"Now, dearie, I will require a hot plate for my appearance on Professor Duhamel’s program.”
Russ Morash, who had answered the telephone in a makeshift office he shared with the volunteers at WGBH- TV, was momentarily startled, not so much by the odd request as by the odder voice. It had a quality he’d never heard before— tortured and asthmatic, with an undulating lyrical register that spanned two octaves. A woman’s voice? Yes, he thought, like a cross between Tallulah Bankhead and a slide whistle.
With brusque Yankee economy, Morash tried to decode the caller’s m.o. “You want— what?”
“A hot plate, dearie, so I can make an omelet.”
Doesn’t that beat all, he thought. A hot plate! An omelet! What kind of a stunt was this gal trying to pull? Morash had worked at the station for a little under four years, and in that time he had heard his share of doozies, but they were workaday doozies, what you’d expect to hear at “Boston’s Educational Television Station.” The principal clarinetist for the symphony orchestra needed an emergency reed replacement, a beaker broke during a Science Reporter rehearsal, those were the tribulations that befell such an operation. But— a hot plate . . . and an omelet . . .
“Well, from my experience that’s a first,” Morash told the caller, “but I’ll be happy to pass it on to Miffy Goodhart, when she gets in.”
The twenty-seven-year- old Morash knew that commercial television was in remarkable ascendance; since the end of World War II, it had catered to an enormous, entertainment- starved audience that was hungry for distraction, and creative minds were struggling to feed the greedy beast. But educational TV— and WGBH, in particular— was a different creature altogether. Educational TV was an anomaly, a broadcasting stepchild in its infancy, still in the crawling phase, with no real road map for meaningful development. “We were kind of making it up as we went along,” Morash says of an experiment that was barely six years old. “There was tremendous freedom in what we could put on the air.” Still, there was nothing exciting about the programs on WGBH. Audiences were as scarce as scintillating programming. A scattering of viewers tuned in to watch Eleanor Roosevelt spar with a panel of wonks; fewer tuned in Friday evenings when a local character, jazz priest Father Norman J. O’Connor, introduced musical figures from the Boston area. Otherwise there were no hits to speak of, nothing to attract people to the smorgasbord of brainy fare. The station was licensed through the Lowell Institute to the cultural institutions of Boston: the museum, the libraries, and eleven universities, including Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Boston College, Boston University, and Brandeis. The educational backdrop was a fantastic resource. Each member of the Institute provided support, financial and otherwise. If one of them said, “Hey, we’ve got a great professor. Let’s broadcast his lecture,” that was enough to launch a new show.
Such was the case with Albert Duhamel— make that P. Albert Duhamel— one of Boston College’s most lionized teachers. Duhamel was a man who loved books and their authors. A suave, strapping academic with a penchant for Harris tweed, he was addicted to the intellectual interplay that came from talking to writers about their work. Al was an author himself— his steamy Rhetoric: Principles and Usage was a campus blockbuster— and his show, People Are Reading, was the tent pole of WGBH’s Thursday-night lineup.
People Are Reading was the forerunner to shows like Fresh Air and Charlie Rose, but in those days, with a budget based primarily on the host’s pocket change, books on loan from his personal library, and no such thing as an author tour sponsored by a publisher, it was television— educational television— at the most basic level. Because the dirt- poor station shied from appearance fees, let alone train fare, the authors who appeared came mostly from the Boston area, and to make attracting them easier, guests were usually college colleagues— a noted economist or quantum physicist. Thus, in the words of one WGBH crew member, “The shows were dry as toast,” but plans were afoot to inject a little jam into the equation.
Morash, who was familiar with the show’s static format, realized that People Are Reading, however tedious, served the greater good. For one thing, it was the only book- review show in Boston— this was long before the days when “breakfast television” would trot out authors fi ve mornings a week— so there were no other outlets for writers promoting their work. And his neighbors, the university crowd, loved to read. They loved to read. They formed the show’s small, faithful audience, creating buzz about any book that happened to catch their fancy.
The guest who had telephoned, Morash imagined, might just throw this gang a curve. Later that day, when he caught up with Miffy Goodhart, he told her,
“Miffy, you’ve got a hot one here this week. Some dame named Julia Child called, and she wants a hot plate, thank you very much. She says she’ll bring all the other ingredients for— get this!— an omelet.”
