Guests at the Linwood Community Library History Alive! presentation were transported back to the 1940s, 50s and 60s as they joined Julia Child, portrayed by Karen Vuranch, on her journey to become a well-loved TV chef and cookbook author.
Her tale begins when she meets the first of her three loves, her husband Paul Child.
While Julia was raised in Pasadena, California, and never saw her mother cook a meal, Paul was raised in Boston, by a Bohemian mother who taught him to appreciate food and wine.
“I’m lucky to have married Paul Child,” she said. “He’s taught me so much about food and wine that was exotic to my taste and difficult for me to pronounce. I would have never had my career without him. We are two halves of one whole. Paul and I met when we were stationed in the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] in Ceylon [now Sri Lanka] during World War II.”
When the war broke out, Julia was eager to serve her country and attempted to join the Women’s Army Corps [WAC]. She was promptly told that she would not fit in the bunk of the ship as she was too tall. This rejection led her to the OSS.
“I went to Washington and settled for working for the OSS, The Office of Strategic Services, or the Oh So Secret, as I called it,” she said. “This was America’s premiere spy agency and I must tell you, when I joined, I secretly dreamed of being a spy, but I think it’s difficult for a tall, red headed woman to be inconspicuous in, say, China. So I settled for other things. My first job at the OSS was to work on an emergency signaling mirror – a tiny little mirror that pilots would carry with them. If they were downed at sea, they could signal for rescue.”
While in Ceylon, Julia ran the registry for spies stationed in China, Burma and India. She was good at her job and kept her colleagues entertained with her sense of humor.
“Here’s what I did – all the spies from China, Burma and India sent me their information,” she said. “I coordinated it and compared notes, and made one report and sent that to Washington. Then Washington would reply to me. I would give the spies their next orders and missions. Washington took so long to answer me. One time, I wrote, ‘if you do not respond immediately, the next packet will be in Chinese and filled with virulent biological diseases.’
“My colonel said my sense of humor was the only thing that kept us going in those days,” she added.
In Ceylon, Julia met Paul, who was recruited to create a war room for General Mountbatten. The two became friends despite their age difference, Paul was 10 years Julia’s senior. When they were both transferred to China, the friendship became more and finally, when they returned to America, they knew it was time to marry.
“In preparation for marrying a man who would continue to work for the government – for that was his plan and I knew his salary would be limited – I thought I’d better learn how to cook,” she said. “I took cooking lessons from two English women in Los Angeles. If you know anything about English cooking, you know that was a disaster waiting to happen. I’ve been to England. It’s a wonderful, cultural place, but the food is terrible. They taught me to make things like pancakes, but the first meal I made for my husband was more ambitious – brains simmered in red wine.
“It was nauseating,” she continued. “He laughed it off but I was determined I would learn how to cook.”
A year into their marriage, Paul took a job at the American embassy in Paris – a city where Julia’s passion for food fully flourished.
On their way to Paris, the couple stopped at a restaurant which was recommended to Paul.
“That meal – it began with sensational oysters on the half shell – the sole meuniere, my first baguette, hot strong coffee and fromage blanc,” she said. “I ate each mouthful as if it were the first food I’d ever eaten. In a way it was. It was quietly joyful. It changed my life. It was an epiphany.”
In that moment, Julia found her second love – French cuisine.
One day, Paul came home from work with the address of the famous cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu.
“I signed up for a six week demonstration class,” she said. “My french was so bad I didn’t realize I signed up for a six month long intensive class. It cost more than a month of my husband’s meager government salary but we agreed for my mental health it was important. Madame Brassart who ran the school was a nasty woman and didn’t like me very much. She didn’t like the fact that I didn’t want to take a housekeeping course and so when I complained about the course I was in, she put me in another course to haze me.”
Despite butting heads with Brassart, Julia loved her teacher, Chef Max Bugnard.
“He taught with enthusiasm,” she said. “He taught us more than how to cook French food. He taught us the energy behind french food. The interest and the passion for it. Soon my life was quite full. I’d be up in the morning before Paul began to stir, out the door for a morning class. I would take the class, go to the market and shop and come home, and cook lunch, then back to school for a demonstration where I would be so inspired, I would cook in my own kitchen until midnight.”
After a year of school, Julia received her degree and was an official Cordon Bleu chef. Although she had her credentials, Julia was limited to what she could do in the culinary field because it was a man’s world.
“Only men were chefs,” she said. “Only men were waiters. Only men were invited to dine in all the hundreds of dining clubs that were around the city, with the exception of one. There was one dining club for women and I joined. We met and we talked passionately about food. It is there I met a woman by the name of Simone Beck – Simca as I call her. She is the sister of my heart, from that day forward.”
