Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child

Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child

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by Noel Riley Fitch

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Julia Child became a household name when she entered the lives of millions of Americans through our hearts and kitchens. Yet few know the richly varied private life that lies behind this icon, whose statuesque height and warmly enthused warble have become synonymous with the art of cooking.

In this biography we meet the earthy and outrageous Julia, who, at age… See more details below


Julia Child became a household name when she entered the lives of millions of Americans through our hearts and kitchens. Yet few know the richly varied private life that lies behind this icon, whose statuesque height and warmly enthused warble have become synonymous with the art of cooking.

In this biography we meet the earthy and outrageous Julia, who, at age eighty-five, remains a complex role model. Fitch, who had access to all of Julia's private letters and diaries, takes us through her life, from her exuberant youth as a high-spirited California girl to her years at Smith College, where she was at the center of every prank and party. When most of her girlfriends married, Julia volunteered with the OSS in India and China during World War II, and was an integral part of this elite corps. There she met her future husband, the cosmopolitan Paul Child, who introduced her to the glories of art, fine French cuisine, and love. Theirs was a deeply passionate romance and a modern marriage of equals.

Julia began her culinary training only at the age of thirty-seven at the Cordon Bleu. Later she roamed the food markets of Marseilles, Bonn, and Oslo. She invested ten years of learning and experimentation in what would become her first bestselling classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Now, her career is legend, spanning nearly forty years and still going strong. Generations love the humor and trademark aplomb that have made Julia a household name. Resisting fads and narrow, fanatical conventions of health-consciousness, Julia is the quintessential teacher. The perfect gift for food lovers and a romantic biography of a woman modern before her time, this is a truly American life.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Julia McWilliams was always adventurously hunting for food to fill her 6'2" frame. When, in her late 20s, the Smith College-educated Californian took a wartime job with the OSS that sent her to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and China, she began cultivating a taste for authentic eatables as an alternative to service fare. Almost resigned to spinsterhood, she met and married Cambridge, Mass.-born government official Paul Child, who was on Asian duty, and accompanied him to his USIA posts in France and Germany. A gastronomical epiphany that occurred in Rouen, at the bistro where the couple once lunched, led her to attend the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Parisand the rest is history. In 1961, Child published the three-pound bestseller Mastering the Art of French Cooking when she was 49, and a few years later she was a TV superstar conducting gustatory symphonies with whisks and pans and patter. Her life is told warmly and compellingly by Fitch, author of several books on literary and culinary Paris, who nicely captures Child's exuberant mannerisms and plummy voice that fans know so well. Her graphic diary-letters, extracted at length by Fitch, register the couple's experiences together and the emotions they shared. Now in her mid-80s, Child lives in a retirement village in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Oct.)
I once worked as a cook for a rich old man who couldn't bring himself to give his staff an order. "I think we'll have a fire tonight," was his way of telling the butler to build a fire. "Wouldn't it be nice to have lamb for the Bridge supper," was his way of telling me to cook lamb. No parvenu barking at the help for him. He'd had people wait on him all his life and he knew that an order phrased as a request was the sort of delicacy a servant appreciates. And we did.

There was a well-thumbed original edition of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" on the kitchen bookshelf and from time to time he'd surprise me with his knowledge of its contents. "There's a good recipe for cherry clafoutis in Julia Child," he'd say. This, of course, was a request for cherry clafoutis, and I always got a kick out of it because telling your private cook which Julia Child recipe you wanted made so missed the point of Julia Child.

"This is a book for the servantless American cook ..." are the very first words in the foreward of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Just as homeless implies that one once had a home, servantless implies that one once had servants. Julia Child did. On her mother's side she could trace her lineage to the founders of the Plymouth Colony. Her father's side were Scots who'd moved westward, securing Midwestern acreage and Western mineral rights until they settled in Pasadena.

Until the Second World War intervened, Julia McWilliams (her maiden name) was a type: a taller than average, very good-humored young woman trying her hand at various jobs with incomes that she did not particularly need. One of the Chandler boys -- the owners of the Los Angeles Times -- asked for her hand and she turned him down. That was her circle. In the natural course of events, by her own admission, she probably would have remained in Pasadena and become an alcoholic.

But the Second World War did intervene, loosening up destinies and creating opportunities to break one's circle and change one's fate. The sometime Junior Leaguer joined the OSS -- the precursor to the CIA -- where she met and fell in love with Paul Child. He was 42 years old to her 32. He'd worked on freighters, lived in Paris in the 1920s, taught at New England prep schools and, most importantly, loved food. When the war was over, they married.

