Empowered to cook: Julia gives us the courage, shows us her joy

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The publication last year of a 700-page, hugely detailed biography of Julia Child (Appetite for Life — Julia Child by Noel Riley Fitch, Doubleday) has bestirred a Manhattan memory.

One evening toward the end of the 1960s, my wife and I were having dinner at La Caravel, a gracious French restaurant in New York.

Child wields a meat cleaver with gusto.

"It's a shame," Child said, "to be caught up in something that does not absolutely make you tremble with joy." (Photo: Paul Child.)

Dining there was a treat; the food was excellent and the service quietly efficient. The place held a special allure for me because it was the site of a superb documentary by Nell Cox, French Lunch. The short film records events in the kitchen from the first luncheon order through a frenetic, almost balletic crescendo of culinary movements at dinnertime — punctuated by the flare of flaming dishes — and finally subsides in a relaxed, post-service meal for the waiters and cooks themselves.

On this occasion we had arrived early and were watching the small inner dining room fill up with expensive-looking people anxious to eat and make their sprints for the theater, and others who had come to make a gustatory night of it. After we had ordered and the theater-goers began tucking into their meals, one large, adjacent banquette remained unoccupied. Then they arrived, a glamorous group of six or eight garrulous men and attractive women (memory seems to conjure up a sprinkling of Kennedys) dominated by a tall (six foot two, we all knew) smiling lady whose voice was once described by a TV critic as “a Boston accent with a touch of mashed potatoes.” She was instantly recognizable as Julia Child.

The entire room was attentive, most especially the maitre d’hotel, who was ecstatic. And why not? Here we were in the presence of the first major television-created personality in the cooking world, the successor to Fannie Farmer (another Bostonian), Irma Rombauer (The Joy of Cooking) and, one might almost say, the great Auguste Escoffier, himself (after all, she had studied in Paris with one of Escoffier’s most prominent students, Chef Max Bugnard).

This was the cook as star, WGBH’s French Chef. This was the author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a book that had persuaded us that cooking was not a chore but an art, and could be a lot of fun as well. We all called her “Julia,” though few of us had ever seen her in person. The roomful of celebrity-watchers did their best to keep eyes discreetly averted, but there was a perceptible hush when Julia studied her menu and began to order.

Julia Child first came to the attention of WGBH, Boston, in 1961, when a friend of hers told an English professor from Boston College, P. Albert Berhamel, about a new cookbook and suggested he interview its author on his book program, I’ve Been Reading. A date was set, but before her scheduled appearance the station burned to the ground (on Oct. 14th, “the morning after Friday the 13th,” people at Channel 2 still call it). According to an early station press release, her eventual TV conversation with Prof. Berhamel in a makeshift studio was her gesture of commiseration.

All the same, it was characteristic of Julia’s enterprise and good sense that she brought along, in addition to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the ingredients for making an omelette, which she proceeded to do. She beat some egg whites in a large copper bowl with an equally large balloon whisk — implements not often found in American kitchens at that time.

The program staff had been talking about producing a cooking series and liked the liveliness of her on-camera appearance. Robert Larsen, then director of programs, invited her to outline a cooking series. According to David Ives, former president of the station, her summary was “so clear and thoughtful” that a decision was taken to produce three half-hour pilot programs in the summer of 1962. These were followed by a series of 13, 30-minute shows. By the time she was done, The French Chef totalled 119 programs.

The early programs were produced in the demonstration kitchen on the second floor of the Cambridge Power and Light Building — part industrial plant, part office — behind the smokestacks that lined the banks of the Charles River. The fire had destroyed everything at WGBH, except the remote truck. Seven “studio sites” were hastily improvised in various parts of Boston while a new facility was constructed. The Power and Light Building on Blackstone Street was one of the temporary sites. The place featured a freight and passenger elevator — one of those wire cages summoned by pushing a button, which set off a loud bell that could be heard throughout the building. In these early, nerve-wracking production days, most TV programs were rehearsed, then shot in their entirety without interruption, and recorded on kinescope with little or no editing.

David Davis, then a staff member, remembers sitting in the remote truck. “Julia was 20 minutes into her first show, and the elevator bell rang. I thought, ‘What are you going to do?’ She was whipping away at something [and] said, ‘Oh, somebody’s at the door, but I’m much too busy.'”

Russ Morash, who was producing the program, recalls her pausing, then saying, “Oh, that must be the plumber. About time he got here. He knows where to go.” In any case, her talent for improvisation (which she emphasized in cooking as well as TV production) was early and clearly evident.

Much has been made of Julia’s on-camera faux pas — flipping the potato pancake onto the stove by mistake, adding wine instead of oil to a dish, and reaching for a pound of butter and finding a note to the prop girl to put it there. They became part of her public persona.

