Born August 15, 1912, Julia Child was as well-known as anyone in America during the last third of the 20th century. Even Americans who never learned how to properly hard-boil an egg (a passion of Child’s) knew her as the country’s top chef, in a time when chefs were hardly the celebrities they are today. That in itself would not have been enough to land her on the cover of TIME Magazine’s November 25, 1966 issue, however; Julia Child’s fame depended not merely on culinary ability, but on some mystical talent she had of making us feel as though we knew and liked her. Partly it was because of her unfussy ordinariness: as rich and famous as she was, she loved In-N-Out Burgers and fish crackers, disdained diets, and said things like “If you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?” She was quirky, with that falsetto-ey voice that made us grin, and she was a natural to spoof, as Dan Aykroyd did when he played her on “Saturday Night Live” (in a skit that still makes me laugh). But satirizing Julia Child was never vicious; it was affectionate. We loved Julia Child because, above all the other qualities we perceived in her, she was sweet.
Child herself was too modest to ever claim to be a great chef, although, of course, she was. “Meals don’t need to be anything elaborate,” she would insist. She was as happy with a perfectly ripe tomato “on a nice big piece of white bread slathered with Hellman’s mayonnaise” (as she told Larry King) as she was with the tournedos rossini with foie gras and truffles she recipéed in her masterpiece, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.
In her final book, My Life in France, she remembered the first food she ate when she arrived in France, in 1948. “In all the years since that succulent meal,” she wrote, “I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me.” We might say the same about this remarkable, unforgettable woman.