Happy birthday, Julia Child

Guest post by David Strauss

Despite her death eight years ago, Julia Child’s star has never shined brighter. Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performance as Julia in Julie and Julia brought Child to center stage for a larger American public than she had ever reached during her lifetime.

Without question Nora Ephron’s script and direction, as well as a fine Hollywood cast, presented Julia in an appealing way. It is also clear that, with the help of family and foodies, Julia laid the groundwork for her continuing celebrity. Indeed, Ephron has credited two publications as her sources for the screenplay: Julia’s autobiographical account entitled My Life in France, written in collaboration with her great nephew, Alex Prud’homme, and Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, Julie Powell’s blog chronicling her struggle to cook – in a single year – all the recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. With these two texts as sources, the movie was bound to enhance Julia’s reputation as a fun-loving, down-to-earth person, while her stature as an influential kitchen professional was certain to soar.

Indeed, two weeks after the film’s debut, Mastering the Art of French Cooking sat atop the New York Times’ best seller list (in response to this strong demand, Knopf reissued boxed sets of the two volumes). My Life in France appeared in a paperback, movie tie-in edition with images of Streep and Amy Adams, who played Julie Powell, on the front cover.

With the centennial anniversary of Julia’s birth today the beat goes on. A popular biography entitled Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, by Bob Spitz, whose previous works have been devoted to superstars like Bob Dylan and the Beatles, has just appeared.

In addition, two books aimed at younger audiences are hot off the press: Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and her Cat, by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Amy Bales, provides a cat’s view of life with Julia, and Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, by Jessie Hartland, recounts in cartoon form episodes of Julia’s life, which have endeared her to the public.

Americans can’t seem to get enough of Julia Child. This appetite for more stories about Julia no doubt reflects the public’s growing interest in good food. But it is also an expression of the widespread admiration for Julia as a person with real integrity: someone who worked hard to become an accomplished professional, believed deeply in what she was doing, and enjoyed sharing the pleasures of good eating with all of us. No doubt, Ann Hodgman, who reviewed two recent books about Julia’s life, was speaking for many others when she wrote: “I’m here for her now that she’s no longer around. We all love Julia and the stories from her wonderful life.”  In these uncertain times, the contemplation of Julia’s life has become a kind of comfort food. She makes us feel good by contrast to the tawdry newsmakers who dominate the headlines in our media.

David Strauss is professor emeritus of history at Kalamazoo College where he taught for 29 years and the author of Setting the Table for Julia Child: Gourmet Dining in America, 1934-1961.