Penguin Lives: Julia Child

by Laura Shapiro

Published by Viking

185 pages, 2007






Everything Changed with Her

Reviewed by Diane Leach

I woke this morning thinking of duck.

Specifically, the duck legs I'd defrosted yesterday. I'd trimmed them of fat, salted them, and tucked them tenderly in the fridge, where they awaited my ministrations.

The recipe I had in mind came from Paula Wolfert, but the very fact that I had duck in my kitchen at all was due entirely to Julia Child.

So it was with delight that I read Laura Shapiro's Penguin Lives: Julia Child. Shapiro, author of Perfection Salad and Something from the Oven, is a writer and food historian. Her contribution to the Penguin series is as lively and engaging as her subject.

Julia McWilliams was born in Pasadena, California, in 1912 to wealthy Republican parents. As a young woman she enjoyed flirting, socializing, and appeared well on her way toward a leisurely spinster's existence centered on Pasadena Ladies' Societies. War gave her greater purpose: too tall for the WAVES, she joined the OSS and was promptly dispatched to Ceylon, where her organizational acumen was put to work in the Registry, which handled all classified documentation for the China-Burma-India Theatre. Julia was responsible for making every bit of paper easily accessible, and did so handily, long before the ease of Filemaker Pro.

Child's OSS duties tapped her peculiarly American love of scientifically ordered, systematic thinking, later put to use creating highly detailed recipes. But Child in wartime was no cook. Outside her work she was befriended by everyone and enjoyed herself immensely, catching the eye of Paul Child, who worked in the OSS's visual display unit.

Paul Child was a polymath, an artist, photographer, and painter who held a black belt in judo. His initial doubts over Julia's lack of intellect and sexual innocence were soon laid to rest. After the war, the two married and took up residence in France.

Almost all foodies know some of the story from here -- Child's love affair with French food, and by extension, French life. Her training at Cordon Bleu, her pivotal friendships with Louise Bertholle and Simone Beck (Simca), relationships culminating in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volumes that rescued American foodways from a wasteland of frozen stringbean casseroles.

I was surprised to learn that Julia Child was not a natural or intuitive cook, as Simca was. Every dish, every success at table was hard earned and meticulously documented. Child was not the sort of cook who tossed in a "knob of butter" (one of Elizabeth David's favored terms) or a "splosh" (Tamasin Day-Lewis) of anything. This was a woman whose recipes required a "scientific workability." She wrote to her family that they needed to be "painfully exact." Her goal was the demystification of good cooking. And good cooking, to Julia Child, was rigorously French in preparation and execution. Good cooking required time and effort; one must "do something to the food." She was not interested in other cuisines, though she felt anybody trained in French methods could apply them to other dishes successfully. She had no patience for shortcut seekers, dieters, or cholesterol counters. Nor she was interested in "housewives," a catch-all term signifying American women obsessed with speed and nutrition.

In many ways she was a product of her era. Though she reviled her father's political and social conservatism, she had difficulty accepting homosexuals, fearing they would "overtake" professional cooking "like the ballet filled with homosexuals, so no one else wants to go into it." Yet she managed to overcome her prejudices enough to support Richard Olney's Simple French Food, befriend James Beard, and speak movingly at an AIDS benefit about the need for good food: "Good food is also love."

On the then-nascent organic food movement, Julia remained obdurate. Alice Waters and her kin were fools of the highest order. Julia was almost naively assured by the many food organizations and boards, whom she often wrote to for advice. She was certain of their honest, "scientific" responses. She welcomed the genetic engineering of foods and supported irradiation. When Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, Julia was appalled by the high-minded attitude accompanying California cuisine, noting, rightly, that much of the organic, seasonal produce Waters advocated was difficult to acquire outside California. Child herself was strangely impervious to poorer quality products, sticking to supermarket shopping, where she bought both canned and frozen foods as a matter of course.

Despite these quirks, Child remains a beloved, even venerated figure. Shortly before her death I caught her on Emeril Lagasse's television show, not something I normally watch. But the sight of Child, taller than Lagasse even as she perched on a stool, stopped my hand on the remote. Legasse was chopping something. I forget what. He was also visibly sweating.

"Don't do it like that," Child said patiently. She was hunched and obviously frail. Her word was absolute.

The man who counts "bam" as a kitchen adjective, adverb, and all-round exclamation complied meekly. "Okay, Julia."

She gave more instructions.

"Okay, Julia."

It was wonderful to see him cowed.

Despite my love of French country cooking and all things confited, I have only one Child Book: From Julia Child's Kitchen. I've never cooked from it, largely because the recipes are difficult and, as Amanda Hesser noted in Cooking for Mr. Latte "you need eight pans for every dish."

I think I have eight pans, total. And though I pride myself (and we all know a fall is imminent) on being a respectably accomplished cook, any recipe beginning:

"For this attractive pâté, you bone the duck and remove the meat, then you line the terrine with duck skin..." sends me running. Never mind the accompanying explicit instructions, which assure the reader that only a sharp knife is needed. I am certain I would inflict horrible damage on the duck and, most likely, myself.

And though Julie Powell exhibited tremendous bravery in Julie and Julia, Child's cookery is somewhat dated -- even those of us who consider fat a large portion of our personal food pyramids cannot turn a blind eye to so very much cream, oil, butter, and salt pork, particularly when they appear in a single recipe.

And yet. Would Alice Waters have gained her reputation so rapidly had Child not paved the way? Would Americans even be willing to read the words "You bone the duck?"

Even Anthony Bourdain, one of cooking's baddest boys, closes the irreverent Les Halles Cookbook with: "AND LET US NEVER FORGET: JULIA CHILD. Everything started -- everything changed -- with her." | May 2007


Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. She blogs at When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.