On February 11, 1963, WGBH in Boston aired a cooking program focused on a tall, gangly diplomat’s wife who spoke as if she had a ping-pong ball lodged in her throat. Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy, the most glamorous First Lady since Dolly Madison, was living in the White House. The nation was in the process of disengaging itself from the dreary paranoia of the McCarthy Era, and Julia Child, the earnest, jocular woman on WGBH’s cameras, had just the sort of upwardly-mobile appeal that a cooler and less robust Martha Stewart would have some 25 years later.
Julia was no less of a shrewd businesswoman than Martha, though perhaps a bit less rash. A graduate of Smith College, Child worked in publicity and advertising in New York before joining the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. She served in the Far East before settling in Paris with her husband Paul in 1948. In Paris Julia enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School. There she met her two French colleagues Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. No doubt on the insistence of Julia they opened their own cooking school L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes. The trio produced their groundbreaking first book Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961.
And groundbreaking it was, since this book literally plowed the hearth of the American kitchen, which had been packed into the Eisenhower casserole-and-grill era for almost a decade. The Brits were in the process of taking over our ears (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” was released a year after Julia’s first program), and the French, with the help of a little ole girl from Pasadena, were taking over our tongues. She had her critics, to be sure, most notably John and Karen Hess, who slammed her for—among other things— putting sugar in her bread to hasten the leavenings and for praising a Big Mac (no doubt under duress). But Julia was bigger than their niggling. She was a professional who became an icon. Over a decade later, Dan Ackroyd’s wonderful caricature on Saturday Night Live familiarized her to millions who had never seen her before.
She became the model for every cooking personality—male or female—who came after her, our first true celebrity chef. But she was not a flim-flam kitchen personality. Julia realized that she had to teach a generation of Americans to recognize cooking as something far more than an obligation. Julia transformed our kitchens into a place where art is possible.