A Few Clarifications About Julia Child

Joined Oct 9, 2008
Over in the Pro Chef’s forum, there’s this long-running fight about who gets to be called “chef.” Setting that particular piece of pedantry aside, there has also been an extensive digression about what Julia Child did or did not do, what she could or could not cook, and so on. I am not a professional in the culinary industry, thus I do not post in that forum. But I’d like to clear up a few misunderstandings.

1. Le Cordon Bleu
Julia Child did attend the Cordon Bleu at a time when a number of American and French housewives were doing so as well, learning how to boil an egg and such. Mrs. Child found this tedious and silly, and insisted that she be permitted to enroll in a serious culinary class intended for professionals. The director, at that time a notorious mediocrity, had to choose between permitting Child to join a full-on haute cuisine course and sending her to an understaffed, poorly-equipped basement course primarily for ex-GI’s intending to join low-end brigades in the States. She chose the latter, figuring Child would flee. Instead, she quickly rose to the top of the class and became a protégée of Chef Max Bugnard, one of the senior faculty. (Yes, he is permitted the title. You can use it too when you become a senior member of the teaching faculty of Le Cordon Bleu, particularly if you’re a protégé of Henri-Paul Pellaprat.) After completing the year-long course, Child took the examination and failed it because it was entirely a matter of copying out from memory some nonsense recipes from the housewives’ course pamphlet. In a rage, Child did something she disliked intensely: she pulled strings with the Embassy, and let Chef Bugnard do the same within the school. They insisted on a standing rule of the school, such that she could take the exam again, this time in an appropriate fashion. She passed it easily.

2. Mastering the Art of French Cooking
This book was and is in no sense an ordinary cookbook knocked together by anyone. It was radical, unheard-of, and remains an extraordinary statement of the foundations of la cuisine bourgeoise. Jacques Pépin’s immediate reaction upon reading the manuscript in Helen McCully’s apartment was that this was a book he really ought to have written. In a sense, Pépin has spent a good part of his cookbook-writing career attempting to do so, with indifferent success. If you think it was nothing, you might want to think very, very seriously about why Pépin, not long after arriving in the U.S.A, scouted to be Kennedy’s chef in the White House, with a permanent job awaiting him near the top of the Plaza Athenée, would respond this way to this book. These days, you could argue that he’s mellowed; then, he used to have fights with McCully about why all cake mixes are intrinsically bad. But he adored Child’s book — and later Child herself. Ask yourself why.

3. Reference Cookbooks
In passing, the counter-remark that people in that era, i.e. the 1960s, didn’t know about Larousse Gastronomique and Escoffier and so on is rather confused. Perhaps time has dulled memory. In that day, the serious French cook relied primarily on Le répertoire de la cuisine, which doesn’t bother with nonsense like ingredients and formulas, but uses dense shorthand for experts trained in the apprentice system. Pépin relied on it, as did all his colleagues — including Mrs. Child. In his memoir, Pépin notes that the first chance he got to really study things like Pellaprat and Escoffier and such was when he was working for the President — not DeGaulle, the first one he worked for — who was something of a gourmet and would decide to have his chef (Pépin) cook something he saw in the pictures in Pellaprat. This was a great education for Pépin, but an odd one: nobody actually cooked these things in restaurants, because restaurants didn’t want to lose money hand over fist.

4. Dropping Omelets
There is a common story, told again and again, that Mrs. Child was always dropping things on TV — omelets, chickens, fish, and so on. At least during her original French Chef series, this refers to a single incident: flipping a potato galette, part of which broke. She never apologized for this, nor did she permit any cutting. She felt it was essential that people learn what to do when something went wrong. (Somebody once defined a great cook in precisely these terms — perhaps Paul Bocuse?) It is worth bearing in mind, though again she herself never apologized or made excuses, that she was working on an underpowered electric ring that was bent crosswise, such that she could not get her pans hot enough. In any event, if you are sure you saw her flip an omelet and drop it, go look again: she didn’t flip omelets anyway, and the omelet shows she did on that program were quite clean. (She preferred the one-hand method to the fork method.)

5. Chef?
In a number of interviews, including a very lengthy archival one near the end of her life, interviewers used the term “chef” in reference to Mrs. Child. She refused it flatly. She felt that a chef is someone who runs a restaurant kitchen, having worked his way up the ladder over the years. She never did this, so she rejected the title’s application to herself. Those fighting in that forum might consider her definition, incidentally.