It was the most determining decision of her life. He made her comfortable with her size, he helped her escape from the shadow of her father's Republicanism (so much so that on return visits to Pasadena she jokingly datelined her letters "Enemy Territory") and he encouraged her cooking education, her culinary research and her cookbook writing. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961. In 1962, with Paul at her side, Julia walked into an auditorium of the Boston Gas Company for the taping of a pilot show for WGBH and, in a moment that today seems preordained, she faced the television camera and started talking.

Nodl Riley Fitch has taken on the unenviable task of writing Child's biography to date. I say unenviable because with Child the standard for charm has been set very high. Appetite for Life is a mixed bag. At times one wishes that the names had been thinned out of several paragraphs, and at others that there'd been a sharper eye for the meaningless phrase: "Rombauer wanted to find a balance between French bearnaise sauce and American pancakes." (Eggs Benedict?) The book's factual approach, however, is an immense help in understanding how a 6-foot-2 woman with a voice that can span octaves and a routine two shakes away from custard pie immediately became a character that half the country could do an impersonation of -- and a national treasure.

Until Child's arrival on the cooking scene, the American middle class's relationship to European food was curious but unsure. We knew that how we ate said something about ourselves, but we didn't know how to phrase it. "Shall I light the candles?" a nervous Shirley MacLaine asks Jack Lemmon in the 1960 movie "The Apartment." "It's a must, gracious livingwise," he answers, and then proceeds to strain the spaghetti through a tennis racket. When it came to gracious living, we knew more about it in theory than in practice. In The New Can-Opener Cookbook (1951), the editor of Ladies' Home Journal, Poppy Cannon, urged her readers to simulate Hollandaise Sauce by mixing together sour cream, butter, lemon juice and cayenne. Gourmet Magazine, meanwhile, went straight for dissimulation. According to Craig Caliborne, the highly respected food editor of the New York Times, the Menus Classiques of Chef Louis Diat were actually written by a certain Helen Ridley.

What Claiborne praised about Mastering the Art of French Cooking was its thoroughness. The Cassoulet recipe, for example, took a whole six pages. If Claiborne was something wholly original himself, an incorruptible food critic, so was Child: a recipe writer who didn't reassure the American housewife that French cooking was brainlessly easy, but rather that it was often hard work and usually worth it.

Judith Jones, the renowned cookbook editor at Alfred A. Knopf, was the first person to realize the seminal importance of the manuscript that came across her desk. (Houghton Mifflin, to its eternal regret, rejected it for the telling reasons of both its size and its depth.)

She was also the first person in the publishing world to grasp the power of Child's personality. "Julia Child is a marvel," she wrote two months before publication to Avis de Voto, the woman who had sent the manuscript Knopf's way, "and if we can get her out in stores and on the air she would be our best possible advertisement."

The book tour that followed was a personal watershed of sorts, marking both the retirement of Paul Child from a diplomatic career with the United States Information Agency and the launching of Julia Child's career at age 49. True to Jones' prediction, Child had a natural gift for book promotion. Radio appearances she called "interview with chit-chat." Department store demonstrations were "cooking and chatter." Years of dutiful attendance at Embassy cocktail parties had taught her to never allow a conversational silence to settle. She had ad-libbing abilities that news anchors would kill for and the social graces of someone who knew more people in the Kennedy White House than the New York food world. It didn't take long for someone to think of putting her on television.

The irony of television in 1962 was that the less you cared about it the better your credentials were for using it as a teaching tool. The Childs kept their television set in an unused fireplace of their Cambridge, Mass., home. Keeping the TV out of sight then said more about one's pedigree than any amount of chintz or monograms could today. If food was to be about upward mobility, then Child had the credentials to lead the way. America took one look at her in 1962 and saw someone who was charming, funny, knowledgeable -- and also upper class. She looked like she'd spent years attending the sort of parties we were nervously preparing for. And her voice confirmed it. The moment she opened her mouth we knew she knew better than we did.

I have met Julia Child three times, and each time it struck me as a definitive moment. The first time she came into a kitchen where I was working to thank the chef for cooking her lunch and all the young cooks spontaneously burst into applause. The second time was at the Aspen Wine and Food Classic. Here, surrounded by goateed young chefs-of-the-year, publicists frantically handing out business cards and wine experts snorting into glasses of wine, Child was holding forth to CNN and looking very amused at the food world she'd played such a monumental role in creating.