Miffy wasn’t the least bit surprised by this last detail. As assistant producer of People Are Reading, she had conspired for some time to bring about a makeover to the show. It needed pizzazz, something to appeal to a wider spectrum of viewers, younger, more engaged viewers who looked beyond academia for their jollies. Politics, science, and literature were fine . . . in moderation, she thought. “But I was trying to lighten the mood and make it completely different,” she recalls.*
Goodhart had been hearing about Julia Child and her “super new cookbook” for some time. For several months, in fact, word had buzzed around Cambridge that this cookbook sensation, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, offered a remarkable new take on food, and once that crowd got it in their bonnets that something had cachet— well . . . look out! . . . there was no way to stop the groundswell. This Cambridge set— they were called Cantabrigians, of all things— saw themselves as an extremely enlightened circle, a clique of wellborn WASPs who were slightly bohemian and slightly rebellious. If there was someone in their midst who could entice their wary eye, you could be sure the Cantabrigians would take notice and respond.
That’s what Miffy Goodhart was banking on when she booked Julia Child for a segment of People Are Reading. All that week, Miffy awaited the Thursday- night broadcast with an eagerness that bordered on impatience. There had been something in this woman’s voice that promised to shake up the eggheads. She’d felt it from the start, when they’d first talked on the phone. There was an energy, a spark, that conveyed a broader characteristic. Miffy tried to put her finger on it. Spirit? Spunk? No, more than that— a joie de vivre laced with mischief. “Making an omelet on TV didn’t seem to confound Julia one scrap,” Miffy recalls.
“It’ll be fun, dearie!” Julia warbled. “We’ll teach the professor a thing or two. Just watch.”
LITTLE DID MIFFY Goodhart realize how much fun figured into Julia Child’s universe. It was the axis on which Julia’s world turned, the pivotal component in a groundswell of social change that would not only reshape the way Americans ate but the way they lived, as well. When Julia first appeared on television, as the insatiable 1960s unfolded, the marriage of fun and food were light-years apart. Most households remained devoted to Jell- O molds, frozen vegetables, and tuna-noodle casseroles. Barbarous meat- and- potatoes families roamed the earth; Swanson’s TV dinners were flying off supermarket shelves. Nothing on the menu spoke of well- made food and fun. Understanding how these elements eventually intersected goes toward understanding why the nation, at a crucial crossroads in its fast- moving history, anointed Julia Child its culinary messiah and beloved cultural icon. She was every bit a sixties superstar as Jackie Onassis or Walter Cronkite, whose personalities magnified the contributions they made. But unlike other luminaries fixed in the public eye, Julia gamely thrust a sense of humor into the mix. Cooking was fun for her, it was the shadow ingredient in every recipe in her repertoire, and she wanted everyone to experience it that way, too. This spirit was striking even in her youth. “I was sort of a comic,” Julia recalled of her storybook childhood, a natural cut- up, “just normally nutty.” As a young coed at Smith College, a roommate reflected that Julia “was almost too much fun,” due to a mischievous streak that competed with her studies. And in her diary, where she dished with only sketchy regularity, Julia confessed to a weakness for “an unconscious wicked devilish goodness.” But it took years— half a lifetime, in fact— to harness that behavior into her own unique expression. To master the art of cooking, French or otherwise, you first had to demystify the process, to not be intimidated by it, to be fearless, to plunge right in. Technique was essential, of course, but you had to find the pleasure in it. Without pleasure there was no payoff. The irrepressible reality of Julia Child was a combination of spontaneity, candor, and wit, which is why her passion for cooking bore unparalleled results. She not only brought fun headfirst into the modern American kitchen, a place that housewives equated with lifelong drudgery, but used it to launch public television into the spotlight, big-time.
NO ONE, THAT day in 1962, suspected the impact that Julia Child would have on their lives, not Russ Morash, who, with his wife, Marian, would be inextricably linked with her for the next thirty- five years, nor the suits at WGBH, which would become, thanks to Julia, a media colossus, one of the most influential producers of highbrow TV in the world and the platform for Julia’s rise to prominence. That day, you could sense the droning boredom inherent to educational television. The set was woefully spare: two leather Harvard chairs, a coffee table, and a fake philodendron, nothing more. The crew, uninspired, went about business with monotonous languor. It was hard to get it up for two scholars discussing a book.