In fact, these errors were quite rare, for she was, and is, greatly meticulous in every aspect of organizing her programs. In the beginning, she spent 19 hours preparing for a typical half-hour show, with a large number of people — most of them volunteers — assisting behind the scene. What people really recall were her recoveries from the rare mishaps, her cheerful off-handedness. In the case of the famous pancake flip-out she remarked, “But you can always pick it up,” which she did, adding, “If you are alone in the kitchen, whooooo is going to see?” As she tipped up a wine bottle to drink what was left in its heel, she smiled and observed: “One of the benefits of being a cook.” My personal favorites were her casual remarks, as when she poured a little wine into a dish and said insouciantly, “Never use water unless you have to.”

One of Julia Child’s greatest accomplishments is that, although manifestly far more capable in a technical sense, she consistently reminded us of ourselves in our own kitchens, where life is frequently fraught with flops, hazards and greedy opportunities masked as taste-testing.

When her first program was about to be broadcast, Julia and Paul Child pulled a TV set from their fireplace, where it was kept, to watch The French Chef, as she wrote, “lurch onto Channel 2.” Noel Fitch quotes an early critic who wrote, “Each program had about it the uncertainty of a reckless adventure.” Still another journalist, commenting on the Julia Child style, said that the shows were “as impromptu as the practical improvisations of Fred Astaire.”

Whatever the perception, nearly everyone agreed that she was in life what she seemed to be on TV. After an interview with the Christian Science Monitor’s TV critic (Oct. 23, 1963), he wrote: “She is the only television personality I have ever known whose manner is the same off-camera as on.”

The first French Chef (featuring boeuf bourguignon and French onion soup) was produced on Jan. 25, 1963, and broadcast on Wednesday at 8 p.m., Feb. 11. WGBH repeated each program a week later at 3 p.m. (According to David Ives, repeats became so numerous that “for years there was hardly a day when she did not appear on Channel 2.”)

Initially, four programs were produced each week, a punishing schedule, especially for Julia’s husband, Paul, who lugged all the supplies to the kitchen and was present from the planning stages to the wash-up. They worked 12-hour days and completed 34 programs in six months. Eventually, they cut back to three, then two and, at the end of two years, they were making one program a week. In the process some spontaneity was lost to an increasing number of cue cards and the programs took on a more polished and professional style. Design Research supplied the dining room set used in the final scene, the one in which Julia brings in the meal, lights the candles, raises her glass and wishes everyone “Bon appetit.”

Two hundred fan letters were received in the first 20 days. Soon 400 letters were coming in each week. By the time The French Chef was distributed across the country by National Educational Television (predecessor to PBS), Julia Child had become a local legend, taking her place alongside Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, Paul Revere and the Red Sox. Pressured as she must have been, Julia nonetheless found time to supply 45 recipes and short essays on cooking to the Boston Globe — free.

National distribution of the new series, beginning in 1964, was one of a handful of program events in the early life of noncommercial TV that signaled the arrival of public television as an important dimension of American cultural life — something few would have suspected by reading NET’s first press release about “a series of programs that show the techniques of French cooking.” A year later, Julia won the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for “distinguished service to television.”

It should be recalled that in the early 1960s the leaders of educational television were quite ambivalent about providing any entertainment in programs — which The French Chef assuredly did.

From the start, the series was an unqualified success. Newsweek reported that it was “helping to turn Boston, the home of the bean and the cod, into the home of the brie and the coq.” Ted Holmberg, writing in the Providence Sunday Journal observed, “I couldn’t be less interested in cooking … but I can watch Miss (sic) Child prepare a leg of lamb … and remain fascinated for half an hour.”

In San Francisco, where requests for her recipes were flooding into public TV station KQED at the rate of 20,000 each week, the Chronicle‘s Terence O’Flaherty called Julia “television’s most reliable female discovery since Lassie.” It was a broad audience, from “professors to policemen,” said TV Guide.

About a third of the recipes used on the program were drawn from her newly published book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Requests for recipes were so overwhelming that NET needed to send out instructions to all stations, limiting the number of replies. By August 1963, less than a year after Mastering came out, Alfred A. Knopf had sold 100,000 copies at $10 a copy. It seemed destined to become a classic. In 1966 the Childs took $19,000 from the Mastering royalties and built a small house in Provence, where they spent six months each year for the next 20 years. (A second volume of Mastering was published in 1968.) There was a certain irony in this, for Knopf published it only grudgingly after Avis DeVoto — wife of writer Bernard DeVoto — intervened on Julia’s behalf. By 1998, she was working on her 10th book.