The third time it was just the two of us. I came upon her weeding in her Cambridge garden. "Mrs. Child," I said, knowing I was being a pest but unable to help myself. She straightened up and peered at me. "How nice to see you," she said kindly, with no idea who I might be. We spoke for a few moments and then she returned to her gardening. Walking away down the tree-lined street, I realized how good she'd made me feel. Call it breeding, call it manners: Whatever it was, it allowed her to take the airs out of French food before we could dare to. --SALON Nov. 7, 1997

Kirkus Reviews
Riley (Anaïs: The Erotic Life of Anaïs Nin, 1993, etc.) offers a loving, overstuffed biography of the cook from Pasadena who introduced French cooking to the American kitchen.

Julia McWilliams, a leggy California girl, was an adventurous child with a huge appetite who rarely strayed into the kitchen. Equally adventurous as a young woman, and bored with her career in advertising, she joined the OSS. In 1944, while in Asia, she met the dashing Paul Child, an OSS officer and artist with a love of women, food, and poetry. After a rocky start, the two fell passionately in love. Paul introduced Julia to the pleasures of the table, and she became fascinated with food and its preparation. When Paul's new role as an American cultural attaché took them to Paris after the war, Julia began cooking in earnest, even attending the famed Cordon Bleu school, where she wedded her American enthusiasm and sense of fun to the serious world of the gourmand. In Paris she met her lifelong collaborator, Simone ("Simca") Beck. The two set out to create a cookbook. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961, proved to be an immediate success. American cooks used it to escape the tyranny of frozen foods and grew to appreciate Childs's reliance on good food, not food snobbery. With her husband watching proudly from the wings, she went on to do television shows. Audiences loved her quick wit, her vibrant voice, and her slightly awkward presence in the kitchen—she was famous for getting splattered. While Riley's book is short on recipes, her details are exquisite: Julia and Paul's defense of a friend accused of communism in 1955, despite the threat to Paul's career; Julia telling her lonely sister to "get a diaphragm and move to Paris to complete your education"; and Paul's gorgeous love letters to Julia.

An exhaustively researched, charming story of a life well lived, and an admiring portrait of a good marriage.

From the Publisher
“A delicious recounting of the life of the woman who has inspired confidence in generations of American cooks.”
Town & Country
“Marvelous. . . . Mesmerizing.”
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
“Fitch’s richly detailed biography of Child describes how a plainspoken woman who loved food inspired millions to pick up a whisk and make a fine French dinner from scratch.”
“A deep dish on the food world.”
House Beautiful

“An incredible adventure.”
The Boston Globe
“Because Child allowed Fitch complete access to her papers, we get a real feel for the relentless work that went into the much-massaged Mastering.”
The Washington Post
“Entertaining and informative—represents the best of biographical writing.”
Library Journal
“I thoroughly enjoyed reading Appetite for Life. . . . Our admiration and love for Julia grows stronger as we keep reading. . . . The narration reads like a thriller, vivid and engrossing. . . . This well-written, lively tale brings to life a complex, multifaceted personality, endearing, and, at times, heroic.”
—Jacques Pepin

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Perched on the railing of a veranda in Kunming, China, Julia McWilliams was aware only of the uniformed man beside her, reading the poem he wrote for her thirty-third birthday.  She stretched her very long legs out in front of her, crossing them at her ankles, so Paul Child could see what he would later call "my beloved Julia's magnificent gams."  She barely noticed the formal gardens beyond the porch or the miles of rice paddies stretching toward Kunming Lake.  Nor did her gaze settle on the mist-shrouded Shangri-La of temples carved into the rock of West Mountain.  It was his voice that captured her, each word he read a note weaving a melody through her heart: "The summer's heat of your embrace . . . melts my frozen earth."

The cotton dress clung to her slim, six-feet-two-inch body.  Here she was in China, a privileged girl, seeking adventure, even danger, in the civilian opportunities of World War II, and she had found it, not in the Registry of the Office of Strategic Services, nor in the backwoods refugee city of Kunming at the end of the Burma Road, but in the urbane, sophisticated, multilingual presence of forty-three-year-old Paul Child.  They talked all evening, his intellect challenging her, his experienced touch awakening her.  In the last China outpost of Lord Mountbatten's command, surrounded at sea by Japanese forces, warplanes droning in the distance, Julia McWilliams felt alive.