There was some confusion in the studio leading up to airtime. The cameraman for People Are Reading apparently misheard the assignment. It sounded like the director said there would be . . . a live demonstration. Impossible! This show was a walk- through, practically a paid night off.
There was no rehearsal to speak of and, therefore, little for him to do. It was the same thing, week in, week out: two heads talking for a scant half hour. Since no one ever moved, the cameraman merely set up the shot and took a seat. Nothing to it.
But someone had gone and thrown a monkey wrench into the works. The guest actually was going to do a demonstration. On a book show, of all things! No rehearsal necessary; they’d go into it straightaway. And the camera set-up promised to be tricky. It was obvious the minute the guest walked in the door.
Julia Child wasn’t your basic Cambridge housewife. She was huge— Bill Russell huge— the kind of person who filled a room. And larger than life: her square footage, swimming in a loose- fitting blouse and pleated skirt, seemed to expand as she swung herself along as if nothing in the natural world could contain her. She was a fair, russet- haired woman, already fifty, going soft in her waist, yet well- aligned, with fine-toned arms that suggested constant physical use. Her body from the side provided a glimpse of the curse imposed on middle- aged women, with their expanding torsos and athletic legs, which threw their symmetry off balance. At six foot three that aspect verged on anarchy. Most women that size and build appeared lumbering, gently clumsy. But there was an aristocratic self- possession in the way Julia carried herself, something solid, yet graceful, that gave her presence an assertive, irrefutable quality. Her size seemed like a tool she could use, like a car salesman with a grin, though she resisted turning it into an unfair advantage.
Whatever anxieties weighed on the cameraman when he learned there would be a demonstration, he could not have been prepared for the spectacle Julia created. He was clearly awestruck by her, pop- eyed and openmouthed. This impression was punctuated by the paraphernalia cradled in her arms. Framed under a bank of overhead spots, she stood in the middle of the studio clutching a ring burner, a long- handled pan, and a distended bag of groceries: ready to roll. In the coming years, that very image— Julia Child, poised and prepared, in a TV kitchen— became the iconic image of cooking in America. But in 1962, this was quite an odd scene. Cooking, like sex, was practiced privately— and, some might say, without much enthusiasm— in the home. Few gave the process much of a second thought. Preparing a delicious meal on TV, with an elaborate array of ingredients and specialized equipment, was unheard of, to say nothing of harebrained. The notion of Julia lumbering about in front of the camera, juggling pots, pans, and who- knows- what- all, flanked by a baffled host who couldn’t have cared less about cooking, much less her book, could not have escaped the cameraman’s gaping eye. When Julia finally piped up and those vocal flourishes, the trills and flutters, began to shoot about like fireworks, the image turned almost comical.
Against the general tide of upheaval running through the studio, Miffy Goodhart attempted to reassure her guest. She knew that Julia had no experience in front of a TV camera. Nothing was more likely to flummox a novice performer than talking to a host while cooking a recipe. They were two dissimilar acts, like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. To make matters worse, the show was going out live, so, in effect, they were flying without a safety net. The chances for disaster were better than good. To distract Julia, Miffy filled the downtime with an explanation of their whereabouts, which had been cobbled together in appreciable haste. Some months before, WGBH had occupied space in a reconverted roller- skating rink on the MIT campus, a state- of- the- art television center with gorgeous hardwood floors. Everyone at the station—the production staff and crew— was notorious for “smoking their brains out” on the job, leading to a horrific fire that burned the place to the ground. Everything was lost, except for the trusty mobile unit, an old Trailways bus with about seven million miles on it. Thanks to that, they could broadcast from various borrowed facilities. One of them, in fact, was the studio they were prepping at the moment, the Boston University Catholic Center, in which the Diocese of Boston produced the morning Mass. Perfunctorily, the People Are Reading stagehands pushed the religious objects out of the way. A hawk- eyed viewer could still make out the center’s motto, in hoc signo vinces,* etched into an exposed beam; otherwise, with TV magic, the space resembled a cozy book nook. Julia wondered aloud at all the clergy nosing about, but Miffy assured her they were harmless. “Except for Cardinal Cushing,” she warned, pulling a face. “Be careful. He likes following one upstairs, if you know what I mean.”
