Back in the Day

Escargot with a side of espionage

When you think of Julia Child, you probably think of her cookbooks, one of her many television shows, or that famous kitchen that she commonly appeared in. She was, and still is, a household name for making cooking French cuisine popular in America. Julia Child wasn’t always a trained French chef, however, and how she got into her most famous profession may surprise you.

Julia Child was born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, California in 1912. Her father was a prominent land manager and her mother the heiress to a paper company and daughter of a lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Not only known for her cooking skills in later years, she was also quite a tall drink of water. Standing at 6 foot 2 inches, she played tennis, golf, and basketball growing up.

Being from a well to do family, Child grew up with a hired cook, so she never had the need to learn to cook. She didn’t become interested in cooking until she met her husband Paul, who was very interested in food and cooking.

In 1942, Julia joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) after finding that she was too tall to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps or the U.S. Navy’s WAVES. Her career at the OSS began as a typist at the Washington D.C. headquarters, but, because of her education and experience, she was quickly given more opportunities for higher responsibilities. 

She soon found herself in the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section, first as a clerk and then as an assistant to developers of a shark repellant. The purpose of the shark repellant was to protect underwater weaponry so that sharks would not accidentally explode them before they could target German U-boats. This gave Julia the opportunity to experiment with cooking various concoctions to find that special mixture, sowing the seeds for her career in cooking.

Julia was posted in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from 1944-1945, and “registered, cataloged, and channeled a great volume of highly classified communications.” She was later posted to Kunming, China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.

While in Kandy, Ceylon, she met Paul Child, also an OSS employee. They were married on September 1, 1946. It was Paul that introduced Julia to different types of food, as he was known for his “sophisticated palate.”

In 1948, Paul was assigned by the United States Foreign Service to Paris, where Julia accompanied him. 

In Paris, Julia was exposed further to sophisticated cuisine. She recalled her first meal at La Couronne in Rouen as a culinary revelation. In 1951, she graduated from Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, and later privately studied with many master chefs. 

Julia joined a women’s cooking club where she met Simone Beck who was writing a French cookbook for Americans with her friend Louisette Bertholle. Beck asked that Child work with them to make the book appeal more to Americans. 

Over the next decade, the Childs moved around Europe and eventually to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Child was able to translate French into English and made French recipes more detailed, interesting, and practical for Americans wanting to cook French meals.

In 1961, Julia Child, along with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, published “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which became a best-seller and received critical acclaim. It was known for having helpful illustrations and acute detail that helped make cooking fine cuisine accessible. The book is still in print today and is considered a seminal culinary work.