“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook”
Julia McWilliams was born on this day in Pasadena, California in 1912. Today is the 100th Anniversary of her birth.
“Juju” was the oldest of three children in the McWilliams household. Their father was a real estate magnet, their mother a paper-company heiress and daughter of a lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Julia was vivacious, athletic (she was 6’2″ by the time she graduated the exclusive Katherine Branson School for Girl’s in San Francisco) and loved a good laugh. She studied writing at Smith College and worked in advertising after graduation.
During WWII Julia tried to join the Woman’s Army Corps, but she was too tall to be a WAC, so she volunteered at the OSS, a government intelligence agency. She started as a typist in Washington but worked her way up to researcher for Top Secret intelligence. She worked overseas in China and Sri Lanka. The SPY Museum in Washington DC included a display on Julia’s time in the OSS as part of their collection. In 2009 they held a special event featuring Child’s Coq au Vin and a talk about the chef’s life as a spy.
While she was in Sri Lanka on assignment she met fellow OSS employee Paul Child and the two began to date. In 1946 Paul and Julia were married. When Paul, now in the US State Department, was assigned to Paris the couple moved to France.
Julia loved food and loved a challenge, so she started to take classes at the Cordon Bleu cooking school. After graduation she worked with her colleagues Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle to start The School of the Three Gourmands for American women in Paris. The three started to write a cookbook that would translate French cuisine to the American kitchen. After a lot of hard work and many revisions that cookbook became Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a best selling cookbook that changed the way people looked at French cuisine.
When Julia promoted the book by cooking an omelet on-air at her local PBS station the response was so good that they offered her her own cooking show for $50 a pop. The French Chef premiered on WGBH Boston in 1962. It was the first cooking show on PBS. It ran for 10 years and was syndicated nation wide. The show won a Peabody and Emmy award (Julia was first educational television personality to receive an Emmy. In her career she was nominated for a total of eight and won three). In 1966 Time Magazine anointed Julia as a culinary goddess by putting her on the cover with the title “Our Lady of the Ladle.” A dozen more TV shows (with bigger budgets) followed. You can still catch reruns of Baking with Julia on PBS. She used 753 pounds of butter during the filming of that series alone.
She wrote sixteen more cookbooks, most were associated with her television series.
She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush in 2003. Her autobiography My Life in France was published posthumously. Her kitchen, designed by her husband Paul, is now installed at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History in Washington DC.
Blogger Julie Powell digested the Mastering the Art of French Cooking, working her way — recipe by recipe– through the 752 page book in one year. She documented the journey in a book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (which was then made into a movie, Julie & Julia starring Meryl Streep in 2009.)
“Something came out of Julia on television that was unexpected… it was just magical. You can’t fake that. You can’t take classes to learn how to be wonderful. Our food culture is the better for it. Our stomaches are the better for it. ” — Julie Powell
This week restaurants are celebrating Julia’s 100th birthday by featuring some of her most famous recipes.