How like autumn's warmth is Julia's face,
So filled with nature's bounty, nature's world. . . .

The cadence of his voice, reciting his sonnet "To Julia," intensified the air of anticipation between them, dimming for the first time the news they had received that week of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Russia was invading Manchuria to the north.  Just hours earlier they had heard of Japan's surrender and knew the world was changing for everyone, not just themselves.

I cast this heaped abundance at your feet:
An offering to summer and her heat.

Paul drove Julia by jeep to a mountain retreat for a weekend, where they talked of meeting each other's families: he had a twin brother, whose family lived in Pennsylvania, she two siblings and a father in California.  The differences in their height (he was a mere five feet ten and three-quarters inches), age, education, cultural and political backgrounds, and values seemed less severe in this foreign territory where the future was so uncertain.  He called theirs a "sweet friendship" in his sonnet, but she wanted much more from this wartime embrace in a strange land.  When he read aloud "the awakening fields abound / With newly green effulgence," he could have been talking about her.

They had met just the year before in a tea planter's veranda in Ceylon, when he was courting several women and seemed far beyond her reach in knowledge and experience.  He had the worldly-wise caution of a man who had supported himself since he was a child, sailing the high seas, working at physically demanding jobs, and educating himself in the classics, art, and music.  Despite her degree from Smith College, the gangly girl from the West seemed to have little in common with this cosmopolitan ladies' man.  "I was a hungry hayseed from California," she would declare half a century later:

There were a lot of women around and he was ten years older than I.  Very sophisticated.  He had lived in France and I'd only been to Tijuana!  So I found him very impressive, you see.  And he was also an intellectual.  I was a kind of Southern California butterfly, a golf player and tennis person who acted in Junior League plays.

She was indeed a party girl, a child of well-to-do parents, who had never had to work.  Though she occasionally held jobs in New York City and Los Angeles, marriage was the usual goal of her generation.  Had the war not come, she said, she "might have become an alcoholic" amid the society life of Pasadena.  Julia stood out in any crowd, not just because of her height, but because she was strikingly beautiful in a wholesome way.  She was also like a magnum of champagne, the effusive life of the party, even, as far as Paul was concerned, occasionally "hysterical."  But as he learned more of this woman, he saw the depth of her character, and her joy lifted him from his isolation and reserve.  Thirty-five years after their wedding, he told a Boston newspaper, "Without Julia, I think I'd be a sour old bastard living off in a cave."

Chinese food brought them together, at least talk of food did.  He thought she could cook, but in fact she had a keen interest in food largely because she was always hungry.  They loved the Peking-cuisine restaurants in this refugee city where the first cookbook was written around 3000 B.C.  and the "earliest restaurant" opened during the T'ang Dynasty.  They drove out with OSS friends whose parents were missionaries here and who knew the language and food, and they feasted on the many regional Chinese cuisines.  Paul also spoke to Julia about the food of France, which he had enjoyed in the 1920s.  Fluent in French, he talked with such a distinct inflection he seemed British to Julia.  He would have been seen as effete in her native Pasadena.

Paul was unlike the Western boys she hung around with in her large circle of friends in Southern California, unlike any of the men her friends married.  In hearing about his life, she soon realized he had no religion, few family connections, and held the business world in disdain.  He was an artist and raconteur, a black belt in jujitsu, who could mesmerize colleagues with his stories.  He represented a world she ached to know, an intellectual and European world, typical of the OSS personnel (such as anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Cora DuBois) whom she had come to admire during the past year in India and China.  When she described her Presbyterian-raised father, a man of business and prominent in the civic affairs of Pasadena, Paul realized how dissimilar she was to any woman he had ever loved, for they all, including a woman he had lived with for many years, were petite, dark, and sophisticated in dress and manner.  In contrast, Paul found Julia youthful, but "tough-fibered" and "natural."

"It wasn't like lightning striking the barn on fire," Paul said of their meeting in India.  "I just began to think, my God, this is a hell of a nice woman, sturdy, and funny withal.  And responsible!  I was filled with admiration for this classy dame."  If love grew slowly with him, for her it was the coup de foudre, and she made immediate plans to learn to cook for him.  Like her paternal grandfather, John McWilliams, who left all he knew to follow the Gold Rush in 1849, she was ready to consider a break with her past.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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