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About Julia Child, Iconic Cookbook Author and TV Food Personality

Child's Early Years and the Publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking


Julia Child in 1985

Julia Child, iconic cookbook author and TV food personality

Bachrach / Getty Images
Julia Child (August 15, 1912 – August 13, 2004) is the iconic cookbook author who is credited with bringing French cooking to American “servantless” households in the early 1960s. She has been hailed as the first true television food personality, whose “how-to” shows and cookbooks brought a passion for cooking and food into millions of American homes and paved the way for the generations of TV chefs afterwards.

About Julia Child’s Early Years
By her own admission, Julia Child nee McWilliams grew up continuously ravenous. Born into a well-to-do family in Pasadena, Julia was exceptionally tall and her exuberance and zest for sports and life apparently burned calories. Her parents employed a cook, however, so Julia did not learn to cook at home.

Julia received an English degree from Smith College (Class of 1934), and after graduation lived briefly in New York City as an advertising copywriter. In 1937, she moved back to California and worked a bit as a writer before World War II broke out and she was moved—apparently by her sense of adventure—to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to today’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where she became a research assistant. After some time stateside, Julia was sent to Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), which is where she would meet the man who would be her first guide to culinary pleasures and, eventually, her husband—Paul Child.

Julia and Paul Child were married on September 1, 1946 and shortly thereafter moved to Paris for Paul’s assignment with the U.S. Information Agency.

About Julia Child in Paris
While living in Paris, Julia Child was indoctrinated into the pleasures of French food and wine and soon desired to become an accomplished cook herself. As she did with everything in her life, Julia threw herself into the effort with gusto cooking. After deciding that its somewhat basic class for housewives wasn’t demanding enough for her, Child entered a course of professional cooking study at the renowned Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, which had reopened after being closed during World War II.

Child attended the year-long professional cooking course with a class of American men, WWII veterans studying under the auspices of the G.I. Bill. Though Julia Child valued and respected her instructor, Max Bugnard, she had a contentious relationship with the Le Cordon Bleu headmistress, Madame Brassart. Julia Child flunked the final exam for her diploma the first time she took it—because she’d been so busy learning the most complicated recipes that she’d neglected to memorize the simple ones. Finally Julia was allowed to re-take the final exam and officially graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in 1951.

Julia Child’s interest in cooking led her to join a women’s cooking club called Cercle des Gourmettes. In the group, she met Simone “Simca” Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Child, Beck and Bertholle, “les trois gourmandes,” formed a cooking school in the Child’s Paris kitchen to teach French cooking to American women. The three called the school L’ecole des Gourmettes.

About Julia Child’s First Cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Julia Child’s friends and French food colleagues Beck and Bertholle had already started to write a cookbook—and, in fact, their “food advisor” had already published a 63-page “teaser” called What’s Cooking in France before jumping ship—but their manuscript was ten times that and they asked Julia’s help in making the manuscript appeal to American home cooks. She deemed the work imprecise and unprofessional and in typical, exuberant Julia Child fashion, she would tear apart and completely refashion the recipes; she and Beck (and, to a lesser degree, Bertholle) would test and re-test, write and rewrite to break down and codify each steps, making them understandable—and doable—for “servantless” American home cooks.

In early 1953, through an devoted cook/acquaintance in the United States, Avis De Voto (who became a good friend), Child was put in touch with Putnam publishers who were interested but unresponsive and then was able to secure a book publishing deal for with the publisher Houghton Mifflin for an advance of $750.

While working on French Recipes for American Cooks, as the cookbook from Les Trois Gourmandes was then titled, the U.S. Government transferred the Childs from Paris to Marseille, from Marseille to Plittersdorf, Germany, from Plittersdorf to Washington, D.C, from Washington, D.C. t Oslo, Norway. All the while, Julia continued to work on the cookbook, which morphed into French Cooking for the American Kitchen.

In early 1958, Julia Child and Beck met with Houghton Mifflin to show the publisher what had been written thus far and were greeted with criticism that the book, supposed to be French cooking in a single volume, was ponderously long and unacceptable. After much deliberation, Child agreed to cut it back, but—though highly praised by the editor—the resulting manuscript, submitted in September 1959 was ultimately deemed too “encyclopedic.” Among other objections, the book’s size, according to Houghton, would make producing the book unprofitable; it was rejected.

Lucky for Julia Child and Les Trois Gourmandes, through another friend, the manuscript landed on the desk of a young, Francophile editor at Knopf, Judith Jones (who also acquired and edited other literary masterpieces, and was responsible for bringing Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl to the American market).

Jones loved the manuscript and championed it at Knopf, who gave Julia Child and her co-authors a $1500 advance for the cookbook. Under Jones’ editorial direction, the cookbook’s recipes and instructions were further developed for American audiences and shaped and the title became Mastering the Art of French Cooking. [Read about the “recipe” for a good book title, in this article which mentions the titling of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.] Published in 1961 and an immediate hit, Mastering the Art of French Cooking became the magnum opus of French cooking for American audiences, and the cookbook most credited with taking American home cooks out of the Can Opener Cookbook/“instant” age.

The 50th Anniversary Edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 2011. [Compare prices of Mastering the Art of French Cooking].

Read about Julia Child, her book marketing and publicity and The French Chef television show—the ultimate cookbook media platform and book publicity and marketing vehicle.

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