6. Fashion and Legacy
Last but not least: Anyone who believes that Mrs. Child was following fashion, either in choosing to enroll in the Cordon Bleu (or indeed take up cooking at all while in Paris) or in entering the world of cookbooks and television cooking, is simply incorrect. In all these things she was bucking fashion, and strongly. She was in many of these things the first to do it, and she made it possible for others. When she began in Paris, American “hobby cooking” among housewives was basically nonexistent. Her husband’s colleagues at the Embassy, and their wives, refused to eat that awful French food — all snails and frogs and yuck, you know. This was the early 1950s, the era of crew cuts, McCarthy, and red-blooded burgers burnt to a crisp for good hearty red-blooded Americans.

What Julia Child did, by refusing all these things, getting serious training in French cooking, and then fighting endlessly to convince Americans to try it themselves — in the restaurant as well as at home — changed the way all Americans eat. If one had to pick a single figure as the catalyst of the “culinary revolution” — without which this website would not exist, for example, and most of the pros on here would not have jobs — Julia Child would be it. I think she would have laughed this off, frankly. She’d have said what about Pépin, or Jim Beard, or Helen McCully, or Pierre Franey, or Craig Claiborne, or Paul Prudhomme, or any of those people? No one person could possibly be responsible. But everything I know about these people — and some of them I know quite a bit about, in fact — suggests that they’d all laugh back and say, “sure, but without Julia it would never have happened.”
Joined Aug 13, 2006
Having been taught to cook by Julia Child (on tv and in her books, though I do have a treasured letter from her when i asked her why the orange filling in her orange cake didn't set up) i agree fully. 

I remember that all vegetables used to be cooked to a brown mass in the states when i was growing up, whether at home or in restaurants.  After julia child, you started to get green ones with some bite.  [After a little longer, you started (unfortunately) to get the practically raw broccoli that are now ubiquitous in the states (I don;t eat in fancy restaurants, but in cheap places, anyway).  They took a good thing too far, and besides, decided that peeling the stems was too much work].  But the influence is unmistakable.  I remember the days before julia child. 

I also have a cookbook by craig clairborne, though not the others you mentioned, and there is NO RESEMBLANCE at all. Nothing is really explained, mainly, no recipe is even described in such a way as to know if you want to make it or not. 

And what Child gave us is the idea that anything can be made, if you know how.  No matter how complicated, you can follow good instructions and reproduce it.  THAT, not snobbery about cuisine, is what she left behind.
Joined Oct 9, 2008
And what Child gave us is the idea that anything can be made, if you know how.  No matter how complicated, you can follow good instructions and reproduce it.  THAT, not snobbery about cuisine, is what she left behind.
She put it like this: "If I can do it, you can do it, and here's how you do it." In other words, if you have no schooling from Mom in how to cook ("my mother had a cheese thing she did, I think" as she said), and you're kind of a klutz and physically awkward (she was almost 6 feet tall and nearly hunchbacked by the time she was on TV), you can still cook well. To do this, you have to know how. And I, Julia Child, will show you how -- I've done the training, I've fought through how to do every recipe in France and in the US, I've struggled through it all, and I can teach you. But you must be willing to learn to do it right.

Which is all to say -- YES!!!!
Joined May 2, 2010
Had never heard of Julia Child until these past couple of months,  however I do own a copy  of Larousse Gastronomique, am quite in awe of this masterpiece,  and is handled by me with great reverence.
Joined May 8, 2009
Jeez...  have you seen the omelet episode?

The only thing she 'drops' is knowledge....

There are torrents......

She does bandage a 'brown' omelet with butter and then cover it with fresh herbs... 

Like a chef would do. 

But I have seen some episodes where she is arguing with Jacque.  It's kinda funny to see them argue...  friendly.

EDIT: I agree with you ChrisLehrer almost implicitly.  She brought so much to the table, so much information...
 Regard her as an icon...  She should be revered.
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Joined Aug 11, 2000
Our libraries have Julia Child's television series DVD set....wow.  how to make and then fill sausage casings, potatoes 101, etc.....

It was said earlier, but bears repeating......Julia taught important life lessons, it's ok to practice and initially not get the results you were going after, learn how to fix um.  It's the way I teach cooking, it's the way I teach pretty much everything.
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Joined Feb 13, 2008
Just about everything in this thread is gold.  But I'd also like to add that Child made HUGE contributions to gastronomy in America. 

Her books and TV shows did a lot to break the stranglehold cusine classique had on the American mind as THE great cuisine partly by simplyfing and partly with her inclusion of regional, bourgeois styles as implied equals (which they certainly are).

