“I learned to cook for the same reason most women do—to please a man. I started to cook for the first time after I got married in 1946. Paul and I had met in Ceylon during World War II when we were both with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), which later became the CIA. It would be nice to say we were spies, but I was a file clerk and Paul was an exhibits officer, doing maps of the Burma Road for Lord Louis Mountbatten. When we moved to Paris in 1948, I tasted the food and thought, “Well that’s for me.” That’s when it all began.”
From the Smith Alumnae Quarterly (Winter 2002/2003)
It was with an odd mix of emotions that I learnt about the 2007 Julia Child tribute hosted by Lisa of Champaign Taste. As a graduate of Child’s alma mater, Smith College, I have always felt a happy secret connection to this Grande Dame of American cookery, even if I never really knew her onscreen persona (heresy on my part?). In the years since there has been renewed interest in her work and legacy as a result of movies such as ‘Julie and Julia’, and now that the recently launched Cooking Channel has began rebroadcasting her series I imagine that her appeal will remain evergreen.
As many already know about the formative years in France which laid the foundation for her life’s work, I’ve decided that I would focus my retrospective on her time at, and lifelong connection to Smith. A connection which I think provides an equally interesting and important perspective into the life of this rather private woman.
For those who don’t know Smith College is a private women’s college , located in Western Massachusetts.
The college was chartered in 1871 by a bequest of Sophia Smith and opened its doors in 1875 with 14 students and six faculty. In 1915-16 the student enrollment was 1,724 and the faculty numbered 163. Today, with some 2,600 undergraduates on campus, Smith is the largest privately endowed college for women in the country.
A number of Smith alumnae have gone on to become notable in their respective fields and endeavors, including authors, Margaret Mitchell and Madeleine L’Engle, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Julia Child, Jane Yolen, Yolanda King, Sylvia Plath, Martha Southgate, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, Julie Nixon Eisenhower and First Ladies Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan.
Julia Child was legendary on-campus for her practical jokes and pranks, a reputation which has become part of campus lore as it is still repeated and passed on to each incoming class.
“I remember consuming large quantities of jelly doughnuts and driving around to speakeasies, the car packed with giggling girls. I had a blue 1929 Ford convertible that cost $25. I remember once we went to a speakeasy in a warehouse in Holyoke. We had one of everything they had and all got sick. We drove back with the top down. It was Prohibition, but we did an awful lot of drinking.”
From the Smith Alumnae Quarterly (Winter 2002/2003)
Now that’s my kind of gal!
Julia spent all four of her college years in Hubbard House, the oldest dormitory on campus (built 1879 and still in usage).
In 1934 she graduated with her BA in History and moved to New York to work in publicity and advertising, before joining the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, with which she was dispatched to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China.
Child’s culinary breakout didn’t come until after World War II, when she teamed with two French culinary colleagues to open the cooking school L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes. That collaboration ultimately led to her bringing French cuisine to the American public through more than a dozen cookbooks, such as “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and hundreds of episodes of the public television series “The French Chef.” She led a long achievement-filled life that culminated in her becoming the first chef ever to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.
From the Smith Alumnae Quarterly (Fall 2004):
• Julia Child was the co-founder, in 1981, of the American Institute of Wine and Food.
• In 1985, she sought to preserve the home of James Beard, known as the father of American gastronomy and a longtime mentor to emerging talents in the culinary field. The James Beard House in New York’s Greenwich Village hosts visiting chefs in its dining room, and the James Beard Foundation provides scholarships and educational opportunities to up-and-coming chefs.
• Child was a driving force behind the establishment of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. The association’s annual cookbook awards are named after her.
• She lent hearty support to the establishment of Copia: the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, Calif. [She] donated her famous pots and pans from her Cambridge, Mass., home to the center when she retired and moved to an assisted living center in Santa Barbara, Calif. The center, which explores “the culture of the collective table,” named its restaurant after her.
• In addition to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she received the top national civilian honor from France in 2000, the Legion of Honor.
