Valerie Phillips: Where would we be without Julia Child?

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 21 2012 3:45 p.m. MDT

Her wealthy California family had a hired cook, and the 6-foot, 2-inch Julia McWilliams was more interested in playing tennis and basketball. After graduating from Smith College, she worked in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and was stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It was there that she met Paul Child, also in the OSS.

Learning to cook: At age 34, Julia wanted to cook for her new husband, a sophisticated gourmet. "I went into it seriously with Gourmet magazine and 'Joy of Cooking' as my guides," she said. "It took hours to get dinner on the table, but he was encouraging."

When Paul took a job at the American embassy in Paris, she enrolled in France's prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school. She later opened her own cooking school with two Frenchwomen, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. They called it "L'Ecole des 3 Gourmandes" (translation: "School of the Three Happy Eaters") and collaborated on a French cookbook for Americans. They tried to demystify French cooking with step-by-step, detailed instructions.

The Anne Frank connection: Julia's cookbook was rejected by several publishers before Judith Jones, a young editor at Alfred E. Knopf, helped her hone it into a user-friendly tome. Jones had a knack for picking winners; she also saved "The Diary of Anne Frank" from the rejection pile.

A few years ago I met Jones, now in her 80s and a senior editor at Knopf. She regaled the Association of Food Journalists with stories from her own memoirs, "The Tenth Muse" (Anchor Books), which would also make a great foodie movie.

When "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was finally published in 1961, the timing was perfect; the Kennedys had hired a French chef for the White House, Americans were doing a lot of traveling to Europe, and French food was considered the height of chic and sophistication.

Behind every great woman: Julia and Simone embarked on a do-it-yourself cross-country book tour to "drum up some sales," as Julia told it. They went to ladies' clubs, where they cooked things such as omelets, Roquefort quiche and fish mousse on a portable stove. Then, while Julia and Simone signed books, Paul (who by then was retired) washed the dishes, sometimes in a restroom sink if there were no kitchen facilities.

"I often marvel at this valiant and uncomplaining contribution to our cause by a former diplomat and cultural attache," Julia said.

To promote the book, Julia appeared on WGBH, Boston's educational television station, and demonstrated how to make an omelet. This led to a series, "The French Chef," that earned her the Peabody Award in 1965 and an Emmy in 1966.

DVDs of the black-and-white episodes show an unpretentious Julia energetically slapping around hunks of raw beef and pounding butter with a rolling pin to soften it.

Thanks to "Saturday Night Live" and other parodies, the public might assume she was a klutz. But if you have a chance to watch any of her shows, you realize she was actually very nimble — cracking and opening an egg with one hand without losing any bits of shell in the bowl or skillfully using a pastry bag.

In truth, her segments were painstakingly scripted and choreographed beforehand, with Paul timing each step with his stopwatch. In her memoirs, "My Life in France," as well as Bob Spitz's "Dearie," it's evident that Paul was an equal partner in her success.

Her legacy: In our youth- and looks-obsessed culture, would Julia have had a chance as a cooking show host today?

She was in her 50s when her shows began airing. Today's TV honchos might have overlooked her, thinking she lacked the beauty of Sandra Lee, the cool sophistication of Martha Stewart, or the body of Giada deLaurentiis. But her shows featured timeless technique, a wealth of knowledge and an encouraging delivery.

And without Julia Child, would there even be any cooking shows today? She came first, and paved the way for everyone else who followed.

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.

Email: vphillips@desnews.com