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Julia Child

From Women in European History

Critical Biography by Savithry Namboodiripad

File:julia.png[[1]]

Contents

Introduction

Julia McWilliams Child was a Pasadena-born American wife of a Foreign Service worker who "Mastered the Art of French Cooking"in her mid-30s and went on to change the way Americans felt about fine dining with a series of cookbooks and televised cooking shows. Her career and life exemplified the shrinking world of the 20th Century, and she was on the early end of a trend for women that continues to this day: late marriage, career before and during marriage, and no children[1] Though she lived in seven countries on three continents (and ended up proficient in four languages), she chose to entitle her autobiography My Life in France; it was there that she found cooking to be her “true calling,” and her years in "la belle France," as she called it, “were among some of the best of my life.” [2] Through her career, Julia packaged French cuisine for the American kitchen at a time when Americans were in one of the worst culinary periods in their history due to their dependence on Crisco and other over-processed and ready-made foods; moreover, the entrance of these products into American households at a time when women were going into the workforce at increasingly high rates is probably not coincidental. To understand Julia Child's accomplishments through the lens of women's history, one has to look at the circumstances that came together and allowed this woman to embark upon a lifelong quest to find out what her own expectations of herself were in an era when expectations still followed gender and class distinctions, when Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan were grappling with what it meant to be a woman.


Julia's life was in some ways defined by whom she was rebelling against and whom she identified with: on one end were the conservative mainstream Republican politics manifested in her father and on the other was the progressive liberal intellectualism manifested in her husband, falling in line with a common theme of women who define themselves by the men in their lives. However, it was the combination of these two cultures that created the perfect environment for Julia to develop her hobby into a career. Although her husband changed the course of her life (“I would have never had my career without Paul Child,”[3] she wrote), looking at Julia's life before Paul shows that her privileged upbringing was central to her success. Moreover, the culinary climate of the United States was prime for Julia's influence. As technological advancements made cooking a less time-consuming task, middle-class American women started looking upon fine cooking as a hobby rather than a way to feed their families--as opposed to the French, for whom cuisine did not include TV dinners and microwaves. Thus, technological advancements lessened the differences between the lives of middle- and upper-class women, and most women spent time in the kitchen, falling in line with gender expectations, certainly, but not in the way that they had previously. Combining new conveniences with Julia Child's introduction of food as an art, accessible to the masses, fine cooking became a hobby for all classes of women.

Early Life

Julia's upbringing in a wealthy, upper-middle-class family affected her ideas of a woman's role throughout her life. Her mother's family traced itself back to Plymouth Colony, and her father's family struck it rich first in the California Gold Rush and later with land investments [4]. She lived a privileged life, complete with private schools, summers at a beach house, and a family cook. “I was never encouraged to cook, nor did I see a point in it,” she writes in the introduction of her autobiography; “I had zero interest in the stove.” [5]. Neither in Pasadena nor in France did women of Julia's class do their own cooking, cleaning, or shopping. Later, Julia would not only cook as a career, but violate the norms of her class (and of other professional female cooks) by cooking for her husband.


Throughout her life, Julia's height set her apart from most others—both men and women. At a towering 6 feet 2 inches, Julia often said that her height and natural tomboyish nature made her “more concerned with being like a boy than being liked by boys.”[6] Her stature did make a difference in the way that she saw herself and was seen. People seemed to remember the tall, friendly California girl with the strange wheezy voice; Julia's height worked not only to set her apart physically but give her a confidence and power that translated to her personality. She embraced her height, and used it to her full advantage when she was in primarily male-oriented situations later, as in the OSS and at Le Cordon Bleu.

Female Influence

Women often learn the roles they are to fill from their mothers, and Julia's mother, Caro[lyn], influenced Julia's naturally progressive attitude towards gender. Caro is described by Julia as being “a very warm and social person”[7]. This fits with many descriptions of Julia by her friends and acquaintances; Julia loved large gatherings of people—Paul Child wrote to his brother that the only major marital disagreement between them was that Julia preferred large parties while Paul was more reserved[8]. Caro, who died when Julia was in her early 20s, made sure her daughters (Julia had a younger sister, Dorothy) went to a college-prep high school and received a classical education, including Latin and French classes. Julia did follow in her mother's footsteps in some ways, by going to Smith College, for example, just like her mother did: "I was enrolled in Smith College at birth"[9]. There, she even joined a club of which her mother had been member. When college-aged Julia spoke of staying out all night with boys, Caro asked only if she had remembered to eat breakfast, according to one of Julia's childhood friends, who remembered being shocked at Caro's progressive reaction[10]. Julia would retain an uncommon and unconventional sense of humor, often straddling lines of propriety by using the phrase “balls” as an expression of anger and comparing food items to phalli in mixed company [11]. Julia received an upbringing that was typical of her social class, but both her mother's example and her physical and attitudinal separation from other girls made the result somewhat different, for Julia graduated from college with a great desire to do something with her life. Highly introspective and self-critical, she considered herself still in a state of “prolonged childhood”[12] and was impatient to learn more about the world. So, although she followed her mother's life trajectory for a while, after the first 22 years of her life Julia McWilliams decided to move to Manhattan and find a job, somewhat taking for granted the progressive views on gender which she inherited from her mother.

