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Video: Chef Julia Child dies

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msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/13/2004 7:38:35 PM ET 2004-08-13T23:38:35

Julia Child, the celebrated cook, author and television personality who elevated the nation's culinary standards, died in her sleep early Friday morning at an assisted living home in Montecito, Calif. She was 91. As America's gastronomic guru, she had no peer.  She taught us to relish food and wine as a way of appreciating life's bounty. From this brave new world of food, there is no turning back.

Before Julia, whisks, soufflé dishes and copper pans were novelties brought home from France by pretentious tourists. After Julia, they were standard American kitchen battery. Before Julia, French cooking was an effete art form. After Julia, French cuisine was within reach of any home cook. Her joie de vivre, ability to explain techniques, and what-me-worry approach to mistakes made serious cooking fun.

Child gave the country a taste of its culinary future in February 1962 when she went to a Boston television station to promote her first book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." To liven up the interview, she brought an omelet pan, a whisk, an apron and a dozen eggs and chattily whipped up an omelet in front of the cameras.

That soon led to her first public television series, "The French Chef," which debuted on Feb. 11, 1963, and made her a star at the age of 50. She went on to headline eight more television series and publish nine more cookbooks, including The French Chef Cookbook (1968), a second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1970) and From Julia Child's Kitchen (1975).

She also appeared on the cover of Time magazine (1967), hosted TV specials, wrote articles for publications such as Food & Wine and Parade, and co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food. She changed not only home entertaining but restaurant dining, brought cooking to prime-time television, and was the first big celebrity chef. Many of today's top chefs, from Alice Waters to Emeril Lagasse, credit her inspiration.

Child's television shows were equal parts instruction and performance art. If she dropped part of a potato pancake while flipping it, she scraped it up and went on. She sipped wine and tasted liberally while cooking and concluded every show with a cheery "Bon Appétit!"

Child won distinguished awards in both broadcasting (a Peabody in 1965 and an Emmy in 1966) and cooking. In 1980,  she became the first woman member of La Commanderie des Cordons Bleus de France.

Never predictable
It was an unlikely career for a woman from a privileged background in Pasadena, Calif., who had begun a career in the foreign service. But not much was predictable about Julia Child.

Born Julia McWilliams on Aug. 15, 1912, she was one of three children of John and Caro McWilliams. Her father was a well-to-do real estate investor and businessman; her mother, a loving nonconformist, amateur athlete and patron of the arts.

Neither Julia's mother nor the hired cooks, who fed the family a standard American meat-and-potatoes diet, inspired Julia to spend time in the kitchen. "All my mother knew how to cook was baking powder biscuits, codfish balls and Welsh rarebit," Julia once said.

But at frequent extended-family meals and dinner parties, young Julia did learn the joys of sharing food with friends and family. Child's biographer Noelle Riley Fitch, reports that Julia and her siblings ate as much as they could at every meal. "Julia learned the secret of life at an early age: appetite," Fitch writes in Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child.

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Julia McWilliams was an extrovert and a tomboy -- hiking, golfing, swimming and playing tennis while growing to a gangly 6-foot-2. She was known for her stamina, irreverence and pell-mell impulsiveness. After graduation from a private boarding school in California, she attended Smith College, her mother's alma mater, in Northampton, Mass., majoring in history. But she preferred physical and social activity over her studies. Upon graduation in 1934, she thought she might become a novelist.

For three years she wrote advertising copy for W. & J. Sloane, a furniture store in New York City, returning to California shortly before her mother died, in 1937. She spent four years at home, writing for local publications and briefly working in advertising again. Always civic minded -- as were her parents -- she volunteered with the Red Cross and, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, decided to enter government service.

A job with the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C., presented her with the opportunity to volunteer for work in India, where, in 1944, she met Paul Child, a widely traveled OSS officer and artist known for his sophisticated palate. He introduced her to the wonders of food and, on Sept. 1, 1946, became her husband.

Culinary revelation
In their first home in Washington, D.C., Julia Child learned to cook to please Paul and entertain their large social circle. Then, in a fortuitous turn of events, the State Department assigned Paul as an exhibits officer with the U.S. Information Agency in France in 1948. After five days aboard ship, the hungry couple enjoyed a meal in Rouen that she recalled repeatedly as a revelation: oysters on the half shell, a bottle of Pouilly Fuissé, sole meunière, green salad, crème fraîche. As she described it once in The New York Times, "The whole experience was an opening up of the soul and spirit for me."

Her new passion came at the right time in her life. She had motivation -- pleasing her husband -- as well as the time, energy and opportunity to learn about food. She began exploring Paris restaurants and food shops and enrolled in a challenging class at the Cordon Bleu for would-be professional chefs. She proved fearless in her willingness to try new techniques, from filleting a fish to gutting a chicken to learning a hundred ways to cook a potato. Paul was an astute critic of her efforts.