• The Smithsonian Institution immortalized her famous home kitchen in 2002, rebuilding it in an exhibit at the National Museum of American History.
Russell Morash, Child’s longtime television producer, said it’s hard to exaggerate just how bad American cuisine was before Child hit the bookshelves and airwaves. “Cooking on TV prior to Julia’s appearance in the 1960s was more often by very stout women in white dresses and sensible shoes,” he said, describing popular food of that time as “heavy, doughy trash.”
In 1990, Child entered into an agreement with Smith, formally donating her house to the college but keeping the right to live in it for her lifetime. When she decided to move back to her native California, Child accelerated her gift and, as Smith’s advancement vice-president Karin Lee George ’86 observed, “accelerated progress on one of the most important Smith projects in decades.” Her gift of $2.35 million from the sale of her home in Cambridge, Mass., supported the construction of Smith’s first Campus Center and an etching on a window of the Campus Center Café honors her generosity to Smith.
On October 11, 2001 (3 years before her death), Julia revisited the campus and a special tea was held in her honour:
On a warm October afternoon, students flocked to the President’s house to observe an age-old Smith tradition, tea at 4:00 p.m. Except this tea was particularly special, because the guest of honor was one of Smith’s most notable alumnae, Julia Child ’34. Silver tea services, multi-colored cups, cucumber sandwiches, scones, stuffed dates and pastries adorned the tables in the foyer as Julia and her lifelong friend Pat Pratt ’51 waited for the students to collect refreshments and join them in the garden for an informal chat.
Julia and Pat, who were brought to campus as part of the “alumna-in-residence” program, responded to questions from the students about their experiences at Smith and reminisced about their careers, both of which developed by mere chance. Pat, a neighbor of Julia in Cambridge, is a landscape designer, who designed the gardens at Julia’s residence. Each woman commented on how much the new course on women’s finance would have benefited their careers.
Julia and Pat were hosted by 73 students in Laura Scales House during their 3-day stay. They joined the students for several lunches, teas, and dinners and accompanied them to their classes.
One year later, in the Winter 2002/2003 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Child spoke candidly about talks about her fun-loving days at Smith, her disapproval of dieting, and her move back to her native California.
…there were very few career options for women back then. You could be a teacher or a secretary and that was about it. What you were mostly expected to do was marry and be a nice mother. I had this faint idea of becoming a female novelist, yet I never took a writing course. I guess I was thinking I would live first. I majored in history. And, like most women of my era, I was truly prepared for nothing. I was mostly growing up when I was at Smith. I’ve often said that I was really an adolescent until I was 30 years old.
Julia Child died on August 12, 2004. She may be gone in body, but her spirit continues to shape the landscape of the Smith campus. On November 16, 2006, the college threw its 3rd annual Julia Child Day, a celebration that was launched the year of her passing. A campus wide event, it combines panel discussions on food and culture as well as gala receptions featuring her recipes. A sampling of her recipes are also offered on that day for lunch at the Campus Center Café and Smith College Club and, for dinner, at the Campus Center Café and the Smith student houses.
Julia Child 101
If you’re new to Julia Child’s bibliography, or are looking for an old fave, peruse the following Top Ten items, all required materials for TriniGourmet’s nonexistent course “Julia Child 101″
1. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One
Description:“Has it really been 40 years since Julia Child rescued Americans from dreary casseroles? This reissue, clad in a handsome red jacket, is what a cookbook should be: packed with sumptuous recipes, detailed instructions, and precise line drawings. Some of the instructions look daunting, but as Child herself says in the introduction, ‘If you can read, you can cook.’”
2. My Life in France
Description: With Julia Child’s death in 2004 at age 91, her grandnephew Prud’homme (The Cell Game) completed this playful memoir of the famous chef’s first, formative sojourn in France with her new husband, Paul Child, in 1949. This is a valuable record of gorgeous meals in bygone Parisian restaurants, and the secret arts of a culinary genius.