Simca was a published author of cookbooks in America and was working on a new cookbook with a friend Louisette, when she invited Julia to join in the effort. The trio also began a cooking class which they held in Julia’s home kitchen.
“We decided we would open a cooking school in Paris,” she said. “We did so right in my kitchen in my little apartment. [It] was a big success. They were working on a cookbook full of French recipes for American audiences and they needed an American collaborator. Oh, I jumped at the chance. I threw myself into the project. I would work until two o’clock in the morning, changing the recipes from liters to cups and grams to teaspoons and tablespoons. I found cookery bookery such fascinating work.”
Writing the book was difficult for the three friends because Paul was transferred around France, then on to Germany and Norway. They corresponded back and forth and ended up with an 800 page book of nothing but poultry and soup recipes.
Houghton Mifflin, a publishing company which gave them an advance on the book, rejected the final product. The ladies continued their search for a publishing company and with the help of friend Avis Devoto, they found Judith Jones of Knopf, which published the book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
“Unbeknownst to us, Alfred Knopf, the imperious owner of the company who fancied himself a gourmet said he would eat his hat if anyone bought a book with that title,” she said. “Should I send him some salt and pepper? The book has sold. We weren’t sure it would sell at first. We went around the country, staying at friends houses and doing programs at local book stores. Everywhere we went, the book sold out.”
The book sold 18,000 copies in its first year. It was included in the Top 100 list of the most important books of the 20th century in The New York Times, with 2.8 million copies sold.
Now a successful cookbook author, Julia moved on to her next adventure in her culinary career – a TV show.
In the 1950s and 60s, the television became the most coveted item in America. Families were trading in their radios for TVs and building rumpus rooms to use specifically for entertainment.
In 1961, the Childs moved back to America, where Julia became a TV star.
“I never thought that I would be on television,” she said. “One day I left to be on a public television station. I was on my way to WGBH, the local public station to do a book show – Looking At Books – to promote my book. I had no idea what I would talk about for a half an hour. I think the host was a bit surprised when I whipped out a hot plate and a frying pan and cooked some eggs. Soon we were laughing and cutting up vegetables and making an omelet. I was so involved in what I was doing, I forgot to mention my cookbook. I had a lot to learn about television.”
Julia thought her first TV appearance was a flop, but in fact, it was quite the opposite. The station received letters from viewers asking for her to return to the show.
“If they were willing to give it a whirl, so was I,” she said. “They wanted to call it something cutesy like Looking at Cooking, but I held firm. My show would be called The French Chef. Now, I’m not French and I’m not a chef. I’m an American home cook and proud of it, but The French Chef would appeal to both men and women, and was short enough to fit in the program guide without being abbreviated. I counted letters.”
Although the odds were against her, Julia stayed strong and soon, she became a hit. Over time, public stations all over the country had her show on air. The show became so popular, it received recognition from several award shows.
“The show received some important awards and in 1966, we were invited to New York for the Peabody,” she said. “Paul said it was the most important award in journalism. I hadn’t heard of it. A month after that, we went back for the east coast ceremony for the Emmys. Our show was the first show on public television to win an Emmy.
“All we wanted to do was to show people that anyone can cook,” she added. “To take the mystery out of it. Food does more than give us nutrition. It nourishes our soul. When you eat by yourself, you fill your stomach but when you eat with a friend, you fill your heart.”
Julia wanted to ensure that the food profession was taken seriously. At that time, the job chef was classified as service personnel. The food service did not have a professional organization, so Julia took matters into her own hands.
“I became the first president of the American Institute of Wine and Food to bring together food growers, restauranteurs, chefs, everyone who is in the food business to have conversations about food,” she said. “There was no academic program anywhere. There were a few cooking schools, but no academic programs. I worked with Boston College and later Boston University and we created the first academic program in America. Today, there are over one thousand programs like that throughout the nation.”
Through it all, Julia stayed true to her loves – Paul and food. She was never one to retire, she continued doing cooking shows for more than 30 years.
“May we all go out like rockets rather than delayed fuses,” she said. “People are always asking me what I would eat for my last meal. Roast duck, I think, a delicious salad, a perfectly ripe pear and a taste of chocolate. Not that I’m ready to slip off the raft, yet. In this business, you’ve got to keep going. When you rest you rust, when you stop, you drop.
“There are many people in this profession that I know who want to see me gone, but I’m going to keep going as long as I can,” she continued. “This is my advice to you – learn how to cook. Learn from your mistakes. Be brave and most of all, have fun. It is a shame to be caught up in something that doesn’t make you absolutely tremble with joy.”
After her presentation, Vuranch answered questions about herself and Julia Child.
For more information on the History Alive! program, visit www.wvhumanities.org