Julia Child: Eat Well, Live Big, Bloom Late!

by Debra Eve | @DebraEve

Julia Child: Eat Well, Live Big, Bloom Late! by Debra Eve

Recently I convinced my hubby to watch Julie & Julia. He suggested that Leto and a bottle of wine would make better company.

(Leto is our 20-lb male Maine Coon cat who watches chick flicks with me and cries at appropriate scenes. He’s very sensitive.)

After the movie, my hubby turned to me and said, “That was really good.” And it was.

How can you not love Julia Child (1912-2004)? She was over 6′ of  bonhomie, exuberant passion, in love with food and with life. And she found it all at age 36 with her first meal in France:

We began our lunch with a half-dozen oysters on the half shell . . . Rouen is famous for its duck dishes, but after consulting the waiter Paul had decided to order Sole Meunière . . . perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top . . . Then came the salade verte with a slightly acidic vinaigrette . . . Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life.

In the About page, I write “Late blooming isn’t about a particular age. It’s about the aha! moment that transforms everything that follows.” There’s Julia’s moment. At 36. It’s breath-taking.

Nothing in Julia’s sheltered upbringing prepared her. Not her elite girls’ school, not Smith College (where she was enrolled at birth), and certainly not her rich, conservative Pasadena family.

Her father had invested early in California real estate and her mother was a paper-company heiress. Julia grew up eating “broiled mackerel for Friday dinners” and the “occasional pan-fried trout when camping in the Sierras.” She was a golf and tennis country club girl.

Too Tall and Insubordinate To Boot

After graduating from Smith, Julia’s plan to become a famous novelist didn’t pan out. She tried her hand at copywriting in New York for a few months. Then she worked in advertising, but was fired for insubordination. “And rightly so,” she commented later, but none of her biographies provide the juicy details.

When World War II broke out, Julia applied for the Women’s Air Corps, but they rejected her for being too tall. She joined the Office of Strategic Services (now the CIA), hoping to become a spy. Her height perhaps went against her again (how can a 6′ tall woman look nondescript?) and she ended up as a file clerk in Ceylon, where she “processed highly secret material from our agents.”

There she met Paul Child, a member of the chart-making division, but more importantly, an artist and gourmand (or “foodie” as we say now). He sounds like a remarkable person:

Paul was ambitious for his painting and photography, which he did on evenings or weekends, but even those ambitions were more aesthetic than commercial… Naturally, he would have loved recognition as an Important Artist. But his motivation for making paintings and photographs wasn’t fame or riches: his pleasure in the act of creating, “the thing itself,” was reward enough.

Julia Child in Paul's Valentine card

One of Paul’s handmade Valentine’s cards

Paul and Julia married after WWII, but her father “was bitterly disappointed that I didn’t marry a decent, red-blooded Republican businessman.”

The State Department sent Paul to France in 1948, where Julia had her awakening at 36. They were stationed in Paris. She headed straight for France’s most famous cooking school.

At 9:00 A.M. on Tuesday, October 4, 1949, I arrived at the École du Cordon Bleu feeling weak in the knees and snozzling from a cold. It was then that I discovered that I’d signed up for a yearlong Année Scolaire instead of a six-week intensive course.

Julia dove right in. Paul became a “Cordon Bleu Widower.” But he had a bit of solace.

They adopted a local alley cat they named Minette. She “liked to sit in Paul’s lap during meals, and paw tidbits off his plate when she thought he wasn’t looking.”  (I’m pretty sure Minette ate better than I do.)

The Path To Success Was Not Paved With Butter

If you saw the movie, you’ll recall that the madame who ran the school disliked Julia and ensured she flunked her first exam.

Julia later teamed up with two members of her gourmet club to write a French cookbook for Americans. It took almost 10 years, only to be rejected by the publisher who contracted it.

By the time Mastering The Art Of French Cooking finally appeared in 1961, Julia and Paul had moved to Boston. She promoted it on a local public book show. TV producer Russell Morash saw her and thought: “Who is this madwoman cooking an omelet on a book-review program?” He hired her to become The French Chef.

And then, right before filming, WGBH’s studio burned to the ground. Julia’s personal copy of Mastering (with all her notes)  “went up in smoke.”

But Julia’s bonhomie prevailed again. The New Times says,

…she became a darling of audiences and comedians almost from the moment she made her debut on WGBH in Boston in 1963 at the age of 50.

Julia spent the next four decades  instructing and entertaining food lovers the world over, remaining faithful to public television even after the series became a hit.

Julia with knife and chickens

Love this woman!

In  2000, at age 88, she received the French Legion Of Honor and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Julia retired to Santa Barbara the following year and succumbed to kidney failure in 2004. (Paul, ten years her senior, had passed away ten years earlier.)

Her autobiography, My Life In France, was published posthumously. It’s the source of the quotes here and the basis for her half of Julie & Julia. I highly recommend it.

So that’s how a gangly Pasadena girl with vague literary aspirations brought French cooking to America,

…found my true calling, experienced an awakening of the senses, and had such fun that I hardly stopped moving long enough to catch my breath.

By the way, my hubby wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the movie. Leto also gave it his seal of approval, which Julia would appreciate. After Minette, she and Paul always had a cat. One of her favorite sayings:

Une maison sans chat, c’est la vie sans soleil! (A house without a cat is like life without sunshine!)

Oh yes, and “Bon appetit!”

What Later Bloomers Can Learn From Julia Child

  • In her own words: “Try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”

Sources

  • Julia’s autobiography, My Life In France and her NY Times Obituary.
  • Here’s a less-famous clip of Julia upstaging David Letterman when he failed to provide a working hot plate. I laughed so hard I cried. (If you’ve received this by email or RSS, click here.)

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