WGBH paid Julia and Paul Child $50 per program in the early days. By 1966, this was increased to $200, plus expenses. In addition to her undoubted loyalty to the young public TV station, it could not have escaped Julia’s attention that her popular TV cooking demonstrations would greatly enhance book sales. But this was only part of her relationship with WGBH and public television in a larger sense. She had an aversion to making her work commercial.

In the fall of 1964 she addressed a food journalists’ conference, donating her $500 fee to WGBH. It was something she did frequently. As she told a reporter for The Nation’s Business, “As long as I can get clothes and a decent car, I’m not really interested in the money end of it.”

The money end of cooking on television had not been neglected by food companies. When local commercial TV stations came on the air, many home economics teachers — resembling nurses in white uniforms — were recruited to talk about food groups, how to save household money and how to bake cakes. However, few were found who could cut the mustard, so to say. James Beard, a truly gifted and enthusiastic cook, was unsuccessful on TV. Dione Lukas, who operated a restaurant in New York, was far more popular and appeared often from 1948 to 1953. Poppy Cannon (“the can-opener queen”) enjoyed a good run as a regular on CBS’s The Home Show. Betty Furness played to a more up-scale market and was commercially ubiquitous.

In 1964, Olivetti offered Julia $2,500 for her photo with a typewriter, but she turned it down. (Paul Child often referred to the “Madison Avenue hounds.”) However entertaining her programs may have been, she considered herself an educator, not a performer. As Noel Fitch writes, “She represented public television; she believed she could never endorse a product, nor accept money to represent a profitmaking institution. This stand lent credibility, both to WGBH and to her own opinions. (Julia was one of the first, but by no means last, to take this position. Many years later, NPR commentator Daniel Schorr was offered more than $1 million dollars to be a “spokesman” for Avis Rent-a-Car. He refused, saying, “I have spent 50 years building the reputation I have, and the first time I was on the air with this, I would throw away that reputation.”)

She participated in the station’s Christmas party skits and hosted holiday parties for the staff at her Cambridge home (much better attended, according to some, than the station celebrations). On one of these occasions she and her producer, Russ Morash, worked up an interview in which he asked her questions about how the Boston Symphony programs were edited. Her demonstrated answers included chopping up two-inch videotape with one of her meat cleavers.

Although she consistently turned away all commercial blandishments, her work on TV did prove considerably rewarding for others, perhaps none more than her Boston butcher, Jack Savenor, who displayed a newspaper picture of her taped to his scales. “How many geese do you think a guy could sell in a year?” asked Savenor. “Maybe six, maybe seven. But the week after she works on the goose, I sell 65.” Julia herself was a good customer. For her first near-Christmas program in 1963 (“How to truss, stuff, brown, roast, braise, sauce and carve your goose”) she required four geese: one raw, one slightly cooked, one fully roasted, and a spare.

Another Boston merchant phoned WGBH the morning after Julia demonstrated how to clean a fish. “I’ve had 24 knives for cleaning fish in stock for years, and this morning I sold every one ten minutes after I opened.” Copper bowls and balloon whisks were nearly impossible to find soon after the series began its national run. As Time reported, “When she cooked broccoli, the vegetable was sold out within 200 miles of the broadcast station.”

Julia McWilliams Child was born Aug. 19, 1912, and was, she has said, “an adolescent until I was 30.” One of her grandfathers left Illinois in 1849 when he was 16 to pan for gold in California. Her mother, tall and lively like Julia, had roots in New England. Julia grew up in Pasadena in a large house with drivers, gardeners, cooks and a kitchen that both she and her mother rarely saw or cared about. She played center for her private-school basketball team and enrolled in Smith College where she lived what she describes as a “butterfly life,” driving her friends around in a Ford and graduating in 1934.

When the nation entered World War II, she went to Washington as a “government girl,” joining the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, predecessor to the CIA), where she hoped to become a spy. Instead she was sent to Ceylon as manager of a typing pool. Here she met Paul Cushing Child, an artist-turned-OSS-mapmaker, and her future husband. Both were further assigned to China where Paul’s intense interest in food — and growing interest in her — became manifest.

“I decided to seduce him by learning to cook,” Julia has written, “so [after the war] I went to cooking classes back in Beverly Hills.” They were married in 1946. Paul died in 1994, at 90.