EVEN BEFORE HER improbable stardom, Julia could take care of herself. “She is unusually strong physically,” her husband, Paul, had written his brother, in 1944, “ . . . and appears not to be frightened easily and is therefore emotionally steady rather than hysterical when things get tough.” In “nightmarish” situations, she would gather the durable threads of her character until “I could literally feel myself knitting together,” she said, owing to the strong self- image she’d cultivated since childhood. Jacques Pépin described her as the most generous person he’d ever met, who “could be as tough as nails” when it came to protecting herself. “She was like a boxer, you know, who puts up the gloves just- so, making it impossible to land a punch.”
There was never any need, however, to go to the mat. For Julia, the fight was never physical, but a visceral necessity. Conformity offended her; it was behavior to reject, like a foul- smelling turnip, and she fought all her life to transcend its strictures. She defied all the expectations that had been laid out for her. Privilege intruded at the top of that list. Julia Child grew up in a haven of Southern California, an exclusive sun- drenched paradise where privilege was a birthright, like education or fresh air. Pasadena in the 1920s doubled as a gorgeous Hollywood back-lot, a scenic resort of palatial mansions, lush orange groves, posh country clubs, and opportunity galore. Wealth was the ticket into this selectively upscale enclave, and Julia’s family could afford the extravagant price. But prosperity and entitlement were not on Julia’s agenda. The oldest of three children in a traditional Republican family with deep Yankee roots, she scuttled her destiny as a “dilettante” and “social butterfly,” just as later, after graduating from Smith College, she foreswore the inevitable marriage track in search of something more meaningful. Relying on her self- esteem and a reservoir of optimism in an attempt to fashion a career, she succeeded beyond her— or anyone’s— wildest dreams. Imagine the gumption it took, in 1942, for a thirty- year- old woman who’d never been farther east than New York, to go halfway around the world to join a spy network in Southeast Asia. And, afterward, to enroll in an all- male cooking class whose French martinets scorned a woman’s touch.
Conformity: Julia refused to conform. There wasn’t so much as a trace of it in her DNA. Unflinchingly, she pursued an area of expertise that had not been tackled before— or, at least, not in a way that resonated with the public. She was determined to teach French cooking to American housewives captivated by tuna casseroles and beef Stroganoff— “taking [it] out of cuckooland,” as she put it, and making it accessible to all. It fazed her not one bit that a large, middle- aged, unpolished woman who lived out of the loop should take her campaign to the masses via television, at the time a vehicle for glamourpusses like Gale Storm and Loretta Young. To hell with conformity! Without design or forethought, she created an enormously appealing personality that was unlike anyone else’s. Julia could seem at times gregarious, instantly chummy, like an eccentric aunt who comes to visit. Her personality left, in the course of a half- hour encounter, an individually personal impression, both because of its sweeping, informal power— she was capable of being gracious, entertaining, flustered, neighborly, ham-fisted, sly, and self- deprecating— and because the mechanism of that personality was unburdened by ideology. The world had never encountered such an embraceable character, but TV changed all that. “She had an animated way about her that was infectious,” says Russ Morash. “She wasn’t performing it; she actually felt that way.” Detailed instructions, the cooking lessons, came packaged as an intimate get- together between old friends. When she ordered a box of pears over the telephone, she would say, “This is Julia, dearie, I need some pears, and I bet you have some good ones.” The friendliness— that infectious quality— came bursting across on camera. After her appearance on the scene, people began talking about food, not as sustenance but as a staple of pleasure. She sparked an interest and understanding of food that whet people’s appetites for a different kind of culinary experience. It takes a real nonconformist to start a revolution, and Julia Child started a corker, one that was to affect the nation’s behavior and change the way its people lived their daily lives.