             File:JuliaChicken.jpg[[2]]
Julia later became known for her unconventional sense of humor; here she is anthropomorphizing a chicken.

Career Attempts and the OSS

“Middle-class women did not have careers. You were to marry and have children and be a nice mother.” Julia spoke these words in an interview with Interview magazine in 1989 [13], and, though this was generally true, Julia was certainly not alone in being a young employed woman. She lived in a Manhattan apartment with another Smith classmates, her father paying most of her rent while she went through a few generally-failed attempts at being “a great woman novelist”[14]. So, while Julia was trying to make a career, she had the luxury of being supported by a wealthy father. Work was not a matter of financial necessity for Julia--it never really would be--but, unlike women of her mother's generation (and even many of her own social class), she would always find it important to be working throughout her life.


When WWII broke out, Julia, like many women, signed up to serve her country. Julia's experience, however, was different than that of nurses and factory workers, both typical female jobs during WWII. Being too tall for the Navy, she ended up as head of Registry in the Office of Strategic Services, an intelligence organization which was the precursor to the CIA and reported directly to Roosevelt. The OSS was full of Ivy League-educated intellectuals, and Julia being assigned there probably had something to do with her class and level of education. Though her biographer, Noel Fitch, and many of Julia's colleagues who are cited in her biography, say that Julia's role at the OSS was very important, Julia only briefly mentions it in her autobiography: “among other things, I processed agents' reports and other top-secret papers.”[15]. She was stationed in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Kunming, China, and, as was typical of females in the service, had to work in a male-dominated environment. However, Julia thrived, enjoying the company of these intellectuals who were the very sort of people her father, who complained about “these Phi Beta Kappas ruining everything in Washington,” hated[16]. Here, she met the artist Paul Child, with whom she explored Asian cuisine, and, eventually, fell in love.

Paul Child

Paul and Julia were married after the war, in 1946. He was ten years older than she, a food and wine connoisseur, and “had already traveled the world”[17]. She did not know what a shallot was, and just started reading the liberal New York Times as opposed to her father's preferred conservative Los Angeles Times. Julia's father did not approve of Paul's intellectual and bohemian lifestyle, and Julia was aware that the life laid out for her, that her father imagined for her, was far different from the one she was choosing. Her "divorce" from her father (as Paul Child called it[18]) was almost complete, and "Big John" and Julia would argue over politics and foreign policy for years to come.


Like many upper-middle-class women, Julia worked during the war. However, unlike many upper-middle-class women--especially her peers at Smith--Julia had worked before the war. Immediately after the war ended, Julia returned home to her father's house until she and Paul married, following a pattern in women's history of a woman being passed from her father's house to her husband's house. However, this is slightly different in Julia's case, because she had her own private income from her mother's inheritance. After her marriage to Paul, Julia used her war skills to work as a secretary in Washington DC, typically a female profession. She continued to follow her aforementioned urge to "do something"[19]. Again, like many women, Julia continued to work after the war, though she did not necessarily need the money. Not for long, however, because soon the Childs, barely married for two years, were setting off to Life in France, where Paul was stationed for his job with the United States Information Service (USIS), and where Julia would find her calling.

Discovering Food and Life in France

Though she was in France as Paul's wife, Julia did not feel like an accessory to his career; rather, she was inspired by French food and culture enough to discover a passion and career of her own. The USIS was a Marshall Plan program, and Paul's job was “to help promote French-American relations through visual arts”[20]. There were many couples in the Foreign Service, but, as Julia notes, not all of them were interested in European culture. Julia mentions many Foreign Service housewives who found life in France miserable and uninteresting and who wanted more than anything to return to “civilization” in the United States. This sentiment is often echoed in Jewell Fenzi's accounts of the wives of Foreign Service workers, who were dragged along with their husbands to faraway places, never knowing when a transfer could uproot their family[21]. Julia, who had always looked for adventure and dreamed of learning about the world, was enthralled by France and excited for the opportunity to throw herself into French culture[22]. She started taking French lessons (she describes her accent thusly: "Mairci monsoor!") and practicing everywhere as soon as she arrived. As Paul had lived in France during the 1920s, the Childs quickly made many French friends. They ran with a highly intellectual crowd, some French, some fellow expatriates, and Julia immersed herself into a social life that consisted of salon-type gatherings. The war with what was French Indo-China and the effects of the Cold War were all discussed, as well as the relative merits of the Marshall Plan (which brought a number of them to Paris and was not always warmly received by the French, according to Julia). Julia writes a lot in her autobiography about her attempts to stop being “so emotional” about politics. Throughout her life, the development of her intellectual self was very important to Julia—and her father, who represented for her conservative mainstream America--had much to do with this. Julia notes that her father's politics drew a wedge between them, which grew every year they were in Europe; “You have been in France too long,” he'd say, when they would disagree [23]. Nonetheless, she wrote him weekly, and he continued to send her a monthly allowance for most of her life[24].


