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Food for thought
Born: August 15, 1912 in Pasadena, California, United States
Died: August 12, 2004 in Santa Barbara, California, United States
Other Names: McWilliams, Julia; Child, Julia McWilliams; Child, Julia Carolyn
Nationality: American
Occupation: Chef
Nation's Business. 77.12 (Dec. 1989): p29+.
Full Text: 

Julia Child is encouraging business to help reshape Americans' attitudes toward what they eat and drink.

Julia Child says she has written her last cookbook. That's not because she has worn out her welcome. Her seventh book, The Way To Cook (Knopf), published in October, is headed toward sales of 300,000 copies or more--an extraordinary figure for a lavishly produced book bearing a list price of $50. The book's sales surprise even its author: "It seems amazing to me that a $50 book will trot out of the bookstores that way."

Neither is Child daunted by the physical demands that a cookbook places on a conscientious author, who must, after all, test every recipe thoroughly. She turned 77 last Aug. 15, and she fractured a hip last year in a fall at her second home, in Santa Barbara, Calif. (She tripped over a computer cord: "I was plunging around, and I caught my foot in it and lost my balance.") But from all appearances, in a conversation at her publisher's office in New York, she is little changed from the vigorous woman who, a quarter of a century ago, wrestled sullen cuts of meat and unruly poultry into submission on public television's first successful cooking show, "The French Chef."

The big problem she has with writing cookbooks, she says, is that "it's so confining. I haven't been able to do one other thing."

Child does have other things on her mind. Through her books and television shows, she has encouraged countless Americans to make profound changes in the ways they cook, eat, and think about food, but she knows that influence of that kind is inevitably limited. No writer of cookbooks can hope for the kind of immorality that other authors covet; the greatest names of the past, like Careme and Escoffier, are more read about than read.

Will her own books be read a century from now? "Oh, no, I don't think so; things changes so much. We don't know what new ovens will be like. Maybe the microwave will turn out to be better." Already, the earliest of her books, the two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961 and 1970, have been revised to take into account the food processor.

While her books and TV shows have been highly successful, she hopes to leave a lasting mark with a new venture that is drawing increasing support from business--the American Institute of Wine and Food. Along with wine producer Robert Mondavi and a handful of other people, she founded the AIWF eight years ago to, in the words of one of the institute's publications, "advance the understanding, appreciation, and quality of wine and food."

The institute, based in San Francisco, has drawn the support of a small but impressively diversified list of companies--including food producers, wineries, retailers--and trade groups. Among them are the American Dairy Association, the Seagram Classics Wine Co., the Carnation Co., and the Quaker Oats Co. It will win more industry support, Child thinks, as membership grows: "We haven't gotten all the people in the industry who should be part of it. I think they're generally interested, but with only 5,000 members, we really haven't had the impact that we want. We need a much stronger organization; we should have 20,000 or 30,000 members by now."

Early in November, the AIWF held its seventh annual international conference on gastronomy, or good eating, in Chicago, with speakers and panelists devoting themselves to such imposing topics as Mid-western ethnic food traditions and the industrialization of American food production. But in between the speeches and the panels there was food. The conference meals were prepared by chefs from such renowned restaurants as Le Bernardin in New York and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.

Like its co-founder, the AIWF mixes a sober scrutiny of food with unabashed delight in what Julia Child often calls "the pleasures of the table." Some of AIWF's business supporters find this combination refreshing. Says Tom McDermott, a vice president of the National Live Stock & Meat Board: "When we sit down to a meal with others, it's psychological, it's social, we do it for nutrition, for pleasure--all sorts of things come into play. The institute, more than any other organization I can think of, recognizes that."

Many Americans have always had trouble with the idea that food can be enjoyed even if you take it seriously. Enjoying food has seemed a pastime for the gluttonous and the frivolous--fast-food fatties and yuppie restaurant-hoppers --whereas taking food seriously has meant swallowing it like medicine. Many people have compromised by eating what is put in front of them but not paying much attention to it.

Child, by contrast, speaks of enjoying food and taking it seriously as if they were not simply compatible but indistinguishable: "I'm disturbed at this terrible fear of food that's going on in this country. You should enjoy every mouthful. People are nutty; they should take themselves and their food seriously."

Her books and TV shows have, like the AIWF, embodied that attitude. She peeled away the mystery from French cooking techniques, making them accessible for the first time to millions of people, and she plunged into food preparation with infectious gusto. "It's fun," she says of food, and her consistent message has been that the more carefully you prepare meals and the greater your awareness of what you are eating, the more fun food becomes.

Child came late to her distinctive convictions about food. When she was growing up as Julia McWilliams, in Pasadena, Calif., "food was not really discussed. My mother came from New England, my father from Illinois, and we had all of this very good, simple, sensible American food. We didn't drink wine; one didn't, in the '20s. I really didn't get into cooking at all."

She did have an occasional brush with an exotic cuisine. Her family owned a rice farm at DeWitt, Ark., and she remembers eating squirrel on a visit there ("It was delicious"). But otherwise she bumped along in a culinary rut, all the way through Smith College, then in a job writing promotional copy for a New York furniture company, and finally during a wartime stint with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington, D.C., where she cooked on a hot plate atop her refrigerator.