NOTHING IN THE studio immediately augured those dramatic changes. Julia was nonchalant, all business, as she arranged her equipment on the coffee table. The way she went about it, her easy approach, seemed totally unrehearsed, even though there’d been plenty of practice. She’d spent all week anguishing over the set-up and the demo: several dry runs enacted in the kitchen of Anita Hubby, a classmate from Smith, who lived around the corner; more in her own kitchen under Paul’s watchful eye. You had to concentrate, Julia discovered; the delivery wasn’t easy. Ten or fifteen omelets took the guesswork out of the process, but one never knew when that camera began to roll.
Plus there were unforeseen hitches specific to the studio. The moment the cameraman laid eyes on Julia he cried out in exasperation, “How do you expect me to light this woman?” and he circled her dubiously like a livestock judge at the county fair. Ideally, in a conventional room, the camera rested at eye level. But if the person to be photographed was six foot two— or, in Julia’s actual case, six foot three; she had a lifelong tendency for shaving inches off her height— and the ceiling was eight feet, with lights hanging eighteen inches from the top, well then, brother, you have to be a magician to keep the lights out of the shot. Tilt the camera up or down and something got cut from the frame; pull back, and the scene wasn’t as interesting. For an instant, the cameraman contemplated sitting Julia down for the segment, but that seemed to defeat the purpose of a demo. “I take it you’ve never worked with T. Rex,” she joked. She took the problem into her own hands, placing the burner on a stack of coffeetable books and raising the pan a few inches so that the field of action was condensed. The cameraman peered into the viewfinder and gave the crew the high sign.
Professor Duhamel, shunted to the side, looked lost in the process. Inviting this guest to the studio hadn’t been his idea, that was for sure. People Are Reading was a show about big ideas; theories and doctrines were its stock- in- trade. He wasn’t the least bit interested in cooking, but the girls in the office had insisted. They’d insisted. It wasn’t just his show, they’d reminded him. Cooking was a particular enthusiasm of theirs— and, by the way, while they had his attention, there’d be something in the future on sports, as well.
Al Duhamel, as it turned out, was the perfect host. He introduced
Julia with a bouquet of adjectives befitting a movie star, held up a copy of
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and ceded the spotlight to this amiable creature. His cockeyed grin, however, betrayed a hint of concern: What in the world was this woman going to do?
The same question dogged Miffy Goodhart, the young assistant producer, who stood in the wings among a mostly female support staff, wealthy Cambridge housewives who volunteered at the station on a regular basis. They had more of a stake in this than anyone realized. Julia’s appearance was something of a breakthrough, a counterforce to the clubby fraternal order that cinched the ranks of academia. Miffy could count on one hand the number of women who had appeared on the show: finchy types with degrees in stupefying disciplines. Julia Child was going to cook. She was going to cook! And on TV, imagine that. This promised to be one for the record books.
There was a brief, awkward moment as Julia unwound her giant frame from the precious leather chair. Producing a small copper bowl and a whisk, she looked directly into the camera with the intimacy of a lover, and said, “I thought it would be nice if we made an omelet . . . ” To
Professor Duhamel and other viewers, she might have said, “I thought it would be nice to create nuclear fission,” the process was that unfathomable to their superior brains. “They’re so delicious and so easy to make.” She cracked two eggs into the bowl with a one- handed flourish and began to beat them with the fury of a half- crazed thug.
Next she introduced her sturdy black- rimmed omelet pan. An omelet pan. It was unreasonable to think you could find an omelet pan in any store in Boston, but Julia assured her audience it was exactly what they needed. And butter, rich, silky butter— not that artificial stuff they produced in a lab. An omelet had to be exciting in the mouth, she purred, making it sound like oral sex.
The cameraman crept forward, closing in on Julia’s paw- like hands, but had it picked up Professor Duhamel you would have seen bewilderment crisscrossed on his face. “This is going to work on that little burner?” he wondered aloud.
“Oh, yes! And it’s going to be delicious, just you wait.”
The butter crackled and sputtered as a chunk hit the hot pan, followed by a hush, what musicians call decrescendo, as molten egg flowed across the bottom. “This all happens very fast,” Julia said breathlessly, “in just thirty seconds or less.”
By this time, everyone in the studio, host and crew alike, was transfixed.
In a sudden, sweeping motion, Julia grabbed the pan’s long handle and began jerking it back and forth, as if some unseen force was trying to wrench it from her grip. The energy behind it convulsed her body in sharp spastic tremors. This vision of Julia Child, gyrating like a wind-up toy, would be an enduring, endearing image to millions of viewers for the next forty years, but that night, without warning, it set off alarms. In the wings, Miffy Goodhart held her breath, watching the unfolding action in horror.
