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Once upon a time, there was a towering girl who would inspire a culinary revolution in America. Her name was Julia. Julia was a spy during World War II, but when she met her husband abroad–she withheld one important secret: she did not know how to cook. She soon enrolled as the first woman to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France. She learned how to cook delicious food, bake extravagant cakes, and create tasty recipes. Julia changed the face of cooking in America forever.
Ruth Reichl, Gourmet’s editor in chief, is the author of the best-selling memoirs Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires, and the forthcoming Not Becoming My Mother and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. She is executive producer of the two-time James Beard Award-winning Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie, which airs on public television across the country, and the editor of the Modern Library Food Series. Before coming to Gourmet, she was the restaurant critic for the New York Times, receiving two James Beard Awards for her work. She lectures frequently on food and culture.
RUTH REICHL Once upon a time, there was a giantess who would inspire a culinary revolution in America. Her name was Julia.
Julia grew up in Pasadena, California where orange groves were fragrant beneath the snow capped mountains.
It was the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, most cooks in the United States did not always have fresh fruits and vegetables. Wealthy families, like Julia’s, had a small icebox, which was cooled by a block of ice. The ice was delivered each week by a man in a brown leather apron carrying oversized metal tongs.
Once, when Julia was a teenager, her parents drove the whole family down to Tijuana, Mexico. They had heard about a place called Caesar’s restaurant and they were wildly excited to try it.
Caesar Cardini had invented the Caesar salad when “salads were considered rather exotic.” Reed thin and freckled, with curly reddish-blond hair, Julia watched Caesar “…break two eggs over…romaine and roll them in, the greens going all creamy as the eggs flowed over them.”
Word of the salad would soon spread across the globe. Fifty years later, the American public would hear of Julia’s recipes too. And they would never cook or eat the same way again.
REICHL I’m Ruth Reichl. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Julia Child.
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REICHL On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. At 29-years-old, Julia had been volunteering for the American Red Cross as a typist, but she was overcome with a need to serve her country.
She took the Civil Service exam, resigned her Red Cross work, and applied to join the Navy. You’re too tall, they told her, and turned her down. Julia didn’t give up. She found out about
America’s Secret Intelligence, a secret service agency that would later become the CIA. They didn’t care how tall she was. At six-foot-two-inches, Julia was enrolled as a spy.
REICHL Julia moved to Washington DC where she lived in her cramped apartment. Instead of a kitchen, she had a two-burner hot plate on top of a refrigerator in her living room.
One of her first missions was to solve a highly explosive problem. Dotted around the ocean were underwater bombs targeting German submarines. The trouble was that they kept being set off by sharks swimming too close. All the other agents were stumped. But Julia had an idea.
She started cooking. Mixing together all sorts of disgusting ingredients, she baked cakes that smelled like dead sharks when released into the water. Sharks didn’t dare get close to them!
The next mission brought Julia to India. She was one of only a handful of women who boarded a ship that would take over a month to reach its destination. It was the adventure she had always dreamed of!
When Julia wasn’t filing away top secret documents, she was busy making new friends. One day, in India, she met an artist and mapmaker called Paul Child.
Paul was about ten years older than Julia, and much shorter! He had an unbecoming blond mustache and a long nose. Paul found Julia’s high-pitched, breathy voice a bit strange at first, but they soon found a regular habit of dining and watching movies together. When Paul was transferred to another base in China, Julia followed him.
REICHL On March 15, 1945, Julia flew from Calcutta, India, to Kunming, China, now the focus of the war. This flight over the Himalayas was the war’s most dangerous route, for planes had to fly at twice their normal altitude.
Passengers wore parkas and parachutes and carried oxygen masks on the plane, an unpressurized and freezing rickety C-54. The Himalayan peaks were veiled by rain clouds, and the wind currents, sometimes clocked at 250 miles per hour, could flip, toss, and suck down a plane in seconds.
After nearly three hours, Julia’s plane suddenly began to plummet. The lights went out, pieces of ice ticked against the window, and one of the men got quietly sick into his handkerchief. Julia, however, sat confidently reading a book, unrattled.
The C-54 shuddered, leveled off with a roar, found a hole in the clouds, and eventually landed on the red clay runway just south of the city of Kunming.
REICHL The pace in Kunming was grueling. Julia was responsible for managing a small team who systemized and documented every piece of intelligence that came through their doors.
