What we recently learned about the culinary icon.
There’s no question that famed chef and personality Julia Child continues to have an impact on how Americans cook and eat. You’ll still find Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book that first put her on the map decades ago, in countless households across the U.S.
But she was anything but your typical chef — she towered over most people standing at 6-feet, 2-inches, and then there was her distinctive, bird-like voice. What you may not know is that Child also had some convictions that were considered unconventional during her time. For instance, she became a strong advocate for abortion rights at a time when it was highly scrutinized and spoke out for the LGBT community.
A recent documentary, Julia, captured a more complete portrait of her — literally, the film includes an intimate shot of the infamous chef posing nude. Finally, Child gets the credit she deserves as not only a trailblazer in the professional cooking world but also for women in television.
“Women on television had really been young, petite, pretty, and supportive, not the main focus of much programming and then Julia Child comes on, and she’s tall, a little gangly, and middle-aged with a loud voice and she’s telling people what to do, and people are eating it up,” co-director Betsy West tells us.
Here are seven things we learned about Child from the film.
Julia Child didn’t grow up in a household with a love of cooking.
Though she would go on to inspire foodie culture, food was not the centermost focus in her home growing up in Pasadena, California. In fact, Child’s mother rarely cooked, and the family largely relied on chefs for their meals, which consisted of “very sensible New England-type food” like roasts, mashed potatoes, and fresh peas. “Nobody discussed food a great deal because it just wasn’t done,” Child says in the film.
In fact, it was her husband Paul Child who first introduced her to what would become her passion and legacy. “She meets Paul — a guy who’s 10 years older and is actually quite worldly — and he has a great love of culture and food and so he introduced her and really stoked her love of food,” says co-director Julie Cohen. Child went on to enroll at the infamous French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris when she was 37 years old and she didn’t publish her first cookbook until she was 49 years old because it took her nine years to complete.
Julia Child worked for what we know today as the CIA.
Like many women of her time, when World War II broke out, Child wanted to do her part. So, she enlisted and eventually got into the Office of Strategic Services [OSS], which was a precursor to the CIA or special intelligence. Though she never became a spy herself, she worked with spies and managed top secret files as a clerk typist. She would later volunteer to go to Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), which is where she met Paul, who was working as a graphics artist at the time.
“She had lived a fairly privileged, but sheltered life. She was looking for adventure but she didn’t really know that much about the world,” Cohen says.
Julia Child and Paul Child’s lifelong romance wasn’t love at first sight.
Child wasn’t initially attracted to Paul. As revealed in letters she sent back home, she first described him as “not at all nice looking,” and said he had “an unbecoming mustache and a long nose.”
But, with time, their love grew and Paul would become one of — if not the — biggest champions of Child’s career. “It really is a feminist romance and it was another thing that we just loved about Julia’s story,” Cohen says.
She helped make public television what it is today.
Are you a fan of instructional cooking shows like the ones you see on the Food Network? Well, you can thank Child for that — she practically invented them with her 1963 show The French Chef.
The idea for the show first came about when Child made an appearance on a local Boston television station while promoting her debut cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After she demonstrated how to make a proper omelet, fans practically fell in love with her right off the bat. West credits Child’s immediate popularity to her exuberance and authenticity.
“She was authentic — she wasn’t hiding if she made a mistake, she acknowledged it and then showed you what to do when you make a mistake in the kitchen,” she says. “She saw it as an opportunity.”
Julia Child beat breast cancer.
Child was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1968 at the age of 55 after finding a lump in her breast. But she was relatively private about her battle, and even in her own journal, simply wrote, “Left breast off.”
But the life-threatening experience did have an impact on her, even taking a toll on her self-esteem, though Paul would promptly put that to rest. “‘Paul said, ‘I didn’t marry you for your breasts, I married you for your legs,’ and she never gave it another thought and that was that,” according to her personal assistant Stephanie Hersh, who made appearances throughout the film.
Julia Child was a champion of abortion rights.
Child became a passionate supporter of Planned Parenthood. She started out fundraising and hosting benefits before becoming a board member. In 1982, she wrote a letter for the nonprofit to donors, saying, “Few politicians will take the risk of publicly supporting either contraception or abortion — and who is ‘for abortion’ anyway?,” according to The New Yorker, “We are concerned with freedom of choice.”
Even though it was the 1980s, it was still considered a risky move at the time, and her support for abortion drew backlash. Some of her fans picketed her events but that didn’t deter her from remaining an outspoken advocate. “Julia was a mainstream cultural icon, not someone who just the elites were following — she had a big fan base,” says West. “Some of them objected to her association with Planned Parenthood, but she just shrugged that off; it was something she really truly believed in.”
Julia Child became a vocal supporter of the LGBT community.
As revealed by even some of her own friends in the documentary, Child was known for making homophobic remarks, but her mindset changed when her attorney and friend Bob Johnson died of AIDS in 1986. In wake of his death, she poured herself into hosting benefits and raising money to fight the disease.
“What she did was actually really important — it was a complete 180-degree turn,” says Cohen. “And we just thought it was interesting from the story perspective and also tells you something about Julia’s character.“