An Ode to Julia

By Patty LaNoue Stearns

As a young girl growing up in Southern California, she was called Jukie. She was a tomboy and a prankster, a hyperactive extrovert who was tall and strong and always tripping over things. She got stuck while playing in a chimney, which had to be taken apart to free her. She cut off the braids of her best friend, whose family then forbade them from playing together.

At age 9 she was a head taller than any of her classmates. She kept growing until she was 6 foot 2. And even though she was an American blueblood from birth – her father a wealthy, Princeton-educated Pasadena businessman and her mother from old money back East–never in her wildest moments did Julia McWilliams dream she would become Queen Julia, as in Julia Child, one of the most recognizable names in the culinary world.

Yet to the legion of fans who knew her breathy, high-pitched vibrato, her jolly and sometimes wacky style of television cooking and her many volumes on mastering the art of French cuisine, there is much more to discover about Child, who died at the age of 91 in 2004.

In Noel Riley Fitch’s long-researched Appetite for Life we find a sweet, funny, naive and gangly girl who attended the exclusive Katharine Branson School in Northern California’s Mill Valley, then Smith College in Massachusetts–the same school her mother, Caro, graduated from in 1900–where Julia “majored in socializing.” She was a party girl, but she wasn’t always a foodie, and certainly not a cook. That came much later, after failed attempts to become a writer and fashion columnist, during which time she ate copious amounts of Birds Eye frozen foods “to defeat her hunger.”

Indeed, when she met her husband-to-be, artist and bon vivant Paul Child, a few years later in Ceylon during World War II, “he thought she could cook, but in fact she had a keen interest in food largely because she was always hungry.” Julia, then in her early 30s, was working as a research assistant keeping intelligence files for America’s first espionage unit, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), after her application to the WAVES was rejected. (“I was too long.”)

It was during her OSS stint a year later in China that Paul Child’s love for Julia began to take shape and her discriminating palate started to bloom. Paul, a serious and worldly man who loved women and sex and who was 10 years older and several inches shorter than Julia, had misgivings about her naivete. She had at times a hysterical manner, and worse, she’d had many male friends but no lovers. She didn’t date much, either; she’d been jilted by her first beau, Tom Johnston, in 1936, then turned down what could have been an easy route to her first real love, writing, when in the summer of 1941 she rejected the marriage proposal of Harrison Gray Otis Chandler, whose family later owned the Times-Mirror Co. in Los Angeles.

But Paul, who slowly came around to seeing her in all her warm, shining, strong, long-legged, blue-eyed glory, was the one. They married in 1946 in a civil ceremony, and true to the adventures they would share over the decades, they were both literally in stitches after a head-on collision with a truck on the way to the service.

Julia’s life revolved around Paul, and in many ways, Appetite for Life is a touching love story about her quest to satisfy the well-honed tastes of her husband, who had lived in Paris in the ’20s. She bought The Joy of Cooking and subscribed to Gourmet. Then in 1948, Paul took a job with the United States Information Service in Paris.

“Her epiphany occurred in Rouen, in a restaurant called La Couronne,” Fitch writes, after a multi-course meal of oysters on the half-shell, a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse, sole meuniere, salad, creme fraiche and cafe filtre. “The whole experience was an opening of the soul and spirit for me. … I was hooked, and for life, as it turned out,” Julia says.

Of her life in Paris, where they lived on the Left Bank, she admitted: “I was practically in hysterics from the time we landed. I was a late bloomer who was still growing up. I didn’t get started on life until I was about 32, which was good because I was old enough to appreciate it. I had it all ahead of me.” She and Paul, who never had children, kept company with Alice B. Toklas, Art Buchwald, Theodore White and a host of American expatriates.

Julia enrolled in the cooking school Le Cordon Bleu in 1949, shortly after her 37th birthday. She later formed a cooking school, L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes, with French friends Simone (Simca) Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who collaborated on her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her career was on its way.

Much of the rest is well-known, as she wrote her books and cooked for the masses on television, but behind the scenes there was backbiting and snarkiness from other chefs and food writers, and much, much more, as this book so vividly details.

Appetite for Life is rich in historical perspective: For example, the Childs were touched by the taint of the McCarthy era, when the senator brought down several of their friends with accusations they were Communists.

The black-and-white photos show the beauty and warmth that Paul saw in Julia, and that the world is now privileged to know. Because until now, as Fitch writes, “she always kept her private life private, even from her close professional friends … she was a social and physical animal, not a philosophical one. She remained, in her eighties, the girl who adored peanut butter and raw dough, who cried at movies and loved cats.”

FOUR STARS OUT OF FOUR (This review originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press.)