Friday, August 13, 2004

Julia Child - Patron Saint & American Misfit

Julia Child, patron saint of American cooking, died last night in her sleep.

She was a free-spirit who never quite fit anywhere. She was too tall and exuberant for the genteel Pasadena society of her 1912 birth. She was an extroverted, athletic tomboy when girls were expected to be ladylike. Through family connections and wealth, she attended Smith College, where she was best-known for her love of all things social and her vigorous senior-year campaign to repeal prohibition.

After graduation, she took a series of jobs, one most notably with the US diplomatic service. While on assignment to India , she met Paul Cushing Child, a worldly diplomat with gourmet tastes. When he asked if she could cook, she replied that she, too, was a gourmet connoisseur. Truth was that she couldn't boil water, and she had barely set foot into a kitchen.

So as a new bride at the ripe age of 34, she set out with trademark energy to learn to cook. The rest is culinary history. When her new husband was transferred to the US Embassy in Paris, she enrolled in the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school, the only woman in her class of fledgling chefs. She found her calling.

She elevated dining and culinary tastes for Americans, by combining classic French cooking with American casualness and a sense of fun. She published her first cookbook at age 49, and at age 51, she started TV's first live cooking show. Ratings for her PBS cooking shows were enormous, in large part due to her contagious spirit and cheerful lack of perfection.

Along her professional journey, she sold millions of cookbooks. She invented the cooking show. She broke the gender barrier for women in the culinary world. She garnered prestigious awards, medals and honorary degrees. She was a tireless creative genius with an instinct for promotion and a genuine love of people. She was unfailingly generous in her support of new chefs, new ideas, new ventures.

Life wasn't always easy. Her aristocratic family never understood her ambitions and wanderlust. She was a 35-year breast cancer survivor. She and Paul never had the children they longed for. There were rumors of over-fondness of fine wines and English gin. Her beloved husband passed on 7 years ago, and she has been lonely without him.

Her honest humor and quick wit were legendary. She labeled health experts who advised cutting out rich dishes as "food Nazis." She was an avid proponent of the French approach to food....only the best, but in moderation. In reference to food trends, she once commented, "I think fake foods aren't worth eating. Have the real thing...have a little of it. I like real hamburgers and real meat, real butter. Eat everything. Have fun."

Wise words from an American original.

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