Today, August 15th, Google Doodles have honored their second woman of the year in the U.S., Julia Child, on the 100th anniversary of her birth. With this addition, Google Doodles honoring 17 men and 2 women have appeared in the United States this year, equating to 10.5% representation of women, which is close to their average over the last 5 years. I would love for them to keep up this streak (the last U.S. Doodle honored Amelia Earhart) until they get to 50%!
Julia Child was a famed American chef who became well-known after the publication of her encyclopedic work Mastering the Art of French Cooking with her co-authors (and friends) Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. She went on to work on many cooking-related television programs and books, and was the recipient of the Peabody Award, several Emmy and Daytime Emmy Awards, and the U.S. National Book Award. She was also a recipient of the French Legion of Honor and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. I think she, however, would simply describe herself as someone who loved food and thus loved cooking and teaching the culinary arts.
Child learned to appreciate, and then to create, French cuisine after moving to France in 1948 with her husband, Paul. She had met Paul when she was working as a top-secret intelligence research assistant for the Office of Strategic Services, a U.S. World War II-era intelligence agency. Julia had taken this position because, at 6 feet 2 inches tall, she was too tall to enlist in the Army or Navy’s female corps, but she thrived in her career and received an Emblem of Meritorious Civil Service for her OSS work in Sri Lanka and China. After their marriage, Paul continued his work in the United States Foreign Service in France, Germany, and Norway before the two returned to the United States in 1961. It was during this time that Julia became serious about cooking, attending Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, starting a small cooking school with friends, and working on a cookbook that would become the standard of French cooking for American audiences.
The book, coming in at 734 pages, was originally a tough sell to publishers, who weren’t sure how the American public would respond to such an imposing, encyclopedic volume. But Mastering the Art of French Cooking became a sensation, as did Child herself. She went on to leverage her expertise in cooking shows like The French Chef which ran from 1963 to 1973.
I didn’t know much about Julia Child, though of course I had heard of her and seen some of her television shows, until a few years ago. My mother passed on a copy of Child’s memoir, published after her death in 2006, entitled My Life in France. After reading this account of Child’s life in her own words, I had a truer sense of the joie de vivre that made her so beloved and so successful. Along with her recollections of a life well lived and a career well-earned, Child shares challenges and difficult times, becoming a sort of mentor on-the-page. Her determination to achieve her goals in gastronomy, and to share her pleasure with others, is especially impressive given the male-dominated industries in which she worked.
I was also impressed by Julia’s inquisitive, curious, and empirical approach to French cooking that ultimately led to her not only mastering it herself, but teaching it to so many others. In the book, she describes spending hours upon hours repeating experiments, slightly altering ingredients, techniques, temperatures, and ratios to ultimately produce the perfect roast chicken or pastry (or, as she describes, the ideal amount of gelatin to be added to a from-scratch mayonnaise recipe in order to make “pretty mayo curlicues” on a plate). She wanted to be able to write recipes with such accuracy and precision that any home cook could make a version just like her own, painstakingly perfected, version. As a scientist, I can strongly relate to that!
I’ll close with a quotation from near the end of her memoir, that captures, for me, her approach to her career and her life:
. . . I learned why good French food is an art, and why it makes such sublime eating: nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care.