Happy birthday, Julia.
Aug. 15 marked the 100-year anniversary since the birth of Julia Child, television's "French Chef." To honor her, Knopf brought out this new biography. It was the least the publisher could do for the culinary icon who was one of its best-selling authors.
Child's first book, published in 1961, was a genuine masterpiece - "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," written with Simone (Simca) Beck and Louisette Bertholle. It also was a blockbuster.
And Bob Spitz's "Dearie" has quickly become a blockbuster of its own.
It's a good read, and an astonishing one. Who could have imagined that this big-boned, middle-aged, late bloomer of a woman (she stood 6-foot-3) would have grabbed the culinary world by the taste buds? In 1962, her cookbook led to the creation of a television series (the first shows were in black and white) on Boston's educational channel.
And Julia Child became a star for the rest of her life.
She was a natural.
"She looked at food the way some people looked at their children, and when she cast her adoring gaze at three pounds of raw beef chuck, the folks at home knew something was up," Spitz writes. Nothing fazed Child, and she never did a retake. Should she cut herself with a knife, she would wrap a towel around the wound and keep on stirring. The food sometimes burned; she never apologized. And how she loved fun.
One memorable show featured Julia and a lineup of naked, uncooked carcasses she called the Chicken Sisters. "Miss Broiler, Miss Fryer, Miss Roaster, Miss Capon, Miss Stewer and old Madame Hen," she said, giving each a playful slap. "The caponette," she pointed to a plumper bird, "is the same as the capon, but she's been on the pill instead of having the operation." Only a vegetarian could keep a straight face.
Then there was the voice! Like your favorite elderly aunt, she had a memorable warble that absolutely invited parody.
Decades ago, when Dan Aykroyd donned a wig and apron and appeared in cooking skits to (affectionately) mimic her on "Saturday Night Live," he brought her a whole new audience. "Save the liver!" he once yelled out while cutting up a chicken. Child used to show the tape to her guests. "Save the liver," she would call out herself, and then collapse into laughter.
She knew her stuff, and also projected genuine niceness. But she was utterly pragmatic - determined to teach Americans enamored of processed food what the real thing could taste like and how they could prepare it themselves.
Spitz takes his time telling Child's story. She was born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, Calif., in 1912, to a wealthy family and moved to New York City after college. It was an aimless life until World War II, when she joined the Office of Strategic Services - a federal spy agency. The experience broadened her life and introduced her to Paul Child, more than 10 years her senior.
"I believe she would marry me," he wrote to his twin brother, "but isn't the 'right' woman from my standpoint." He questioned her "lack of worldly knowledge, the sloppy thinking, the wild emotionalism, the conventional framework." And he felt it would take work for him to take on "the training and molding and informing."
But he bravely assumed the task and later became her most devoted and helpful supporter. It was a strong marriage. The couple moved to Paris where, early on, Julia experienced an epiphany in Rouen's Hotel de la Courenne when she tasted Sole Meuniere.
She began to take cooking lessons at the Paris Cordon Bleu - the only woman in the class - and would run home after every session, stopping at the market on the way. She recooked the featured dish until it was right.
Eventually she met Beck, who with Bertholle was trying to put together a French cookbook for Americans. Child did her own marketing for the book, her own testing, her own note-taking. She repeated recipes over and over. Six years later, a whopping 750 pages was sent to Houghton Mifflin, which rejected it, saying it was too long and too detailed .
The edited manuscript accepted by Knopf still runs over 600 pages. The press raved; the book went into extra printings. And that was that.
By this time, the Childs had settled in Cambridge, Mass. And Julia handled her fame magnificently. She never gave in to tempting blandishments of advertisers; she never touted products. She kept her name in the phone directory; calls would come in on Thanksgiving Day asking for help.
So you can understand why Bob Spitz has essentially written a Valentine here. He met Julia Child in Sicily in 1992 and admits he developed a crush on her. You can forgive Spitz's clichés (people get waited on "hand and foot;" Julia didn't "have a mean bone in her body"). And you can even overlook the preface so overdone it might be a roast left in the oven too long.
Spitz does a fine job of portraying a woman who stepped away from the conventional life, and the food world of the time:
"In the same way that the space race tapped into Americans' desire to achieve something glorious in the realm of science, Julia tapped into a housewife's desire to expand the boundaries of her world," he writes. "Nobody knew that Americans were out there hungering for this, but out there they were. And Julia offered them an outlet for that ambition."
Child initially was paid $50 per episode of "The French Chef," which was also meant to cover the cost of the food. Paul washed the dishes in the ladies' room.
The final act of Child's life was not so terrific. The food world got more competitive, and meaner, and Paul died. Julia made an effort to stay au courant, but the culinary world that she had encouraged to change kept on changing. French food was no longer a big deal. Asian food, fusion food took its place, and they were not Child's thing.
Still, she encouraged young chefs, had a long gig on "Good Morning America," and later moved to a retirement community in California. Old and ailing, her doctors told her to abstain from butter."Silly boys!" she told them. Julia Child was 91 when she died.