One of the wonders of Julia Child, who would have turned 100 today, is how her life has become the subject of increasing fascination and scrutiny since her death in 2004. We’re awash in things “Julia:” a PBS documentary (and new remix video), Julie Powell’s blog and her book, which inspired Nora Ephron’s hit 2009 movie Julie & Julia. Add to that a thriving micro-industry churning out books—biographies, remembrances, collected letters, and now a sub-industry cashing in on Childs’ love of cats.
Reading one of the latest offerings, Bob Spitz’s entertaining 529-page biography, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, it’s apparent that Child’s place—and meaning—amid the social upheaval of the 1960s has yet to be fully understood. And that’s because the woman who taught America how to make boeuf bourguignon seemed a relic from an earlier age. Yet she was every bit, if not more, revolutionary than Betty Friedan, whose book The Feminine Mystique extolled women to leave the “prison” of their suburban homes, or Helen Gurley Brown, whose Sex and the Single Woman became a Sexual Revolution primer.
Spitz flicks at the synchronicities in his prologue: “It is no accident that Betty Friedan’s game-changer The Feminine Mystique was published only eight days after Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” he writes, before quoting the culinary historian Laura Shapiro’s biography The Life of Julia Child: “Homemakers read The Feminine Mystique for the same reason they watched The French Chef [Child’s first public-access TV show]. They had been waiting a long time and were hungry.” Spitz got his dates mixed up (Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, The Feminine Mystique in 1963). But his examination of Child’s life is instructive as it reveals that the issue is far, far more complicated.
Though The Feminine Mystique is credited with mobilizing women’s exodus from the home, Child’s example illustrates how women had rejected traditional roles decades earlier. As a girl growing up in an affluent, conservative Pasadena family in the 1920s, Julia McWilliams bristled at the idea of a conventional life—marriage, children, country-club afternoons. She charted her own course, in defiance of her father’s wishes. She attended Smith College (later the alma mater of Friedan and Gloria Steinem) where she proved far more adept at partying than studying. She drifted, working as an advertising copywriter before joining the Office of Secret Services, seeking adventure, before the Second World War. She was 31 when she met Paul Child, a worldly career diplomat, in Ceylon; they married three years later. Paul’s posting to Paris in the late 1940s changed Julia’s life—and the trajectory of American cuisine. Like many educated women of her generation, Julia wanted more than being the “wife of”: she craved a life project. She found it when she enrolled in the Cordon Bleu culinary school, partly to please her gastronome husband. After she was put in a light-weight course designed for housewives, she complained, and was placed in a more rigorous class. Later, with her friends Louise Bertholle and Simone Beck, she saw an opportunity to teach French cooking to American women restricted to grim supermarket fare.
On the subject of processed food, Child and Friedan were on the same page, for different reasons. Friedan honed in on advertisers hood-winking women by telling them their ambitions and creativity would be satisfied by adding an egg to cake mix or canned fruit to Jell-O. Julia knew the stuff was nasty, and tasteless. Yet where Friedan viewed the dissatisfied housewife as a vital cog in consumer culture, Child disliked the word “housewife” and never used it, though in the forward of Mastering the Art of French Cooking she references “the parent-chauffeur-den mother syndrome.” Cooking was a big point of conflict for second-wave feminists; in the home, it was women’s work, and as such undervalued. Yet in The Second Sex, published in 1948, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that though cooking could be oppressive, it could also be a form of “revelation and creation; and a woman can find special satisfaction in a successful cake or a flaky pastry, for not everyone can do it: one must have the gift.” Child, of course, diffused any sort of “pastry mystique” like a one-woman SWAT team. Anyone could do it, she taught, with the proper equipment, knowledge and discipline.
Child’s tack may have seemed conventional but was radical: she reclaimed the culinary arts, a field dominated by men, for women, and in so doing delivered the joy—and mastery—of making a wonderful meal. As Michael Pollan put it in his 2009 essay “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch: “[Child] tried to show the sort of women who read The Feminine Mystique that, far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s too.)” With her droll, pick-it-up-off-and-dust-it-off attitude, Child rejected the tyranny of perfection that would define the “mystique chic” backlash of the 1990s. That was apparent when she appeared on Martha Stewart’s TV show to make croquembouche, the French dessert: Martha’s was a geometrical marvel while Julia’s looked like rubble. As Spitz recounts, Child’s dinner parties weren’t a fancy stage set; they were fun, everybody pitched in. She even served goldfish crackers with cocktails.
The cultural critic Camille Paglia has called Child “a great feminist” and “a pivotal female role model who combined independence and self-reliance with the pleasures of the home.” But that fails to appreciate her trailblazing role outside of the kitchen. In 1968, Child spoke of having a mastectomy long before breast cancer was publicly discussed. She also supported Planned Parenthood, arguing that if more people were educated about sex “we wouldn’t have a need for abortions.” In 1982, Child held a fundraiser for its Memphis chapter by hosting three days of cooking classes. Every day, she walked through hostile protesters. Later that year, she responded to them in a letter published in Dear Abby: “What are your plans for those children once they are born?” she wrote. “Are you going to help provide, for instance, for the child of a retarded 13-year-old daughter of a syphilitic prostitute? Or what of a tubercular and advanced welfare mother who already has six children.” The ensuing firestorm could have derailed Child’s career, but didn’t, Spitz writes: “it was a measure of her popularity that people let it slide.” Child was also a tireless proponent for greater representation of women in professional kitchens: she lambasted the Culinary Institute of America, which she helped found, for not enrolling more women. It’s a situation that has improved at a glacial pace—and still reflects rampant salary discrimination.
Julia Child defied the “feminine mystique” in more personal ways. She was never hemmed in by her age (she became famous in her 50s). Nor, at 6-foot 3-inches with a sing-song falsetto voice ripe for lampooning, did she submit to notions of cookie-cutter “femininity.” Yet she remained a sexual creature into old age, contrary to cultural conventions. Her lusty relationship with her husband is well-chronicled. After she was forced to place her husband in a nursing home when she was in her 70s, she took on a gentleman companion for a time, Spitz writes. He also recounts Child’s fondness for racy ripostes. Once, on Good Morning America, where she flirted shamelessly with host Charlie Gibson, she held up a limp baguette: “You really want a stiff one,” she said with a wink.
Looking back now, we can see that Julia Child represented a figure absent from the ’60s feminist narratives: happily married, middle-aged woman whose late-blooming career ambitions were buttressed by a supportive husband. Paul Child was a tireless champion of his wife’s work, and devoted his life to her success after his retirement: he was her manager, took photographs for her cookbooks, helped build her TV sets—even cleaned pots and pans in department store washrooms while she gave cooking demos. The couple offered a front-line example of the reality that if a married women is to thrive outside of the home, she needs an egalitarian union—and systemic backup. Wives may have left the home in record numbers in the 1960s and ’70s, but the need to prepare meals and make beds remained. In this, Julia Child provides a missing piece in a puzzle we’re still struggling with today, amid a parade of essays that explain why “women can’t have it all”. One can only imagine how Child would have hooted at the notion that anybody would think they could.