Julia Child, 1912-2004

All she wanted, she said, was to help Americans discover “the love of cooking for its own sake”—and in so doing, she helped ignite a pleasurable revolution.

A few nights after Julia Child died, I saw a televised rebroadcast of an interview she gave at the age of 90. When she was asked why she liked her profession, she replied that it was because she loved to eat.

Everybody loves to eat, of course, but before Julia Child came along, you wouldn’t have known it from the white-bread culture that dominated American homes.

In a country that celebrated itself for having the world’s richest racial, religious and ethnic mix, it was weird how blandly conformist Americans ate. As for wine, fuhggeddaboutit.

Julia Child changed all that. Even though her recipes often called for a degree of skill, she made fine cooking seem approachable and enjoyable through her comforting style and even her frequent on-air fumbles. (Who can forget Dan Ackroyd’s parody on Saturday Night Live?) She demystified cooking, removed the snooty factor, and thus democratized it. Which is all she ever claimed she wanted. Far from making everyone into Escoffiers, all she wanted, as she explained in her epochal 1961 book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was to help “the servantless American cook” discover “the love of cooking for its own sake.”

She followed Mastering two years later with the debut of her groundbreaking PBS cooking television show, The French Chef. It went on for 206 unpredictable episodes, becoming the seed-germ of the modern era of cooking, cookbooks and TV cooking shows, and bringing cooking—and Child herself—into countless American livingrooms. Child became one of the most famous people in the country, but never lost her simple, self-effacing manner. Asked once what her favorite at-home snack was, she said it was a slice of tomato on white bread, slathered with mayonnaise.

Child began her culinary career as a confirmed Francophile, having lived in Paris and attended cooking school there, but she continued to mature and explore far beyond that narrow confine. To the end of her days, she evinced curiosity about every style of cooking, from every land.

By the time she published her bestselling The Way to Cook, in 1989, Child had moved into contemporary ethnic cuisine and had taken into consideration American’s new health consciousness, although she never could bring herself to entirely abandon her French roots.

We rightly mourn her loss as chef, cookbook writer, TV food show personality and grande dame of American culinary arts. But we should also recognize her contributions to wine, which were significant. Julia Child helped educate a generation that had previously been almost entirely ignorant about wine, if not hostile to it. She helped teach them that wine is part of the good life, irretrievably connected to food—and fun. In Mastering, she devoted six full pages to the subject—highly unusual for that era, when hostesses tended to serve water, coffee and Coca-Cola with the meal.

“Knowledge of wines is a lifetime hobby,” Child wrote. As she matured, her appreciation for wine, as for food, grew and became less parochial. In Mastering, she was concerned only with French wines. But after her husband, Paul, died, and she moved to Santa Barbara, Child discovered California wines, and became a great champion of them, and for less costly wines. She loved wine, although as she grew old, she complained she could no longer drink as much as she liked.

I first met her during this period and remember a time when the two of us were sitting on a redwood deck by the Russian River, chatting. “What this country needs,” she suddenly declared, in that warbly voice of hers, “is a good $3 red and a good $3 white!”

Near the end of her life, Child finally allowed her name to be attached to a restaurant, although not for commercial gain. The location of Julia’s Kitchen testified to her consummate devotion to wine and to educating people about it: COPIA, the American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts, in Napa Valley.

Ironically, less than a week after Child’s death, the San Francisco Chronicle attested that the Bay Area’s restaurant business has come roaring back. After years of being in the doldrums as a result of the dot-com collapse and September 11, “doors are flying open,” the newspaper reported.

If restaurant doors indeed are flying open, it’s in no small part due to the sophistication of their food and the passion of their chefs, many of whom were inspired, as youngsters, by Julia Child. It’s also in no small part due to the excellence of today’s exciting wine lists, with their creative attention to wine selection and food pairing. This, too, is due in large part to Julia Child, who, even as she taught people to revere good cooking, never ceased to remind them that if anything could make great food taste better than fresh ingredients lovingly prepared, it is wine.

Published on November 1, 2004

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