“This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook—
try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and
above all have fun!”
— Julia Child
(ΦBK, Harvard University, 1987)
By Caitlin Clay
Julia Child was always confident in the kitchen. Whether creating beef bourguignon or a Reine de Saba cake, her assurance and bubbly personality encouraged American audiences for decades to learn how to cook French food. A woman of many talents, Child believed her lifelong calling was to educate Americans in the art of cooking.
The oldest of three children, Child was born August 15, 1912, in Pasadena, California. Growing up, she excelled at playing sports such as tennis, golf, and basketball due to her unusual height – six foot, two inches. After graduating from Smith College in 1934, Child moved to New York City to work as a copywriter for three years. Her journey towards becoming one of America’s most beloved TV personalities began with her job as a typist for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. Thanks to her education and personality, Child rose through the ranks and eventually began working as a top secret researcher and assistant to the head of the OSS. While working in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), she met her future husband Paul Child, also an OSS employee. Later, when the couple later moved to Paris, she was introduced to French cuisine.
While in Paris, Child enrolled in cooking classes at the Le Cordon Bleu school and joined the women’s cooking club Le Cercle des Gourmettes; there she met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The women became close friends, and Beck invited Child to work as a collaborator on a cookbook that she and Bertholle were co-writing. Child was responsible for researching and testing recipes as well as translating them from French to English. After many years, this book would become the renowned 726-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking compendium, first published in 1961. The ladies also taught cooking classes to American women in Paris by transforming Child’s kitchen into an informal classroom, known as the L’école des trois gourmandes (The School of the Three Food Lovers).
Child’s return to America marked the beginning of her public acclaim. Her cooking show The French Chef first aired in 1963, and it was so popular that it continued for the next ten years. The show won a Peabody Award in 1965 and the first Educational Program Emmy in 1966. Three more cookbooks were published while Child appeared on The French Chef, including Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volume two. Child went on to star in eight other cooking programs and continued to write and publish books. In 1981, she co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food, an organization intended to advance the understanding, appreciation and quality of wine and food through fun educational experiences.
Child was made an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa by the Harvard University chapter in 1987 and has received honorary degrees from several institutions, including Harvard, Rutgers, and Boston University. She was awarded the French Legion of Honour in 2000 and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the same year. In 2003, she was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in honor of her achievements.
Child’s desire to foster the love of cooking is continued through her foundation for gastronomy and culinary arts, as well as the recent purchase of her French home La Pitchoune (“The Little Thing”). The home was sold to Makenna and Yvonne Johnston, who plan to turn it into a cooking school and yoga retreat. The two women wish to continue Child’s legacy and spread her passion for French cooking. In an interview with Vogue, they stated that they wanted their students to gain confidence in the kitchen and enjoy their experiences, whether or not their recipes were successes or failures. Child would be delighted to know her passion for cooking was being passed on to today’s generation.
Caitlin Clay is a senior at the University of Dallas majoring in Art History. She is most interested in studying and researching Modern and Contemporary Art. The University of Dallas is home to the Eta of Texas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.