“[Julia’s] loose, white shirt was open at the collar,” she recalls. “And as she made the omelet, her rather large boobs were going furiously. And going! And going! The energy with which she made this omelet while talking about her book and . . . staring into the camera and . . . laughing madly and . . . talking to Albert on the side and . . . whisking everything up and . . . turning it over and . . . looking triumphant all at once—I was absolutely sure those buttons were coming undone. And what then?”
What then, exactly. It was a function of live TV that nothing was foreordained. There were no contingencies in place for the unscripted faux pas or sudden expletive— or the unforeseen appearance of a locomotive breast. One did as Miffy Goodhart did: she held her breath and prayed. For just a moment, through the blinding skein of lights, Miffy glimpsed the entire future of WGBH resting on the breasts of Julia Child.
In the end, there was nothing to cause anyone more than a mild case of heart failure. Julia Child, going rogue, was nothing less than a revelation. Her omelet was perfect, intense and creamy, a masterpiece of eggdom. Despite the constraints of black- and- white TV, it was hard for those at home to keep from drooling. You could practically smell the buttery concoction through the cathode- ray screen. Even Al Duhamel had to admit it was exciting in the mouth. Reluctantly, at Julia’s insistence, he’d taken a bite from her fork and had the kind of slow facial awakening akin to a child’s tasting something chocolaty for the first time. He lit right up, mouth still full, while Julia beamed from above. “Therrrre. You seeee,” she cooed. “Just as I said: delicious.”
THE JUNGLE DRUMS started beating the next morning. Calls came into WGBH from viewers, wondering when that Julia Child woman would be back on the air. Not a lot of calls, but enough to get a producer’s attention. For a TV station, it was still the Dark Ages when it came to gauging audience reaction. There was no method in place for collecting scientific data, no= Neilsen ratings, no overnight numbers. Response was measured strictly by what executives heard on the golf course or from their close circle of friends. They multiplied the anecdotal information they got by any number they wanted. So if the station received twenty calls, which would have been a lot for People Are Reading, they would say, “We’ve had an overwhelming response.”
“We’ve had an overwhelming response,” Miffy Goodhart told Russ Morash, when he checked in the next morning. She related in breathless detail the entire Julia Child saga. “I was just blown over by her energy and how good she was on telly,” she says. Russ, for his part, wasn’t immediately convinced. “I had absolutely no interest in a cooking show,” he recalls. “I was twenty- seven years old, making $83 a week, and newly married, with a working wife whose party piece was a franks- and- beans casserole. Cooking was as relevant to me as Norse poetry read in the original Scandinavian tongue.” Besides, he already had a full plate directing a show called Science Reporter, which showcased the greatest minds at MIT and required all his energy. But Miffy Goodhart was not to be denied. “Let’s see if we can do something with her,” she pleaded. “What do you say, Russ? What do you say?”
Before he could answer, she had Bob Larsen on the phone. Larsen, the program manager at WGBH, had missed Julia’s performance, but he’d already heard how well it had gone. Miffy mentioned there was a tape of the show. “Really, you’ve got to watch it,” she said. “For once you’ve got to watch the Duhamel show.”
You had to admire Miffy’s gumption. She was a firecracker when it came to pressing her case. Bob Larsen was only stage one in the offensive she was mounting; she also called Dave Davis, the station manager, and laid it on thick, as well as her husband’s cousin, Henry Morgenthau III, who ran the entire operation. In a flash, she was knocking on Julia’s front door, purportedly to thank her for the bang-up performance over a cup of coffee. But more groundwork was being laid. Miffy remembered Julia’s excitement after the show. Her adrenaline had been palpable. “Julia was elated, she’d really had fun,” Miffy recalls. “I told her, ‘As far as I’m concerned,
we will be using you again.’ ”
By March, WGBH could no longer deny the inevitable— either to itself or to the whim of its demanding viewers. There was something more than intriguing about Julia Child. This woman bore a special quality that appealed to their audience, yet a lot of unanswered questions remained. Could she fill a half- hour week after week? Would she have the kind of impact, the charisma, that ignited her People Are Reading appearance? Did anyone out there give a hoot about cooking? Would lightning strike twice? The answers to these and other relevant questions boiled down to one salient fact: the station was desperate for a hit. Desperate! Without a must- see show— without real growth of loyal viewership— there’d be no increase in donations at WGBH, no money to expand. It was unlikely anyone would pony up to watch a physics professor discuss string theory. Or an educator who led preschoolers in arts- and- crafts projects. But . . . cooking?