Of course Gault, Bocuse, Millau, Guerard, etc., would have done what they would have done without her and les cuisines nouvelle and gourmande would have happened in France and eventually come over here. 

But I do question whether Waters' and Aratow's enormously influential (and contemporaneous) contribution of creating California Cuisine at Chez Panisse by combining Mme E. Saint-Ange's cuisine bourgeois with cuisine au marche and allowing for a lot of regionalism (a new menu every day makes you look for variety), would have found such fertile soil had Child not done so much to change Americans' expectations.

Personally, Child was neither my greatest direct influence as a writer (Pellaprat)  nor even as a TV cooking instructor (Kerr).   Nor, for that matter, do I think she was more influential on gastronomy than James Beard.  So what?

Did she have a big effect on how I cook and what I expect from those who cook for me?  Heck yes!  And I think almost everyone who cooked with pretensions to fine dining through the sixties and seventies will agree. 

If you don't remember what passed for "Continental Cuisine" in the fifties, sixties and seventies, count yourself lucky.  Vive la différence.

Viva Julia!  Julia viva!

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Joined Dec 23, 2000

A graceful and enjoyable essay; I liked it a lot.  Watching Julia on TV was what got me started being interested in cooking.


Mike  /img/vbsmilies/smilies/thumb.gif
Joined Jun 16, 2006
Julia Child was a good sport.  I remember when she was on Battle of the PBS Stars.  Hard to believe she didn't win by disqualification.




Joined Dec 14, 2006
Excellent post, Chris.

"My Life in France," Julia's memoir written with her nephew Alex Prud'Homme, is a engaging look at her entry into the world of cooking. And "The Tenth Muse" by Judith Jones, Julia's publisher, looks at her impact on American cooking. Both are excellent reads.
Joined Nov 15, 2012
I grew up thinking that she was the homeliest middle-aged woman on TV.  But apparently in her younger days she was somewhat of a babe, her even taller sister even more so.  An Olympic swimmer also, and she talked much as any sailor when it came to sex.  I just saw a play written by a local performer, it was spot-on reflective of these revelations.  It was based on one of her episodes and entitled, "Manage a Trois."  Hilarious funny with very slick innuendo as Julia most likely would have wanted to use in her series.

As a windown to that climax, I wonder how many people remember she started out doing a homemaker show, not a cooking show.  Yup, she was just like Betty White's character in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and it's sure Betty had watched it.

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Joined Dec 23, 2000
"I would love to create just half the recipes in her book"


You must be sure to see the movie  "Julie and Julia"-  it's about a lady who decided she would start at the first page of "The Art..."  and do one recipe for her family every day until she got to the end of the book. It's hilarious.

A recreation of Julia's TV kitchen is in the Smithsonian Institution.  When we were in Cambridge MA in the late fifties, we lived a block or so from her house.  We weren't foodies then (in grad school on the GI bill, we could barely afford any food, let alone gourmet) and she wasn't famous, so we never went over to say hello.

Mike /img/vbsmilies/smilies/wink.gif  

Glad this thread came back
Joined Mar 4, 2014
One of my most treasured possessions is an autographed picture of Julia Child that hangs on my kitchen wall.
Joined Jan 17, 2015
OMG, I love watching her old French Chef tv shows on netflix. My favorite line is where she spilled i think it was leek broth all over her stovetop and said. "One doesn`t become a good cook without ruining a few stoves!" Ha, Now my favorite kitchen saying.

I bought a new stove and at first i was keeping the top scrubbed clean and after i watched this episode i`m like "Flame on smokey! Smokey is what i have named my stove now...LOL
Joined Jul 28, 2001
I was born into a food family. I can remember watching Julia. Back then I wanted to be a better cook then the rest of the Cousins, Uncles, Aunts, Nona’s. I sort of blocked out Julia’s mechanics of putting together a dish. I listened to what she had to offer. It wasn’t until I received my formal education and was backpacking Europe doing my own type of apprenticeship that I started remembering all her subtle nuances in the description of a dish. It was apparent that she must have paid great attention and questioned the Chefs she studied under or cooked with because she threw little hints and tricks that could only come from paying very close attention to what she was observing. This had to come from pure interest on her part. Then either making mental or written notes, don’t know which, and then pass them on while preparing the dish for the audience. I was completely impressed with her information on a plethora of culinary dishes. I could care less what she was preparing but felt privileged when I would recall her explaining (only Chef’s known tidbits).

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