She wound up in Ceylon, filing papers for the OSS, and there she met Paul Child, an official in the agency, 10 years her senior, and, while no cook himself, a connoisseur of fine cooking. "I didn't really get interested in food until I met Paul," she says.

Paul and Julia worked together with the OSS in China, too--"we got terribly much interested in Chinese food"--and in 1945 they married, both for the first time, after returning to the U.S.

Before she married, Julia briefly attended a cooking school in Los Angeles, and "I learned how to make baking-powder biscuits and pancakes. Paul said he married me in spite of my terrible cooking. When we got married, I did a lot of cooking, using The Joy of Cooking and Gourmet. It was fun, but I didn't know much; and I realized, when I got to France, I didn't know anything."

Paul Child's work as a member of the Foreign Service took him to the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Julia had been casting about for a career since her days as a publicity writer--"I wanted to get into The New Yorker, as everyone did in those days"--but not until she tasted what French cooks made did she know what that career would be. She was impressed by "the seriousness with which they took their craft, and that it didn't make any difference how long it took, as long as it was beautifully done. That really appealed to me very much. I just fell into that; it was what I had been looking for all my life."

She studied at the famous Cordon Bleu in Paris, and then she and two French friends started their own cooking school. The three collaborated on the book that eventually turned out to be the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The publisher that had originally contracted for the book turned it down--twice--and Knopf finally picked it up, somewhat grudgingly.

Around the time the book was published, Paul retired from the Foreign Service, and the Childs settled in Cambridge, Mass. Julia appeared on the local public-TV station, WGBH, to plug her book, and that led in the summer of 1962 to three experimental half-hour cooking shows. On the first show, Julia has written, "there was this woman tossing French omelettes, splashing eggs about the place, brandishing big knives, panting heavily as she careened about the stove."

Those trial episodes led in early 1963 to a series that eventually ran for more than 200 episodes. Audiences--first in Boston and then around the country--found her unpretentious manner winning. Her shows had a spontaneous air, because for the most part Julia "let the gaffes lie where they fell." She chose, as she later wrote, to "have things happen as they naturally do, such as mousse refusing to leave the mold, the potatoes sticking to the skillet, the apple charlotte slowly collapsing. One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot."

"The French Chef" was followed by three series of hour-long shows, six how-to videotapes, more cookbooks, and the kind of nationwide celebrity that no other cookbook author has ever enjoyed. Propelled by her TV exposure, sales of her first six cookbooks soared; Knopf will say only that sales have been in "the millions of copies."

Her books and television shows have rewarded her handsomely -- at anything like normal royalty rates, she will earn $1 million or so from her new book alone--but Child has shied away from opportunities to earn many more dollars.

"I have to pay quite a bit for my clothes, because I'm outsized," she says--she tops 6 feet--"and as long as I can get clothes, and have a decent car, I'm not really interested in the money end of it."

She has rejected a great many proposals that she lend her name to this or that product. She doesn't take such endorsements seriously--"I think you must realize that all you're being is window dressing"--but beyond that, "if you endorse it, then you're wedded to it. Suppose they change the product? Your name is still attached to it. Once your name is on something, that means you stand by it. I think it's too risky."

Although she still makes occasional appearances on ABC's "Good Morning America," she never seriously considered moving her cooking shows to the more lucrative world of commercial TV, because "I always felt that we might be bossed around. I like public television, because I can do what I want. I hate to admit it, but I'd be perfectly happy to do it for nothing. It's a great deal of fun."

At one point she did give her television work a more formal business shape--she set up Julia Child Productions when she was making her later TV shows and the videotapes--but that company is dormant now that her TV work has slacked off. Mostly, she says, she makes do with the help of an accountant and a part-time secretary.

As for other avenues, a restaurant with Julia Child's name on it could not help but be wildly popular, but she never considered going into that business: "I know too much about it. It's a total life. Unless you had your husband or your wife in it, it would be very difficult. The hours are just so different."

For all the success she has achieved in a business sense, Child sees herself as an educator, more than anything else; she dubbed her fourth book, From Julia Child's Kitchen, "a private cooking school." She has made some concessions to fashion in The Way To Cook, her new book, by scaling back the butter and cream in some recipes, but she remains steadfast in her devotion to French cooking, which is, after all, a pedagogue's delight--as she says, "it's the cuisine with all the rules. What you need are the basic techniques, and then you can interpret them as you wish."

(Among all the rest of the world's cuisines, she has found only one other, she says, that really appeals to her: "I'm very, very fond of northern, Peking-style Chinese cooking. That's my second favorite. It's more related to the French; it's more structured.")

It is education, through the American Institute of Wine and Food and other avenues, that absorbs her attention now. Already, she says, the food profession in the U.S. is attracting "very well educated people," and she hopes that food preparation--traditionally a subject for trade schools--will find its way into university curricula. "What I'm very much interested in is eventually being able to have some universities that will have a degree in the fine-arts slant of gastronomy," just like a degree in theater, architecture, or dance.

Gastronomy, she says without a trace of doubt, "is really more important than any of them."

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Barrier, Michael. "Food for thought." Nation's Business, Dec. 1989, p. 29+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 22 Apr. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A8168351