enjoy food and have fun.” In fact, during the filming of Baking with Julia, from 1996-1999, she used 753 pounds of butter.  

How Child Became A Television Sensation

On the set of her show. Source: (Pinterest).

Although she was not the first individual to host a cooking show, as James Beard preceded her, she was the first to host a national program and her show was groundbreaking as it was the first to use open-captioning on television. However, she first appeared on a local Boston station, WGBH, to promote Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She appeared on a segment called “I’ve Been Reading,” a book review program. During the show, she cooked an omelet. The show that emerged from this first appearance, The French Chef, ran from 1963-1973, and was followed by several other shows.   

Julia Child Cooked With A Sense Of Humor

With her husband, her constant support. Source: (UMN CLA)

As she transformed American cooking, she did so with a sense of humor that led viewers to fall in love with her. Once, when some of the potato pancake fell out of the pan as she was cooking, she put it back in and quipped, “you can always pick it up, and if you’re alone in the kitchen, who's going to see.” As she cooked, she sprinkled in the one-liners, saying things like “I enjoy cooking with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food.”

Julia Child Won The Presidential Medal Of Freedom

Receiving one of her honorary doctorates. Source: (Bates College).

Over the course of her life, she won many awards, from the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service for her time in the OSS, to the George Foster Peabody Award for The French Chef as well as three Emmys, honorary doctorates from several universities including Harvard, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given to her by President George Bush in 2003. In 1993, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame.

The Transformation Continues

The recreation of her kitchen in the Smithsonian. Source: (RadioFan/Wikipedia)

Her legacy has continued, as more women have received recognition for their cooking. In 1986, she helped to found the James Beard Foundation. She influenced Peter Kump, one of Beard’s students, to purchase Beard’s brownstone in Greenwich Village to preserve it as a place where emerging and established cooks could display their talents for the press and the public. 

You Can Visit Julia Child's Kitchen

The rose variety named after her. Source: (Carolf2011, wikipedia)

In 2001, she donated her kitchen and tools to the Smithsonian. The kitchen is her original kitchen, with the exception of the floors and the walls, right down to the countertops which had been specially designed to fit her 6’2” frame. She also continues to live on in other ways: She has a rose named after her, appropriately the color of melted butter.

Tags: Food | Food In the 1960s | Julia Child | PBS | Writers | France

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!