The Key to Julia Child’s Success Hid in Plain Sight

The chef’s almost mythical origin story can obscure a fundamental privilege she carried: She was American.

Portrait of the American chef, author, cooking teacher, and TV host Julia Child (1912–2004) as she poses in her kitchen, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1972.
Hans Namuth / Photo Researchers History / Getty

Julia Child heard many stories about France as a kid growing up in California. They were lies. Her father, an imperious conservative many people called “Big John,” liked to tarnish all Europeans as “dark” and “dirty,” despite having never been to the continent. He reserved an illogical portion of his ire for France and the intellectualism he thought French people embodied. Every early encounter that Child had with French culture in America seemed to confirm that conditioning. The only people she knew from the country were, in her eyes, uptight spinsters. Thumbing through the pages of Vogue gave her the impression that French women were prickly and had tightly wound tempers. The movies of the American actor Adolphe Menjou, meanwhile, taught her to believe that French men largely existed to treat women terribly or to outsmart unenlightened Americans. Child feared that she’d stick out if she were ever to travel there—​that her 6-​foot-​2 frame and her boisterous personality would announce her ­difference immediately.

Child’s eventual move to the country in 1948 punctured every fiction from her youth. Its people weren’t mean, to start; they seemed to treat her with the same respect they extended to their fellow citizens. Still, the most startling epiphanies arrived to her through food. In America, she didn’t even know what shallots were, but in France cuisine was both high art and national sport. Food had a palpable charge there. She could taste the seawater in the Dover sole, which was nothing like the bland, broiled mackerel she’d had for Friday dinners in Pasadena. Parisian grapes had a soft, ephemeral sweetness, so far from the gracelessly cloying ones in America. And she’d never had bread quite like a baguette, with its brittle crust and pillowy, pale-yellow interior.

book cover for "Taste Makers" by Mayukh Sen
This article was adapted from Mayukh Sen’s new book, Taste Makers. (W. W. Norton)

France showed Child that food could be a portal to pleasure, not just a means for survival. By 1949, she had enrolled in the famed culinary school Le Cordon Bleu at the suggestion of a friend. Her male classmates looked at her as a trespasser in a man’s world, but she bucked the sexist convention that only men should aspire to haute cuisine. Many Americans know what came next for Child: She met two women, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom she opened a cooking school called L’École des Gourmettes (later renamed L’École des Trois Gourmandes, which roughly translates to “The School of the Three Hearty Eaters”) in 1952. Beck, a blond woman with a stately demeanor, particularly struck Child. She hailed from Normandy and could speak at great length about her native region’s cuisine. Beck and Bertholle also involved Child in a long-​gestating project they had been working on, a French cookbook for American housewives. Who better than a real American to give that text its beating heart?

When Child eventually returned to America, she kept working on the book, which grew thicker than a bodybuilder’s bicep. With time, a sharp-​eyed Knopf editor named Judith Jones scooped it up and published it in 1961 as Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A year later, Child began filming the first episodes of what would become The French Chef, a cooking show produced by Boston’s public-television station WGBH. It aired nationally for a decade. Child established her celebrity through a cookbook, but she clinched it through TV.

Julia Child’s origin story has been told so often, through so many media, that it has congealed into an American myth. Her reverse immigration from France back to America fundamentally changed the way her home country cooked, coaxing the nation away from the tedium of Swanson TV dinners and Jell-​O molds. In the process, she rewrote the script for stardom, living out a thrilling postwar fantasy in which a home cook could become a household name.

Not everyone watched her on television because they wanted to cook. Many just wanted to watch her. Child turned cooking into theater. Television put her very American appeal on full display: her charm, her gaiety. Among her most vital gifts was her ability to laugh at herself, as in one of her most enduring moments on TV, when she half-​heartedly tried flipping a potato pancake in a pan, only for much of it to spill onto the stove. She reassured viewers that they could always pick up the potatoes and put them back in the pan. Besides, if they were alone in the kitchen, who would even see? Child was human, after all, a truth that’s tempting to overlook when facing the gallery of impersonations she spawned. Her quirks made her a target of parody, like the kind Dan Aykroyd played on Saturday Night Live in the late ’70s, yet over the decades her greatness became indisputable. When the late Nora Ephron sought to cast the role of Child for the film Julie & Julia, it was only appropriate that she landed on the woman widely accepted to be America’s greatest actress, Meryl Streep.

Cultural portrayals of Child continue to accentuate her peculiarities. Sure, she was so tall that she once thought about being a basketball player; yes, her voice could travel scales in the span of a sentence. These perceived eccentricities, though, can obscure a very fundamental privilege she carried: Julia Child was American.

Child didn’t even own a television set when she first appeared before the camera in late 1961 to promote Mastering the Art of French Cooking on the Today show with her co-author Beck. The two had five minutes, and their self-​assigned task was to prepare an omelet. Beck was ill at ease, her English choppy once the camera began rolling. But Child just tried to have fun.

The segment widened her audience, as the show typically drew in 4 million viewers daily back then. Child was already a critic’s darling—​the New York Times food editor Craig ­Claiborne had declared that the book’s recipes were “written as if each were a masterpiece, and most of them are,” for example—​but with her television debut, she was now on her way to becoming an idol for the masses.

