Julia Child, who would have celebrated her 100th birthday on August 15, is perhaps not the most obvious contender for a Jewish food icon. A broad-shouldered, aristocratic New Englander who spent years in France with her diplomat husband, Paul Cushing Child, she introduced mid-20th-century Americans to French cuisine (and to the notion that cooking should be a source of passion and pleasure) via her seminal cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and her cooking show “The French Chef.” Child drew inspiration from molded terrines and boeuf bourguignon, not from matzo balls or pastrami. But her enthusiasm, dedication to technique and unpretentious insistence on using high-quality ingredients indelibly shaped a generation of cooks and eaters, including many of today’s Jewish food experts.
In most respects, Child’s impact was universal. In the food world and beyond, she was simply known as “Julia” — a testament to her widespread cultural influence. As the late “Julie & Julia” director and devoted amateur chef, Nora Ephron, said on NPR back in 2009: “I was a slave to Julia… and all of my friends were. This was in the ’60s… and truly, if you didn’t own that book, you had not passed into adulthood as we understood it…. Everybody cooked from it. It worked. It was perfect.”
Read My 30 Minutes With Julia Child on the Sisterhood blog.
Cookbook author Arthur Schwartz, who first became enamored of Child while watching her show in his college dorm in the mid-1960s, agreed. “Cooking my way through her book, I learned about the discipline of technique,” he said. “It was a liberating kitchen education.” And Joan Nathan, who shares an editor with Child (Knopf’s Judith Jones), said she turned regularly to “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” for guidance when working on her most recent cookbook, “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.” “Her chemical analysis of French cooking was brilliant. That’s how I learned,” she said.
Child’s success also held a special, if unintended, resonance for the Jewish community. In an era that idolized glamorous, all-American women like Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, Child stood out for being unabashedly idiosyncratic. “I remember being a kid and seeing this wonderfully out-there, larger-than-life woman on television who was completely comfortable with herself,” said cookbook author and Moosewood Restaurant founder Mollie Katzen, who in 1994, co-starred with Child in a cooking segment on “Good Morning America.” “More than what she cooked, her personality made an impact on me.” Child may have been as blue blooded as they come, but her ease in her own skin must have felt empowering to mid-20th-century American Jews as they strove to enter mainstream society while staying true to their roots.