When Paul and Julia left the office, they took refuge in Chinese restaurants. Ho-Teh-Foo was a building several stories high surrounding a courtyard where the kitchen was located. The waiter would “yell down the order and when ready they would pull the trays up by rope.”
Julia admired how the Chinese people dining around her savored eating. They sampled small portions of a great variety of food: “nuggets of chicken in soy sauce, deep-fried or in paper; always rice, pork, sweet-and-sour soup.”
One evening, the Kunming base gathered to watch a film when the radio announced that Germany had surrendered. The war was over.
Nearly four months later, on the same day the Japanese surrendered, Paul wrote a poem for Julia. She had melted his frozen earth, he proclaimed. The two would go home separately, but they would come together to marry shortly thereafter.
REICHL In America, soldiers were returning home from war. They were welcomed by women who were folding away their own uniforms, and returning to domestic chores. Advertisers in women’s magazines portrayed cooking as a nuisance. The first frozen TV dinner was sold in 1953.
Paul was not the type of man to trust factories to cook his supper. Little did he know that his wife didn’t know the first thing about cooking! She was interested in food largely because she was always hungry!
When Julia and Paul arrived in France, where Paul was to start his new job later in Paris, they stopped for lunch at a restaurant called La Couronne. After five days of the tasteless food on board the ship, they were starving.
The couple savored and shared briny oysters, a sauteed fish served sputtering hot called sole meuniere, and a green salad.
Julia was hooked. She couldn’t believe food could taste so wonderful.
No more shark repellent recipes for her! She decided to join Le Cordon Bleu, the finest cooking school for French chefs, and learn everything about French cuisine. She was the only woman in her program.
French women of Julia’s class hired cooks. Her American friends thought she was “a nut” to shop, cook, and serve her own food. But Julia did not care; she could only revel in crowded street markets, drama in the kitchen, and a nation obsessed with eating well.
REICHL “Imagine this in y[ou]r mind’s eye: Juli[a], with a blue-denim apron on, a dish towel stuck under her belt, a spoon in each hand, stirring 2 pots at the same time,” Paul wrote in a letter to a friend.
“The oven door opens and shuts so fast you hardly notice the deft thrust of a spoon as she dips into a casserole and up to her mouth for a taste-check like a perfectly timed double-beat on the drums.”
REICHL And with that, Julia, at last, passed her exams at the Cordon Bleu. She now knew the French language and the basic principles of French cooking, but there were centuries of recipes still waiting for her to reproduce.
With two friends, Simca and Louisette, she established a cooking school out of their apartment kitchens. The goal was ambitious: to teach Americans how to cook French food. They would name it “L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes”.
On Wednesday, January 23, 1952, the three home chefs gave their first cooking class in Julia’s kitchen. For the next five days, Julia, Simca, and Louisette met to plan. Julia typed up seven detailed pages, including menu, steps in preparation, and ingredients.
While women in the United States were learning to cook corned beef hash, and confetti Jell-O, the friends taught their students poached fish, beef knuckle, and banana tart.
With each lesson, Julia learned a great bit more about cooking, so much so that she wrote to her sister-in-law, “I would have gladly paid my pupil!”
As Paul’s five year appointment in Paris was coming to a close, the three home-chefs hatched a plan to write a book for American home cooks. The book would present the techniques their chefs had taught them. It would take nearly a decade to complete.
REICHL Julia followed her husband to various postings, but remained stubbornly focused on their book called Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She’d fully committed to making cooking her career.
Julia, Simca, and Louisette wrote to each other regularly, testing American ingredients versus French ones, and hammering out language.
When Julia visited and finally settled in the states, she was astonished to realize how many Americans were eating on tin trays in front of the television. Would they have any use for her cookbook, she wondered.
Finally, in the summer of 1959, Julia could see the light at the end of the tunnel. She sent the encyclopedic text off to Houghton Mifflin, a book publisher that’d expressed interest in their work.
They called it “a work of culinary science as much as of culinary art,” but declared it too expensive for them to publish.
Julia, Paul, and Simca were devastated. A friend in Boston reassured them, “Do not despair. We have only begun to fight,” but they secretly worried that the book had come ten years too late. Americans had become accustomed to putting in as little work as possible.
REICHL The next spring, a letter arrived from Mrs. Judith Jones, an editor at another big publisher called Knopf. She called the book revolutionary and she committed to making it a classic.”
