- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
When World War II began, Julia McWilliams tried to join the American military but was rejected because of her height. (She stood 6 feet, 2 inches.)
The patriotic lady thus became a typist/researcher in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. Her position took her to China, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and India.
While in Asia, she met fellow American Paul Child, a government worker and gourmand who was unaware that McWilliams had zero cooking skills or any experience whatsoever in a kitchen. She later recalled trying to impress Paul by fixing a meal, only to have her oven catch fire when a duck she was baking exploded.
In spite of this potential deal-breaker to romance, the two married in 1946 and moved to Paris.
Undaunted by her ineptitude, Child set a goal of becoming a master cook. She enrolled in the famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, the only female student there. After finishing the rigorous course, she and two friends ran a cooking school out of various Paris apartment kitchens.
Turbocharged in her passion, Child spent nine years researching her 726-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking book. It became a bestseller, and Americans took to the idea of preparing exotic meals from scratch rather than heating insipid TV dinners.
When the Childs returned to America, they settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Julia Child’s television career began in 1961 when she appeared on a book review show on Boston’s WGBH-TV, a part of National Educational Television (now PBS). The show’s host was somewhat taken aback when Child whipped up an omelet while discussing her tome.
It didn’t take long before dozens of people wrote to WGBH and demanded more of this refreshingly exuberant lady.
She became a culinary queen after The French Chef program debuted in January 1963, and Child spent up to 19 hours preparing for each half-hour lesson. Her award-winning program ran nationally for a decade.
Viewers were charmed by her cheery enthusiasm; her bellowing, warbly voice; and her ability to laugh at herself when she goofed up. (The programs were broadcast live.)
“Doing television, you want amusing things,” she explained. “Something fun and unusual. I think also on television you want to do things loud; people love the ‘whamming’ noises.”
Viewers loved the way she ended each episode with a hearty “Bon appétit!”
Child had her detractors, though. Some viewers were put off by her not washing her hands during demonstrations. Others complained that Child was careless when she waved her oversize knives about.
One person grumbled, “You are quite a revolting chef, the way you snap bones and play with raw meats!”
Child remarked later, “I can’t stand those over-sanitary people.”
Her home number was listed in the Cambridge phone book, and fans often called to ask advice or simply chat.
Julia Child, who called herself a “home cook” rather than a chef, declared, “We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life.”
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.