COOKING: it was the axis on which Julia Child’s world turned. The ingredients, the meals, the pursuit of pleasure and the sublime all dazzled her like nothing she had ever encountered, not as a scion of the Pasadena social scene nor as an operative of the CIA. Cooking signified her break from conformity. It was an expression of her freedom from a legacy of dead ends, but especially from taking the expected path of a midcentury homemaker. Julia was determined to stand at the center of her own world, to express herself without following timeworn rules. Being a housewife— that is, the ideal of a housewife— wasn’t in the cards. The bounds of domesticity couldn’t contain her. Through cooking Julia found real purpose in her life, and through that purpose a greater meaning.
The story of her emancipation and self- realization runs parallel— and it is no coincidence— to the struggle of the post- war modern- day American woman: the dearth of opportunity available to her, the lack of respect for her untapped talents, the frustrations of the educated housewife who felt bored and trapped by the traditional role that had been handed to her, by the tedium of housework, the demands of motherhood, being the perfect cheerleader, the perfect hostess, the perfect lover, perfect wife— responsibilities that for generations kept most women from pursuing other dreams and desires. The domestic life of that era was fraught with dissatisfaction. Many women wrestled with the dilemma that personal creative and intellectual challenges weren’t being met. There was a discrepancy between what they wanted and what was expected of them. A shakeup was long overdue. The assumptions of what a woman’s place was were about to be altered, and Julia Child, despite looking like everybody’s Aunt Ethel, was one of the revolutionaries leading the charge to uproot the norm. 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. As journalist Laura Shapiro noted: “Homemakers read The Feminine Mystique for the same reason they watched The French Chef. They had been waiting for a long time, and they were hungry.”
Julia’s hunger was a well- known symptom. She was a woman with boundless appetites— for food, absolutely, but also for the tides of change. Nothing sustained her like a ripe idea, a fresh experience, a saucy challenge, the impossible. In that respect, her timing was impeccable, because Julia came into her own during the early 1960s, when not only the role of women, but also other cultural paradigms, were undergoing upheaval. The arts, politics, fashion, values were all breaking out of the narrow concept of everyday life. Julia, being an iconoclast herself, was eager to shake up the norms. She took up arms alongside the other cultural guerrillas who were busy knocking down walls: Andy Warhol, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Hugh Hefner, Philip Roth, Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Gurley Brown, Allen Ginsberg, the Beatles. The Kennedys: their sophistication and youthful exuberance gave all of this momentum, leading Americans to look beyond their own culture for inspiration. “With the Kennedys in the White House, people were very interested in [French cooking],” Julia said, “so I had the field to myself, which was just damn lucky.”
Actually, Julia Child found herself the leading advocate of cooking in America for reasons that had nothing to do with luck. She achieved that position of prominence by the same means that had shaped her skills from the beginning. Aside from stanching her insatiable hunger, there was nothing in her upbringing to suggest an interest in food, even less that signaled a desire to cook. “As a girl I had zero interest in the stove,” Julia recalled. She was “never encouraged to cook and just didn’t see the point in it.” Her foray into the culinary arts had less to do with pure talent than a desire to fully engage her passions. Throughout her long and distinguished career, she indulged in pleasure after pleasure, serving them up, without any stigma, to her loyal public to be sampled as one would a canapé or a sticky pudding. Her initial success, which mos personalities might see as something not to tinker with, only gave her greater freedom to say and do as she pleased. “Out came whatever was on her mind,” says Jacques Pépin, “no matter how controversial or what the repercussions. It was a breath of fresh air, and people loved her because she said what she felt.”
