By Joyce Goldstein
Julia McWilliams had an idyllic childhood in Pasadena California, raised in a conservative family with conventional American food. When World War two broke out she enlisted and went to work at the OSS hoping to become a spy but ending up as a clerk typist.
How did this start lead to being one of the world’s most beloved chefs?
She volunteered to go to the Far East and was sent to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). There she met Paul Child. He was working at OSS in graphics and maps. He was ten years older than Julia. After a stint in Kunming China they went home to get married and then, because Paul spoke perfect French, they were next sent to France.
Julia’s first meal in Rouen, filet of sole au beurre, changed her life. Paul and Julia fell in love with France, food, and wine. Julia enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu to perfect her culinary skills. Simca Beck and Louisette Bertholle were working on a cookbook but needed an American point of view so they invited Julia to join them in this huge venture. They tested recipes over and over until they were satisfied.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking was written by Julia Child with Beck and Bertholle. It took them twelve years to complete the book based on classes that they taught at their cooking school. The book was at first rejected by Houghton Mifflin as too didactic. Not “fast and easy,” the kind of convenience cookbooks Americans were accustomed to using. But editor Judith Jones who received the manuscript at Knopf convinced Alfred Knopf to publish the book which she said would become a classic, and she was right!
Julia was invited to come to talk about this new work on a book review program at public television station WGBH in Boston.. She asked Russell Morash, a producer at the station, for a hot plate for the interview. He thought that was a rather odd request but provided it for the interview where Julia produced a perfect omelet in a special pan she brought for the occasion. The rest is history. The phone did not stop ringing. People watching the show went crazy. They wanted to see more of that woman with the distinctive voice who knew so much about food and cooking. So WGBH took a chance and shot three pilot programs in a rented gas company test kitchen. And that started The French Chef and Julia on her way.
I had started out teaching French cooking but veered into Italian and Middle Eastern because I found them more suited to my personal palate and had already been teaching by the time Julia came on TV. But her shows were so entertaining I used to watch with my children.
When she cooked something they knew, they would often say, “Mom you do it differently.” They noticed technique variations at an early age.
The new movie Julia follows Child’s career, her unpretentious style of teaching. She told everyone that they could shop at the supermarket and produce excellent meals if they had the technique.
“You can do it,” she said. She became a role model for working women and inspired women to enter the male dominated food world as a career. She taught until she was 90!!
The food photography is quite good, but what impressed me along with her inspiring career path were her values. She pioneered in supporting Planned Parenthood and participated in fundraisers for AIDs research.
I did not know Julia personally, but she did come to my San Francisco restaurant Square One and made a point visiting the cooks on the line to say “hello.”
As the film finished I thought about recipes of hers that I loved:
I enjoy cooking and eating her Julia’s leg of lamb with mustard and rosemary and Coquilles St Jacques but the one I make the most often is Julia’s leg of lamb with mustard and rosemary –the only stain on the book is a smear of mustard!.
Read Peter L. Stein’s “Messages From Julia.“
EatDrinkFilms offers four classic recipes from Julia’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Photographs by Paul Child. © Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.