Though Julia Child died in her sleep on Aug. 13, two days shy of her 92nd birthday, her legacy lives on, not least in the dog-eared, grease-stained copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 that take pride of place in kitchens across America and around the world.
Other cookbooks have seen plenty of service in my kitchen over the years, but back in the 1960s, when I first worked up the courage to cook something ambitious, Julia's magisterial book walked me through every detail I needed to know to make proper soupe à l'oignon, coq au vin and mousse au chocolat.
Those dishes may seem old-fashioned today, but Julia's thoroughness and go-get-'em attitude gave me the foundation to assess the flood of creative food ideas that have come along in the past 40 years, and the judgment to relish the ones that made things better. In this I know I am not alone.
Julia (never Mrs. Child) taught millions to cook and millions more to appreciate good food, her familiar, fluty voice dashing away pretense and intimidation. She was the mother of America's food revolution, but she transcended the food world, becoming a national icon. Her kitchen is on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., transported there in loving detail from her home in Cambridge, Mass., where she lived for more than 30 years and where several of her TV shows were filmed.
America discovered Julia's larger-than-life personality in 1963, when her groundbreaking show, The French Chef, made her television's first true cooking star. She tackled the classics of French cooking and—while dropping pans, rescuing curdled sauces and patching up cracked cakes with a sense that "it's just us here in the kitchen"—made home cooks believe they could do it too. (The oft-repeated fable of her dropping a chicken and dusting it off never happened; it was a potato pancake, and it went back into the pan for further cooking.)
Julia starred in nine TV series, all on PBS. A generous collaborator, she made several shows with other chefs, most notably Jacques Pépin. She appeared regularly on the program Good Morning America. She wrote 10 cookbooks, starting with Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961. She was on the cover of Time magazine in 1967 and of Wine Spectator in 1991, and was featured again in Wine Spectator in 1998 when she received the magazine's Distinguished Service Award. And she lent her immense prestige to help found the American Institute of Wine & Food, as well as Copia: The Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa Valley.
What made all her work so valuable was her unerring instinct as a teacher. She never dumbed anything down. She did things right. In fact, one of her best cookbooks is called, simply, The Way to Cook (1985).
Cooking was an unlikely career for the 6-foot-2-inch tomboy daughter of a well-to-do real estate investor in Pasadena, Calif. When World War II started, she joined the foreign service and met Paul Child, a career diplomat, in Sri Lanka. They married in 1946 and remained together until his death in 1994. She learned to cook for their dinner parties, and when they moved to France in 1948, she took the professional course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Later she started an informal gourmet cooking school in France with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who went on to become her coauthors on both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
After her initial splash as "the French chef," Julia dropped the emphasis on French cuisine and shifted her energies to encourage a renaissance in American cooking. Even those who weren't interested in cooking at home benefited from her work; through her influence and encouragement, the best American food became better. At least two generations of chefs acknowledge pursuing careers in the field because Julia inspired them.
"I don't know if she even realized the impact she had on so many chefs' careers, including mine," Thomas Keller, chef of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., said when Wine Spectator honored her in 1998.
Julia was not only an expert; she was a hedonist. She loved to eat, as I learned firsthand on the many happy occasions when my work as a wine-and-food writer put me with her in a kitchen or at a dinner table. She was no snob, freely admitting to a passion for McDonald's fries, a fondness for salads made with iceberg lettuce and other sins against the canons of the foodie brigade. She used butter, and decried low-fat, low-carb and fad diets, maintaining a healthy weight by eating almost everything, but always in moderation.
She also loved wine. Julia signed off her TV programs by lifting a glass of wine, wishing her viewers a cheery, "Bon appétit!" On television, in public and in private, she almost always had a glass of wine at hand, and she tirelessly promoted wine as part of a healthy lifestyle.
But she never pretended to be a connoisseur, and when she accepted an invitation to speak at Wine Spectator's 1991 New York Wine Experience, she figured she should learn to deal with wine like a pro. So before the event, at age 79, she attended a seminar on how to taste.
By the time she approached the 200 wines being poured at the Wine Experience, she had the technique down pat. "I had a wonderful time," she whooped in a 1998 interview. "It was the first time I felt like I knew what I was doing at a wine tasting. I really enjoyed the wines, and I wasn't intimidated by anyone, even around all those sophisticated people." Until the very end of her long and active career, she was eager to learn new things so she could enjoy life just a little bit more. That's the Julia Child we all knew, the personality who pierced the glass TV screen, made the kitchen a friendlier place and earned the adoration of everyone who loves food and wine.