Read more about American expatriates in France here: American Expatriates


Paul's income, along with Julia's inheritance from her mother and this monthly allowance from her father, meant that Julia was a member of the leisure class. Though the Childs were not living in high style by any means, their relative financial comfort allowed Julia the freedom to do whatever she was interested in without worrying too much about money. It turned out that this passion was cooking, though no one who knew her would have expected it. In her younger days, Julia was an awful cook--Paul admitted to having married her “despite her cooking”[25]. However, having one meal of sole muniere in Rouen changed the way that she thought about food: “I experienced fish, and a dining experience, of a higher order than any I'd ever had before”[26].

Cooking up a Career

Though most women of her social class had cooks, Julia decided that she would try to cook for herself and Paul. She bought a number of cookbooks and started to experiment. Eventually, with Paul's great support, Julia enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. The culinary arts were and are regarded very highly by the French, and cooking--the way it was done at Le Cordon Bleu--was far from being simply in the woman's domain. Most of the great gourmets and chefs were men, (though the proprietress of the school was a female) and, in the United States as well as France, professional cooking was largely a gender-neutral industry/art form, though cooking in the home remained strictly in the female domain. Women such as the proprietress of Le Cordon Bleu, the bestselling cookbook author Irma Rombauer, and famous television chef Dione Lucas all were well-established and respected in the cooking industry, so Julia's eventual ascent in this field cannot be considered a triumph of gender. Outside of academic cooking, even the various French cafe and restaurant owners with whom Julia would consult about her recipes were almost evenly male and female[27].

                     File:JuliaWithMallet.jpgfrom [[3]]
  Julia's style of cooking, which involved a lot of pounding and [de]boning, was sometimes described as masculine


Julia was first enrolled in a class for housewives, but quickly realized that she needed "something that wasn't so elementary" [28]. The course in which she eventually enrolled consisted of her and eleven American GIs who were planning to open restaurants in the States. Julia quickly moved to the head of the class and showed a promise that was noticed by her teacher, Chef Bugnard. He started giving her private lessons, and, after some arguments with the sour proprietress of Le Cordon Bleu, Julia was awarded her diploma.


The cooks with whom Julia ended up collaborating were fairly typical upper-middle-class French women, in that they saw cooking as the exercizing of an art form, and left daily cooking to the hired help. Julia writes, "I was surprised to discover that many Frenchwomen didn't know how to cook at all [...] though they were experts at eating in restaurants."[29]. Through one of the Childs' culinary circles, Julia was introduced to Simone (Simca) Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who were working on a book of French recipes for American housewives. Simca and Louisette, like others, were shocked that Julia did her own shopping and cooking. They asked Julia to help them write their cookbook, as they were marketing towards an American audience, and so Julia's hobby turned into a career. Until Paul was transferred to Marseilles, Julia, Simca, and Louisette worked on recipes and taught at their own school, L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes, "the school of the three hearty eaters," as Julia explains in her autobiography [30].


As professional cooking in France was an art, and not necessarily treated as a science, Julia wanted to make sure that their recipes were "clear, informative, and accurate," which was certainly not the norm in French (and, in some cases, American) cookbooks. As Louisette was too busy with the demands of her family and Simca, whom Julia christened "La Super Francaise",did not believe in precise measurements, Julia tested every recipe in their cookbook with what Paul called “operational proof”[31]. This meant that she used the scientific method to narrow down the proper ingredients, measurements, and methods, and often cooked each recipe dozens of times in order to make sure each was “foolproof” and translatable to the American kitchen. She called the United States Department of Agriculture to inquire about the kinds of fish that were available in the US. She contacted chemists about the differences between French and American flour. She asked her sister and friends to do reconnaissance in American grocery stores and report back as to what sorts of ingredients were available, and to test her Top Secret recipes[32]. Then, she checked with Simca and local restaurants to make sure the recipe was still “French”.