3. Julia Child – The French Chef
Description: Cooking legend and cultural icon Julia Child, along with her pioneering public television series, The French Chef, introduced French cuisine to American kitchens. In her passionate and sometimes breathless way, Julia forever changed the way we cook, eat, and think about food. Entertaining, fun, and real in a way that influenced every television cooking program that followed, The French Chef embraced Julia’s passion for food and teaching and reflected her joie de vivre: “If I can do it, you can do it…and here’s how to do it!”
Now chefs of all ages and abilities can share Julia’s love of fine French food and learn to cook some of her most-loved dishes with this special collection of 18 episodes from her original 1960s series, The French Chef. Bon appetit!
4. Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 2 (Paperback)
Description: Here is the sequel to the great cooking classic. Each of the new recipes is worked out step-by-step, with the clarity and precision that are the essence of the first volume. 5 times as many drawings as in Vol. I make the clear instructions even more so.
5. The Way to Cook
Description: With The Way to Cook, Julia Child creates a second culinary classic. Her first, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, introduced a generation of those used to preparing simple fare to what was then considered gourmet food, demystified classic techniques, and raised our culinary consciousness. This time, though, she speaks to everyone with little or no experience in the kitchen, which is most people these days. Always in tune with the moment, and ever the gracious realist, Child explains in The Way to Cook how to boil an egg and stuff it, as well as how to make a perfect omelet and an elegant soufflé.
6. Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking
Description: This slender book from the doyenne of gourmet cooking is a boon for those who need a refresher course in, or a handy source for, basics. These notes come from Child’s own kitchen notebook, years in the making. Helpful tips proliferate throughout.
7. The French Chef With Julia Child 2 (DVD)
Description: A regular program on WGBH Boston from 1963 to 1972, The French Chef is perhaps best known for its down-to-earth hostess Julia Child with her dry wit and practical approach to “fancy” French cooking. Eighteen classic programs, in black and white and color, feature the ever-practical Julia Child educating viewers in everything from starters and side dishes like braised spinach, shirred eggs, and hollandaise sauce, to main courses like seafood crêpes and braised goose, to breads and desserts like croissants and the exotic gâteau in a cage. Julia Child leads viewers step-by-step through each recipe, imploring budding chefs to use their fingers and hands, let go of their fear of failure, avoid a sense of panic and maintain a sense of humor so that neither the cook nor the soufflé collapses.
8. The French Chef Cookbook
Description:From The French Chef, the PBS series that began it all, here are all the recipes that introduced Julia Child to an American public hungry for more sophisticated cooking techniques. In this handsome new hardcover edition, home cooks will rediscover the recipes that made Julia Child America’s undisputed expert on fine French cooking. With her signature devotion to culinary education, Julia Child takes her reader—from novice to experienced chef—through the essential techniques of her cuisine, from how to fry an egg to success with the most luscious and elaborate desserts. Julia Child remains the ultimate authority on French cooking in this country, and with this beautiful and accessible volume, her wisdom is available to all.
9. Julia Child! – The French Chef, Volume 3 (DVD) 10. Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home
Description: Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home is the companion volume to Julia Child and Jacques Pepin’s PBS series of the same name. The setup works like this: the two opinionated TV cooks confront different ingredients on each show, then make their way through to the finished dishes that make up a meal. The recipes reveal themselves along the way.
What’s most important here–and it shows up in the cookbook–is that there is no one way to cook. The point of the book isn’t to follow recipes, but to cook from the suggestions. And Julia and Jacques have many, many suggestions when it comes to home cooking in the French style. And many tips, for that matter.
Want more Julia?
• Julia Child: Lessons with Master Chefs
Watch Julia Child and more than 65 master chefs in this multimedia PBS site, covers four PBS series: COOKING WITH MASTER CHEFS, IN JULIA’s KITCHEN WITH MASTER CHEFS, BAKING WITH JULIA, and COOKING IN CONCERT.
This post was originally published August 13, 2007. It has been updated once since then