Cooking became her career shortly after she met Simone Beck, known as Simca, through Cercle des Gourmettes, a cooking club for French women to which both belonged. Simca and her friend Louisette Bertholle had written a French cookbook for Americans and thought Julia was just the person to bring the idea to life-to Americanize it.

The three women began their collaboration by offering cooking classes to American women in the Childs' kitchen, calling their informal school L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes. Their success proved to them the book would have an audience. They researched, wrote and tirelessly tested recipes, up to 15 or 20 times. Julia translated the French ideas, ingredients and instructions into American English, making the recipes interesting, practical and nearly foolproof.

The women continued to collaborate long-distance while the Childs moved to Marseilles, Germany, Norway and finally Cambridge. They signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin, which rejected the manuscript as too much like an encyclopedia. After 10 years, the 734-page "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was published by Knopf in 1961.

Feeding the soul
Critics hailed the book.

Craig Claiborne, in The New York Times, called it "probably the most comprehensive, laudable and monumental work" on French cuisine, adding "it will probably remain the definitive work for nonprofessionals." It remains in print more than 40 years later.

Child's appearance to promote the book in 1962 at the Boston public television station drew such positive responses that the station offered her a 13-week series. "The French Chef" was wildly successful. By the time filming ended in 1966, Julia had starred in 119 half-hour programs and the show had won Peabody and Emmy awards. The show ran nationally for 10 years.
Julia Child was not the first television cook, but she was the most widely seen and attracted the broadest audience, "from professors to policemen," as TV Guide put it at the time.

Julia's second book, "The French Chef Cookbook" (1968), was a collection of the recipes she had demonstrated on the show. It was soon followed by "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II" (1970), again with Simone Beck, although the two had ended their partnership with Louisette Bertholle.

Julia's fourth book, "From Julia Child's Kitchen" (1975), was illustrated with Paul Child's photographs. After that more personal volume, all of her books grew out of her television series of the same names: "Julia Child & Company" (1978), "Julia Child & More Company" (1979), "The Way to Cook" (1989), "Julia Child's Menu Cookbook" (a one-volume edition of "Julia Child & Company" and "Julia Child & More Company," 1991), "Cooking with Master Chefs" (1993) and "In Julia Child's Kitchen with Master Chefs" (1995).

In the 1970s and 1980s, her television series were "Julia Child & Company," "Julia Child & More Company," "Dinner at Julia's" and "The Way to Cook." Seeming never to run out of steam, she starred in four more series in the 1990s; but this time, in typically generous fashion, she put others in the limelight: "Cooking with Master Chefs," "In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs" (another Emmy winner), "Baking with Julia" and "Julia Child & Jacques Pepin Cooking at Home."

Her original career goal as a writer served her well as she wrote frequently for newspapers and magazines during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Her columns for McCall's, Parade and Food & Wine, as well as her regular appearances on ABC's "Good Morning America" and the Food Channel, continued to spread her fame and her philosophy that food is meant to be enjoyed.
One of her lasting contributions to the field of culinary education is the American Institute of Wine and Food, which she founded in 1981 in California, with Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff. Receiving a Distinguished Service award from the Wine Spectator magazine in 1998, she explained to an interviewer: "We're an educational institution, like a museum or a library. We have nothing to do with feeding the hungry… I'm about feeding the soul."

Paul Child, who was 10 years Julia's senior (he was born in 1902) was a full partner in her career. Not only did he awaken her passion for food but he also encouraged her cooking and helped with the television show by shopping and doing other behind-the-scenes work, as well as serving as her manager and official photographer. He died in 1994, after living in a nursing home for five years.

Julia Child left the couple's home in Cambridge in 2001, after living there for 42 years. She moved to a retirement community in California, donating the house and office to Smith College.
She gave the kitchen, which Paul had designed and which served as the set for three of her television series, to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The reconstructed kitchen is now on view.

America is fortunate that Julia Child lived among us. Her hearty appetite, curious nature, and passion for the pleasures of life were contagious, not only for those who actually make her recipes but for all of us. Because of her, American food, at home and in restaurants, no longer means perfection salad, overcooked peas and roast beef. It means the infinite variety of fresh seafood, grains, fruits and berries, nuts, vegetables, poultry and meat raised and served in appetizing array from coast to coast.

She apparently loved every minute of her long life. The Web site for "Bon Appétit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian" summarizes her wisdom -- for the kitchen and beyond --in these few, happy words: "…above all, have a good time."

Sylvia Lindman is a freelance writer living in Portland, Ore.

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