Julia Child was quite a cook, wasn't she? She was likely the first "celebrity chef" that got people interested in cooking beyond making macaroni and cheese and tuna casserole for the family dinner table. She hosted popular cooking shows and wrote cookbooks that still serve as culinary bibles, but she was so much more.
Julia was born into a privileged class—the "leisure class," she called it—in Pasadena, California in 1912 in an age when women weren't expected to do anything but reproduce, be an accessory to their husbands, and roll bandages for a cause. She floated through school and went to Smith College in Massachusetts, the family alma mater. She excelled at sports there and had a high time at speak easies. When asked what she wanted to be, she was always quick to point out that she wasn't expected to want to be anything. Women were either brood mares or secretaries, she recalls, but she wanted to be neither. She moved to New York City to work as a writer, hoping to become a novelist. She wrote advertising copy making $18 a week, and she performed in a Junior League theater where she wrote her own play about a large princess. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Julia wanted to join the navy, but a woman over six feet tall was too big for them. So, she joined the Office of Strategic Services instead and worked on projects like a shark repellent and a signaling mirror for shipwrecked sailors. The OSS offered their team members a chance to serve in India, and since Julia longed to travel, she signed up without hesitating. She met her future husband on that assignment, a husband who would later take her to Paris and introduce her to French cooking. That's when she discovered food. Before that time, Julia had never given much thought to cooking, having grown up in a household full of staff including a chef. "All my mother knew how to cook was baking powder biscuits, codfish balls, and Welsh rarebit," she recalled.
Had Julia Child been born to a conformist, her life would have been very different. She might have become one of those "brood mares" she balked at, and she would have lacked the independent spirit that made her 91 years so full.
Julia Carolyn "Caro" Weston was one of ten children born to wealthy parents with heritage traced back to eleventh century England and ancestors who settled the Plymouth Colony. Her mother was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Caro was slated to follow suit. She had other ideas, though. She was an outstanding athlete at Smith College where she played golf, tennis, and basketball. After graduating, Caro took on the role of taking care of her sister—her parents had died young, and the sister needed the dry air of the West to treat her tuberculosis. The two spent time in Colorado and California, and Caro embraced the new life she found in the rugged territory with gusto. Out west, she could shed the tight restraints of her wealthy New England upbringing and would even learn to drive. Women were not encouraged to drive then because it was seen as a moral threat, causing them to stray from their husbands. And men told them the rough suspension would damage their reproductive systems. So, when Caro became the first woman in the States to get a drivers' license, it was notable.
Caro went to the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and met her husband, a man who tolerated her independent spirit and did not interfere when she set out to raise her children to be free of unnecessary social restrictions. "See the world before settling down," she told them, and do what you want. She set her own example by not marrying until the age of 33, which was nearly unheard of in those days.
In an era when women were raised to be keepers of the home with no goals outside of raising children, Caro fought the restrictions and the corsets and raised her children to be more—to want more, to go looking for more, to do more. She allowed them to explore their world and their options without once saying, "that just isn't done," or "that just isn't proper." She was a champion of the women's suffrage movement, an early feminist, an adventurer, and a mother who passed her insatiable appetite for life to each of her children.
Julia Child inherited her mother's quest for more—always eager for new adventures, new tastes, and new experiences. As is written in her obituary, "She taught us to relish food and wine as a way of appreciating life's bounty." She owed that to her mother, and so do we all. Bon appétit.
Note: go here to explore the Smithsonian exhibit of Julia's kitchen.