Paul Child was a world-class dilettante: a former lumberjack, teacher, linguist, talented gardener and polo player, he was also an excellent artist and photographer, a writer (for the Boston Globe) and sometime poet, who wrote sonnets with meticulous metric structure for his wife. Following his OSS stint, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service. Eventually the Childs were posted to Paris where he was exhibits officer at the U.S. Embassy. There his gourmet proclivities had their greatest effect upon Julia, who began studies at what was arguably the world’s finest school for cooks, the Cordon Bleu. “Our class began at seven in the morning, lasting until 11,” she says. “Then I went home and cooked a magnificent lunch for my husband. In the morning the students cooked, supervised by their teachers. But in the afternoon there were demonstrations conducted like an operating theater, with chef and stoves, the audience banked up in front of him. I immediately adopted the towel at the belt, now so much a part of me in the kitchen I cannot cook without it.” She reports that at this time “my main difficulty was not in learning how to cook, but learning how to eat sensibly.”

Julia remained at Cordon Bleu for six months. About this time, she met Simone (“Simca”) Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who later joined her in organizing a successful cooking school of their own, L’Ecole Des Trois Gourmands. With these colleagues she also embarked upon research for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a 10-year project. Always a perfectionist, she believed each recipe had to be tested several times by different people. “A cookbook is only as good as its poorest recipe,” she would say later.

When Paul was assigned to Marseilles and later to Oslo, Washington and Philadelphia, Julia opened a “branch” of her school in each new location. Paul retired from the State Department in 1960 and the couple moved to a three-story, clapboard house in Cambridge, where John Kenneth Galbraith and Julia’s TV producer-to-be, Russ Morash, were neighbors.

“We live in a lovely town, because everyone is doing something,” she said at the time. Speaking of the friends from Harvard, WGBH and Boston’s publishing interests, she remarked, “We encountered each other as people whose heads were always above the crowd.” (This was physically true of Galbraith, who was nearly seven feet tall. Marion Schlesinger — wife of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — referred to Galbraith and Julia as the “benign storks” of her neighborhood.

In these early Cambridge days, her biographer tells us, Julia was a heavy smoker — even between courses. This stopped when she required a mastectomy in 1968. There was another cancer scare two years later.

We are also told that she wished to be called “Mrs. Child,” that she “loved gossip, talking dirty, a good belly laugh” and that she has had two facelifts. (Julia has said that the biography makes it sound as if she were dead.) The biographer, Ms. Fitch, reports a friend of Julia remarking that the reason she won’t consider retirement is that she’s afraid that if she retires she will die, and that she is afraid of death. A more likely reason for her aversion to retirement might be the one she passed along to Frank Prial of the New York Times in the fall of 1997: “Retired people are boring.”

After moving to Cambridge, Paul became his wife’s agent, road manager (they traveled widely to publicize the new book) and sometime dishwasher.

David Ives was assistant general manager of WGBH when The French Chef was first produced and knew both Paul and Julia. “He was a difficult guy to get to know — kind of aloof,” says Ives. “He was very bright and had high standards. You got the impression he was doing this because he was enthusiastic about Julia, but that it was not what he himself would have chosen. He was very inventive. He and Julia had a small station wagon, and he attached a large slotted cooking spoon to the radio antenna, so if you were driving around town and saw a slotted spoon passing by, you knew it was The French Chef.” Describing Julia, Ives believes her to be more complicated than she sometimes appears. “She’s really dedicated to what she does and has a tremendous inner drive to accomplish things.”

In 1970, when Julia’s programs began to be distributed by PBS, they finally appeared in color. “I’m really sick of black and white food,” she told a journalist at the time. Her work with producer Russ Morash (and his wife, Marion, who became an accomplished cook herself, and one of Julia’s regular assistants) extended into the 1980s with three additional series, Julia Child and Company, Julia Child and More Company and Dinner at Julia’s.

Child in colorful dressThe WGBH programs were followed by Cooking with Master Chefs, In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs, Baking with Julia and three Cooking in Concert pledge specials, all produced for PBS distribution by A La Carte Productions and Maryland PTV. In March, at 85, she embarked upon what she vowed would be her final series —Julia & Jacques: Cooking at Home, in which she returns to demonstrating cooking basics in her own kitchen with her friend Pepin.

Henry Becton, now president of WGBH, came to the station immediately after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1970 and has observed Julia in all seasons, often appearing with her at fundraising events and celebrations. “One of her chief characteristics is endurance,” he says. “In social situations, especially dinners in her honor, I would be collapsing when she was just hitting her stride.”

“It’s a shame,” Julia has said, “to be caught up in something that does not absolutely make you tremble with joy.”

Many have spoken of Julia’s “generosity as a teacher.” Becton, pressed to define the chief reason for her success, speaks of her as “greatly empowering — she made people feel they could do what she did.” She told her viewers: “If I can make a souffle rise, so can you.” Millions did. And I am happy to be among them.

On that long past evening in New York, when the hush fell over La Caravel’s dining room, I listened intently while Julia chose from the menu precisely what I had ordered a few minutes earlier. A coincidence, of course, but I was thrilled; a taste, perhaps, of becoming empowered.

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