Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Julia Child

Episode Summary

Julia Child (1912-2004) was the chef responsible for bringing French cuisine to the American mainstream with her books and hit TV show.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today we’re talking about one of the giants of the 20th century culinary world. An American cook, author, television personality, and international celebrity, she is best known for introducing Americans to the delights of French Cuisine. Please welcome the one and only Julia Child.

Julia was born into a life of privilege on August 15, 1912 in Pasadena, California. Her father was a banker and landowner, and her mother was a member of the wealthy Weston family, owners of Weston Paper Company. 

As was her family’s tradition, Julia was sent to a boarding school in Northern California for her high school years. Though she took a full college-preparatory course load, Julia was more social butterfly than bookworm. She was extremely popular among her peers and was an especially good athlete, standing at 6 feet 2 inches tall. Julia played tennis, swam, captained the basketball team, and served as president of the hiking club. 

Like her mother and aunt before her, Julia attended Smith College in Massachusetts, where she majored in History and led an active social life. 

Julia graduated from Smith in 1934 and returned to California for a year before moving back to Massachusetts to attend secretarial school. She was only there for a month before she found a secretarial job at a home furnishings company in New York City. After being fired from her New York job for insubordination, Julia headed back to California. 

In 1941, knowing that war was just around the corner, Julia began volunteering for the Red Cross in Pasadena. There, she headed the Department of Stenographic Services. Julia tried joining two of the U.S. military’s organizations for women but was denied from both because she was deemed too tall. 

Still, Julia wanted to play a larger role in the war effort so she moved to Washington, D.C. in 1942 and took a job as a typist at the Office of War Information. Later that year she moved over to a job as a junior research assistant for the intelligence branch of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA. 

During her time with the OSS, Julia held a variety of positions. She even did intelligence work overseas from 1944-1945. She was stationed in India and then China. While working in India, Julia met Paul Child, an officer with the U.S. Foreign Service. The two married soon after World War II ended. 

In 1948, the Childs moved to Paris for Paul’s work. Julia, now without a job, decided that she wanted to try her hand at serious cooking and enrolled at the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. She stayed there for six months before beginning private studies with master chef Max Bugnard. 

In 1951, Julia and two French friends, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, started a cooking school together called The School of The French Gourmands (L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes). Ten years later, the three women published a seminal book called Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book was meant to bring French recipes and cooking techniques to an American audience that often considered French cuisine too difficult and tedious. Julia made her mission clear in the book’s introduction:

This is a book for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children’s meals, the parent-chauffeur-den mother syndrome or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.

With this book, Julia Child launched her legendary career in the culinary world. 

That same year, Julia and Paul returned to the U.S. and settled down in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After Julia made an appearance on Boston television, she was approached by the city’s public tv station (which would eventually become PBS) to host her own cooking show. “The French Chef” went on the air in 1963 and was an immense success, running for over 200 episodes, and making Julia a household name. Julia took home both an Emmy and a Peabody for her work on the show.

The French Chef is credited with introducing Americans to French food that they could make at home and generally popularizing French cuisine with the American public. Audiences loved Julia’s humor, enthusiasm, accessibility, and willingness to accept culinary mishaps while encouraging her audience to just keep cooking. She famously ended each episode with her signature “Bon Appetite!” sign off.

Julia went on to host a number of other hit TV shows, including Julia Child and Company, Dinner at Julia’s, Baking with Julia, In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs, and Julia Child & Jacques Pépin Cooking at Home. She also published a series of additional cookbooks, including the long awaited Volume II of Mastering The Art of French Cooking. 

In 2000, Julia was appointed to the French Legion of Honor, and in 2003 she received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work. 

Julia died on August 13, 2004. She was 91 years old. Her legendary kitchen, made famous by her numerous cooking programs and decades on the air, was donated in its entirety to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where it remains on display for museum visitors today.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another remarkable tastemaker. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!