Days before the cookbook’s release, Simca and Julia received a rave review in the New York Times and a spot on the Today show. At fifty-four years old, Julia was a not-so-instant success, but her cookbook was.
When Julia booked an interview on an educational television program, she decided to bring along a copper bowl, a whisk, an apron, and a dozen eggs. She arrived prepared just in case she ran out of things to talk about and needed to give a demonstration, which it turns out, she did.
Viewers wrote in: ‘Get that woman back. We want to see some more cooking.’
REICHLAs the camera moved in toward a steaming pot, Julia’s big body leaned down and lifted the cheesecloth cover to peer inside. Then she looked up into the camera and said, “What do we have here? The big, bad artichoke. Some people are afraid of the big, bad artichoke!”
The music swelled, and Julia’s television show title filled the screen.
“Welcome to The French Chef, I’m Julia Child.”
The first program of The French Chef was filmed on January 23, 1963. Julia spent nineteen hours preparing for each half hour of teaching.
The planning was all worth it though! Her audience was a thousand times greater than her Parisian cooking classes. From professors to policemen, millions of Americans were charmed by her bellowing voice and delightful mistakes!
REICHL On one occasion, after making a potato pancake that did not properly brown on one side, Julia demonstrated how to flip it over in the pan.
“You have to have the courage of your convictions,” she said, giving the pan a short, fast jerk forward and back. She succeeded only partially and had to pick a piece of the potato mixture off the stovetop. “But you can always pick it up. If you are alone in the kitchen, whooooooo is going to see?” she sang with confidence.
At the end of each program, even one in which she was moist with stove heat and exhausted by chopping, she carried her dish to the demonstration “dining table,” lit the candles, poured the wine, and tasted the dish.
“Bon appétit!” she called out, lifting her glass of wine.
REICHL Julia could not be bought. She refused all commercial endorsements. She represented public television as she was trying to change American cuisine, and she did not want to be confused with someone peddling canned soups and frozen TV dinners.
While American tastes were still not adventurous, they were slowly evolving from green Jell-O to quiche lorraine and boeuf bourguignon.
REICHL Over the years, Julia devoted herself to her television series while writing companion cookbooks, including a second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Reviewers called it, “…the finest gourmet cookbook for the non-chef in the history of American stomachs.”
The publisher sent Julia on a real author’s tour. In Minneapolis, nearly a thousand people lined up to see Julia’s mayonnaise demonstration before having their books signed. At another stop, in Cleveland, she forgot the lid to the blender and the chocolate mousse shot a splat onto her face.
“Now you see why I always have a towel stuck in my apron,” she exclaimed!
But the funniest moment, according to two attendees, was her disapproval of the pots and pans arranged behind her. “How wonderful of Halle’s to put these up here so I can tell you Never, Never, buy a pot this thin,” she said, flinging one after the other over her shoulder onto the stage behind her.
With each show and book, she grew closer to her audience. They crowded her at every appearance to touch her and to have her autograph their book.
She was as pleasant to the first person as to the last one, four hours later. Most cookbooks she signed were so covered with food that you could eat them!
REICHL “You know,” Julia told one reporter, “it wasn’t until I began thinking about it that I realized my field is closed to women! It’s very unfair. It’s absolutely restricted! You can’t [teach in] the Culinary Institute of America in New York! The big hotels, the fancy New York restaurants, they don’t want women chefs.”
Julia would become a television personality, representative of good cooking and eating, but she would never refer to herself as a chef. She was a home cook. Never, even for playful skits or posing with French chefs, would she ever agree to don the traditional tall white toque.
Nevertheless, Julia became the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s hall of fame. She helped establish the American Institute of Wine and Food. And in 1966 she became the first educational television personality to win an Emmy Award.
For thirty-five years she was repeatedly asked for the menu of her last meal. First, she’d have caviar. Second, she wanted to eat pan-roasted duck—accompanied by little onions and chanterelle mushrooms, her main dish. Third, good French bread with Roquefort and Brie cheese. Finally, a simple ripe pear and green tea.
“And I would die happy,” she said.
The podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
Our Executive Producers are Elena Favilli and Joy Fowlkes. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Sarah Storm, and Robin Lai. This episode was written by Joy Fowlkes and edited by Pam Gruber. Grace House proofread. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi who has also sound designed this episode. Mattia Marcelli is the sound mixer.