As a top secret researcher at the Office of Strategic Services, the 6'2” Pasadena-born Julia McWilliams' first attempt at culinary arts of any sort was to cook up a very critical shark repellent concoction. From fat roasted chicken to Boeuf Bourguignon took her quite a while, and a few adventures. This meant meeting the gourmet Paul Child, trying to learn cooking at the Los Angeles cooking school, failing disastrously in the kitchen (while making brains simmered in red wine for Paul), moving to Paris, and enrolling at the Cordon Bleu.
While Julia was a very loud, blithesome girl with simple aspirations to become a writer, Paul Cushing Child was way older, a diplomat, cosmopolitan, an artist and a lover of fine cuisine who spoke flawless French. They met at the OSS as colleagues, became friends (despite her being a “sloppy drinker”, and his “unbecoming mustache and unbecoming nose”) and married after a few months of getting to know each other. Paul Child was transferred to France after their marriage, and Julia's life changed. Paul took her to Rouen, where Julia Child had her first taste of a French meal—of oysters, sole meunière (a French fish fillet dish), and wine—which was, in her words, “an epiphany”. She even pleasantly discovered “onion-y” shallots during that lunch at La Couronne.
In Paris, Julia went to enroll in the famed Le Cordon Bleu, under the mentorship of Chef Max Bugnard, at 37 years of age. She graduated from the Cordon Bleu, not before failing her exams in her first try. But France enthralled her. She talked of Paris as a magical city, la belle France, her favourite place on earth. Surrounded by some of the best food in the world, Child learned French, and was determined to learn and cook la cuisine bourgeoise—traditional home-cooked food.
Her days in France were accented by walks down the gourmet shopping markets on Rue Cler, visiting patisseries and boulangeries; Jeusselin was where Julia Child came to buy foie gras. Meat was always sourced from Savenor's Market (her favourite butcher shop for years), where she developed a kinship with the butcher. “Every woman must kiss her butcher”, she has quipped. The cremerie on the way to the Rue de bourgogne had freshly churned butter ready to be carved, fresh milk, the best of French cheese—boxfuls of Camembert, Brillat-Savarin and Brie—some with texture so soft to the point of oozing out of the rind. There, Julia watched in awe as the owner judged the right kind of ripe cheese, with a touch and a sniff. She took in the smell of sage, munched on croissants and sipped coffee at Les Deux Magots, walked through local marketplaces and talked to grocers. Roaming the famed Les Halles (food market in Paris), Julia Child was taken on a culinary journey through smells and sights of food—ham and sausage, cabbages, pig trotters, mussels, and champignons (button mushrooms). She stood flabbergasted at the doors of Dehillerin, a kitchen equipment and restaurant supplies store brimming with copper pots, pans, spoons, knives and choppers, platters and gigantic mashers. As she sat soaking up a soupe à l’oignon gratinéea (French onion soup) at her favourite brasserie, wonder whether she asked for an extra grating of gruyère atop her hot soup?
Later, meeting Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle led the trio to come together to work on a French cookbook for Americans, spending hours, days and even continents between their correspondences. Repeatedly testing and trying out recipes, their 850-page manuscript was rejected at the first go, for being too tedious and long. After a major revision and another rejection, the now-celebrated book, 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' came out. With her groundbreaking television show, 'The French Chef', Julia Child showed the world how easy it was to cook even the most ambitious of French food at home. Her television show, the precursor of all modern cookery shows, presented her eccentric, slightly quirky self, telling viewers it was okay to make a mistake; that you could burn your fish.
Most of the world did not know about Julia Child until Julie and Julia released, a true story of a young blogger named Julie Powell who takes on Child's books and cooks her way through it. Although in real life Julia Child did not take well to Julie and her kitchen adventures, the film hit a nerve among many millions who were inspired to start cooking at home. With her trademark humour and distinct trill in her voice, she says, “Remember, you’re all alone in the kitchen; who is going to see you!”, as she picks up crumbs of potatoes fallen off her pan when she tries to flip the potato pancake. It reassures so many of us that we are all mortals capable of mistakes. And should anything like this happen, “all is not lost, turn it into something else,” is the voice we often need to hear in the kitchen sometimes. Thank you, Julia.
Making Boeuf Bourguignon, with Julia Child
Julia Child died in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday. Her beautiful home in Provence, which she shared with her husband Paul Child, La Pitchoune, is almost exctly the same way Julia left it. La Peetch as it is fondly called, it's now a vacation rental with a cooking school.