Like with most insular families, however, in which competition simmered, feuds erupted, and jealousies raged, there were those in the food world who found Julia’s straight talk all too threatening. Her outspokenness never failed to provoke new controversies, new challenges, often rooted in the fragile terrain on which her reputation rested: that she was an interloper, neither French nor a chef— at least not with the traditional provenance of a serious cook. She would eventually convince these skeptics, just as she convinced cooking novices everywhere, to take her seriously; to embrace her casual approach to a vital and substantive discipline; not just to laugh at her, but to respect her, to respect her research and techniques, and ultimately her cooking.
SOMETIME THAT SPRING, in April 1962, Russ Morash appeared on the doorstep of 103 Irving Street in Cambridge, one of the more unprepossessing houses on a street lined with splendid residences described in realtors’ listings as estates. John Kenneth Galbraith lived a stone’s throw down the block, as did Arthur Schlesinger, interspersed among other homes belonging to Harvard’s leading minds. As he knocked at the half- open door, Morash must have marveled, as other outsiders had, at the naked privilege on display in the perfectly manicured neighborhood and the strange circumstances that brought him to this place. Clearly, he was out of his element. Raised in “a very modest family,” Morash was blue- collar Boston— in his own words “a plain, driven guy”— armed with a strong work ethic that lacked any false sense of entitlement. Cambridge, to Morash, was uptown, Brahmin. One came here to see how the other half lived.
Ostensibly, Russ was here against his better wishes. His boss, Bob Larsen, had corralled him at the studio and mentioned that WGBH was considering doing something with Julia Child. “What do you think, Russ?” he asked. It was a loaded question. If Larsen was involved, then Morash knew something was already in the pipeline. There would have been others, influential friends, who’d already weighed in with enthusiastic opinions. “What do you think, Russ?” wasn’t a question, it was a caress that needed a hug. In other circumstances, Morash might have given it a quick thumbs- down. A cooking show was absolutely of no interest to him. Food, as he knew it, was a necessity, nothing more: Sunday roasts cooked beyond well- done into gray shades, glutinous gravy, rubbery vegetables, and Italian Swiss Colony wine. And French cooking?— ooh- la- la! One of the more “ridiculous assignments” Russ had at WGBH was directing En Français, a program that attempted to teach French to elementary school children. Russ didn’t have to remind Larson that “there was no student with less potential for learning classical French than” he. Put it all together, Russ Morash was the wrong guy for this job. He could have convinced Larsen of his inadequacy. Instead, he hemmed and hawed.
“We have no studio at the moment, so we’ll have to do it in the field somewhere,” Russ grumbled. “Plus, I need to know what kind of support we’re going to have, what kind of resources you’ll give me. And this person— Julia Child— I need to meet her and see what sort of a character she is.”
Larsen arranged their introduction at 103 Irving, and over the next few months, Morash would return there again and again, drawn to the formidable character he encountered, a fearless, ambitious, supremely self-confident woman, a force of nature, “with this ebullient spirit, and her voice and her manner and her enthusiasm and her wit and her charm.”
When push came to shove, her appeal was the one surefire way Julia Child could convert the skeptics who resisted French cooking. In the warm glow of personality, she could transfer her passion for good food to men and women everywhere, in kitchens in the loneliest corners of the country to galley nooks in teeming metropolitan sprawls, from farmhouses and suburban developments to Park Avenue and Beverly Hills— and everywhere in between. Ultimately, cooking was the way to unite these extremes, to nourish their spirit, and to make them feel loved.
Communicating was Julia’s essence. Her brilliance rested in her capacity to articulate her experiences with food and relate them to anyone, no matter how little or great their desire to cook or eat. Less than twenty years after Russ Morash stepped into Julia Child’s kitchen, his wife, Marian, the same woman whose franks- and- beans casseroles blighted the family menu, gained recognition as a masterful cook in her own right, with a television series and go- to cookbooks of her own, and a restaurant in Nantucket that showcased her innovative food. No woman had demonstrated less talent for cooking until Julia Child swept into her life. Countless others had a similar story— without the cookbooks, TV series, and restaurant, of course— discovering and realizing their own talents, with Julia as their personal mentor, instructing, cheerleading, encouraging, being blunt, genuine, and unaffected, as only she could be.
Americans were inspired and changed forever by Julia Child— even if they never saw it coming.