                        File:JuliaSimca.jpg 
                            Julia and Simca [[4]]


This grueling process not only consumed Julia's life, but it was rather expensive. She sent for American appliances in order to test them in her recipes and cooked many versions of the same dish a day. It was her mother's inheritance and her father's further financial support that allowed her to do this. Paul and the culture of which he was part gave her ideological support, which was important, as husbands could not be counted on to be supportive of their wives' hobbies, as Louisette's example shows. For Louisette, it was not only an unsupportive husband, but also the demands of her social position that kept her away from the kitchen. Paul, on the other hand, was not only enthusiastic and supportive, he was also an intellectual help, designing illustrations “from the point of view of the person cooking,” a new perspective for cookbooks. Also, Julia's new mastery was ideal for his job as a cultural liaison; he often had to entertain officials, and Julia had to test her recipes: their careers complemented each other[33].

                          File:PaulJulia.jpg[[5]]
 Later, Paul would help when filming the cooking shows by acting as dishwasher, propmaster, and manager.[34]

Mastering The Art

It took years of work, but three publishing houses, countless culinary quarrels, and three job reassignments for Paul later, Julia and Simca, along with Louisette, published Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This led to a television show for Julia, a witty and natural performer (see Video Clips below). Julia became so successful that Paul was able to retire from the Foreign Service early and work on his art. It was through the new medium of television that her singular voice, wine-drinking, and breezy personality became notorious, inspiring a skit on Saturday Night Live and leading to Julia's kitchen to be on display in the Smithsonian Museum of American History:


              File:Julia's_Kitchen.jpg [35].


Julia McWilliams Child did not find it necessary to fulfill the expectations her class and gender thrust upon her; instead, she conducted an almost lifelong quest to find out what her own expectations of herself should be. However, not all women, neither in France nor in the United States, were able to do this. Julia's family finances, along with the liberal culture of her husband and friends, allowed her to self-determinedly carved out a career for herself. Julia Child's ascent to fame was unfettered by her gender, and the works she produced were cookbooks which reflected the changing social climate of the United States, as they were purchased by American housewives[36] with new-found time for hobbies, not just the culinary-minded American. Julia repackaged the French idea of cuisine as art for the American kitchen.


Julia's autobiography was a labor of love; she wrote it for Paul, for France, and for food. My Life in France is a sweet and hilarious book, and Julia's carefree personality is imbued in every page. She ends her book with these words of advice: "try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and, above all, have fun!" [37]. Julia certainly lived her life by these words.

Video Clips

An example of Julia cooking a dish specifically for people who want to entertain and cook and the same time. Her audience seems to be women, but that is not explicitly stated here. This dish is meant to be for a dinner party, showing that her primary audience is not women who want to cook a meal for their family, but rather women, like her, who enjoy entertaining.

[[6]]

In her later days, Julia's shows would often include great chefs from around the world; here, she brings a French chef on her program.

[[7]]

PBS remembers Julia Child.

[[8]]

A trailer for an upcoming movie called Julie & Julia about Julia Child, starring Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci.

[[9]]

Endnotes

  1. Hook, Jennifer; Pettit, Becky. (2005) The Structure of Women's Employment in Comparative Perspective. Social Forces, Vol. 84, No. 2: pp. 779-801.University of North Carolina Press.
  2. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  3. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  4. Fitch, Noel. (1997). Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. Doubleday: New York.
  5. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  6. Fitch, Noel. (1997). Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. Doubleday: New York.
  7. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  8. Fitch, Noel. (1997). Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. Doubleday: New York.
  9. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  10. Fitch, Noel. (1997). Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. Doubleday: New York.
  11. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  12. Fitch, Noel. (1997). Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. Doubleday: New York.
  13. Fitch, Noel. (1997). Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. Doubleday: New York. (not found in online archives of Interview Magazine)
  14. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  15. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  16. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  17. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  18. Fitch, Noel. (1997). Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. Doubleday: New York.
  19. Fitch, Noel. (1997). Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. Doubleday: New York.
  20. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  21. Fenzi, Jewell. (1994). Married to the Foreign Service: an oral history of the American diplomatic spouse. Maxwell MacMillan: Canada
  22. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  23. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  24. Fitch, Noel. (1997). Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. Doubleday: New York.
  25. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  26. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  27. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  28. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  29. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  30. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  31. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  32. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  33. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.
  34. Fitch, Noel. (1997). Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. Doubleday: New York.
  35. flickr.com/photos/17554153@N00/237183400/
  36. Neuhaus, Jessmyn. (1999).The Way to a Man's Heart: Gender Roles, Domestic Ideology, and Cookbooks in the 1950s.Journal of Social History, Vol. 32, No. 3: pp. 529-555
  37. Child, Julia; Prud'homme, Alex. (2006). My Life in France. Random House: New York.


Annotated Bibliography

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