LEFT: Julia Child looks bored as she holds a dripping spoonful of diet yogurt from a pint container of Axelrod's Easy-Dieter Lowfat Yogurt which sits on kitchen table before her. RIGHT: Julia Child tastes a dish she is making at home.
Lee Lockwood / Getty

Cooking shows were still grasping for a cogent identity in those days. Personalities who preceded Child had tried to mix entertainment with education to varying degrees of success. The cookbook author James Beard hosted the first nationally aired cooking show, NBC’s Elsie Presents James Beard in I Love to Eat, from 1946 to 1947. Beard’s training as an actor seemed like more of a liability than an asset, resulting in an antsy screen presence. In 1947, the British chef Dione Lucas, one of the first female graduates of Le Cordon Bleu, started hosting To the Queen’s Taste (later renamed The Dione Lucas Show) on WCBS in New York; eventually it aired nationally, five nights a week, into the ’50s. But her detractors found her to have an air of stuffy propriety.

A mere handful of immigrant women had cooking shows in that era. Some, such as the Mexican-born, Bay Area–based cookbook author Elena Zelayeta (a celebrity in her time), hosted short-​lived shows with a local rather than national audience. In the mid-​’50s, the South African–​born Poppy Cannon became known as the “can-opener queen” as the host of an afternoon cooking segment on NBC’s Home show. She tried her best to appeal to American viewers with French recipes reliant on convenience foods. Cannon would prepare vichyssoise, a French soup, with frozen mashed potatoes, a leek, and Campbell’s cream-of-chicken soup. In the eyes of network executives, though, even with these shortcuts her recipes were too “sophisticated” for American viewers, causing NBC to let her go.

American television was in need of a personality who could eliminate any sense of intimidation from French cooking. Child, who radiated cheer, fit the bill. As a recent convert in the kitchen, she could easily guide her audience—​both readers and viewers—​toward a life in which cooking gave them purpose, just as it did for her. And unlike either Lucas or Cannon, she was American. In February 1962, the team at WGBH called Child in to promote her cookbook during I’ve Been Reading, a fixture of the station’s Thursday-night lineup. By then, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was in its third printing. She would again prepare an omelet, though this time she’d have 30 minutes, not five. The book-review show tended to be dryly informative, and it featured mostly male academic guests who were like its host, Albert Duhamel. No one at WGBH was quite prepared for Child. Just days before the taping, she called the producer Russ Morash and asked for a hot plate for a cooking demonstration. It struck him as a ridiculous demand. Others on set had questions: How would they light a woman so tall? Would they be able to wrangle that voice into submission?

Child commanded the screen anyway. She whisked two eggs and ladled them into a pan rubbed with butter. She created a scene of utter bedlam in 30 seconds, pushing and pulling the pan as if arm wrestling with a ghost. People on set were transfixed. So were viewers: Over the next month, a throng of callers to WGBH asked when the tall lady with the offbeat voice would return. The calls became so frequent that eventually WGBH gave Child her own show. They decided to call it The French Chef, which was short enough to fit on one line in TV Guide. (Child later objected to the name; she wasn’t French, and she didn’t really consider herself a chef.)

She filmed the first episodes in a single day. With her husband’s help, she prepared pages of notes. They would shoot the episodes live, with no retakes; the crew had the cameras for only a fixed amount of time. The initial episode began with a puddle of butter puttering in a pan in an extreme close-​up. Moments later, eggs dropped into the pan. A fork turned the glorious mess into an omelet. After Child told the viewer about the omelet, the camera stepped back, revealing her face: “Hello. I’m Julia Child.” When those three episodes hit the airwaves, Child nitpicked them endlessly. She hated how she carried herself; she could see all of her rookie mistakes. Viewers disagreed. Fan letters began to flood WGBH’s offices. Some appreciated Child’s mannerisms, the way her hands moved. Others adored her sense of intimacy. “I loved the way she projected over the camera directly to me,” one admirer wrote. They all wanted more.

But as Child’s public profile climbed in the decades that followed, critics began to question the forces under which she rose to fame. The culinary historians John and Karen Hess excoriated Child in their 1977 book, The Taste of America, for her declaration to The Washington Post in 1970 that “French women don’t know a damn thing about French cooking, although they pretend to know everything”; they couldn’t fathom that she had the gall to call herself “The French Chef although she is neither French nor chef.” The talented French-born chef and cookbook author Madeleine Kamman, meanwhile, took issue with the fundamental illogic of Child’s cultural cachet: “Why would they want an American ‘French Chef’?”

The answer to Kamman’s question is quite simple. Child possessed a unique qualification that allowed her to be a great teacher of French cooking for Americans: She carried no threat of the outsider. In this way, she was like many of the other culinary icons of her era. The British-born Diana Kennedy became an authority on Mexican cooking starting with the release of her 1972 debut, The Cuisines of Mexico; the Brooklynite Paula Wolfert commanded reverence for capturing Moroccan foodways in her 1973 smash hit, Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco. Both women carried an imagined appearance of impartiality that may have allowed their work to gain the trust of an American reader more easily than, say, that of a writer with ancestral ties to either Mexico or Morocco.

But what about the writers from those places—those who didn’t have a chance of getting immortalized in history’s dominant narratives, because they were perceived as too difficult or too “foreign” for America to digest? Child certainly expanded and enriched the country’s palate, but one can only wonder how many other figures of that era could’ve had the same impact on American tastes if they’d been given the opportunity. Child herself thought about this too, especially in regard to her friend Beck. “I felt that [Beck] was such a colorful personality, and so knowledgeable about cooking, that had she been American rather than French she would be immensely well known,” Child would later write, pondering what could have been.

This article was adapted from Mayukh Sen’s new book, Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America.