4 Amazing Women
From Food TV History
Women in Food TV Episode Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, looks at the fabulous life stories of four of the women who helped create the food television we love so much today. You will, of course, know about one of our subjects, Julia Child. But what about her predecessor, Dione Lucas? Or, her U.K. equivalent, Fanny Craddock? Or, Lena Richard, the first African American chef on TV? Check out this great episode to find out about them all.
EAT MY GLOBE
4 AMAZING WOMEN FROM FOOD TV HISTORY
Where would you go in a bookstore to find the perfect Indian cookery book?
I don’t know. Where would you go in a bookstore to find the perfect Indian cookbook?
The Naan fiction section.
The Naan fiction section.
Like your naan but not your naan jokes.
Right. This. . . that joke had nothing. . .
That is naan too funny.
Okay, let’s stop that. Let’s stop all of the naan jokes there.
The. . . um. This. . . Naan of that have anything to do with today’s subject. I just thought it was a funny joke.
And, welcome to a brand-new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on today’s very special episode, we’re going to be taking a look at four extraordinary women who were not only very accomplished cooks in their own right but were also amongst the first to forge their career on the anvil of the new entertainment medium of television. A medium that really began to come into its own in the 1950s and 1960s. By doing so they had incredible impact on the world around them and on the people who were their avid and loyal collection of followers.
Their culinary power was not to be dismissed. A recommendation from them of an ingredient or a kitchen utensil could make that object disappear in a day from the shelves of stores across the country. And, the thousands of sales that were generated by their multiple cookbook releases over the decades would have made even the biggest celebrity chefs of today blush with embarrassment.
Now, one of the people from today is from my own homeland of Britain and three of them are from my new homeland of the United States of America. One of them you will most certainly know about unless you have been living under a rock for most of your life. While the other three might not be as familiar to some of you, but in their time, they were as popular as any of the great culinary stars with whom I have been fortunate enough to work over the last decade or so.
So, without any more talking, let’s begin our stories with the incredible. . . .
I still remember the day in the mid-1970s when the towering culinary icon of Great Britain – the imperious Fanny Cradock – brought her career stumbling down to the ground while guest starring on a popular nighttime show called, “Big Time.” It was a reality show where amateurs were given the opportunity to perform in a professional environment. In British culinary terms, this particular episode was like watching the supposedly unsinkable Titanic hit the iceberg of modern television and pretty much marked the end of the television career of one of culinary history’s most colorful characters.
We’ll come back to this televisual disaster in a moment. But, first, let’s chat about who Fanny Cradock was and how she became a fearsome and often ludicrous culinary character, but one who ruled over British television for nearly two decades.
She was born in Leytonstone, London on the 26th of February 1909 with the rather splendid given name of Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey. Her mother was called Bijou Sortain, while her father, in reality, named Archibald, made a career as a musician and novelist under the name “Valentine” – and for his crime novels – Mark Cross. He was a prolific writer, publishing over 100 novels right up to his 85th birthday.
At the age of 17, although I am told she claimed to be 21 at the time, Fanny married Royal Air Force pilot Sidney Evans, but his death in a plane crash shortly after the wedding left her as teenage widow with a young child. She is said to have told friends,
“I married on Wednesday, settled his debts on Friday and he died on Sunday.”
Reports tell us that the actual time between the wedding and Evans’ death was closer to four months than four days, but whatever the exact time, what Fanny told her friends shows her ability to reinvent her life story as the need arose.
She married again at 28 to a man named Arthur Chapman. In 1929, four months after giving birth to her son with Arthur Chapman, she left her husband and son to move to London. I should note that she and Arthur Chapman did not divorce at that time because he refused to give her one.
Living in almost destitution for some time, her parents adopted her first son with Sidney Evans based on concerns that she neglected him. Her parents also agreed to adopt her first son on the condition that she would not have any contact with him until he reached the age of 21. Very confusing stuff.
She married again in 1939 to third husband Greg Holden-Dye, despite not having divorced from Arthur Chapman. Yes, that means her third marriage was bigamous.
This did not phase our heroine at all, as eight weeks after her third marriage, she had already left Holden-Dye and begun an affair with a married man and father of four children, one Major John “Johnnie” Cradock of the Royal Artillery. She and Johnnie did not actually marry until 1977, but even before then, she presented herself to the public as “Mrs. Cradock” and the public assumed they were married.
It’s also interesting to note that when she and Johnnie finally married in 1977, she became a bigamist for the second time because she mistakenly believed that Arthur Chapman had already died even though he was still very much alive. I warned you, she was quite a colorful character.
Johnnie, as it would turn out, would be the love of her life, and who would prove to be her making. And, although part of her later televisual schtick was to berate Johnnie for his clumsiness in the kitchen, she was apparently devoted to him and he to her.
They shared a mutual passion for dining. Their first date, for example, was a five-hour lunch. She was also very fond of entertaining, a practice in which she had been educated by one of her grandmothers, who showed her how to create dinner parties and had given her lessons in deportment and introduced her to the world of classical French cuisine, which she adored. Particularly the food created by Auguste Escoffier, on whom we have a whole episode in a previous season. So do go and check it out.
This was, even by the low opinion of British cuisine at the best of times, a tough time to be promoting fine dining. Britain was in the depths of a post-World War II malaise, and severe rationing meant that it was hard for the housewives of the time to obtain even basic ingredients let alone anything more adventurous.
To counter this, and fearing yet another generation would lose their culinary skills, Fanny joined “The British Housewives League,” which lobbied for the ending of rationing. In 1949, under the pseudonym Frances Dale, she followed this up by writing a book known as, “The Practical Cook,” which aimed to give straightforward recipes to the cooks of the day. The book, despite the odd inclusion of recipes such as “baked hedgehog,” became an instant hit and, with it, Fanny’s culinary career really began to take off.
She and Johnnie began to write restaurant and hotel reviews for the Daily Telegraph newspaper under the nom de plume, “Bon Viveur.” And, as with her first book, these reviews, which accentuated the positive, became immensely popular. So popular, in fact, that she was soon being asked to start giving cooking demonstrations.
In fact, it was both Fanny and Johnnie who were in demand. They created a sort of culinary comedy act that they dubbed “Major and Mrs Cradock,” where Johnnie would play a well-meaning, bumbling and often rather tipsy husband, while Fanny was the uber confident and efficient housewife who saved the day. They began to do these shows, which they entitled “Kitchen Magic” in conjunction with the British Gas Council, which was promoting the use of new gas appliances, and it took them to different theatre stages to perform to large audiences and to great acclaim.
People loved the bickering comedy as much as, even more than, the cooking, and they loved the over-the-top style with Fanny always in a long flowing cocktail dress and high heels – and occasionally even a tiara – and Johnnie in tails, often wearing a monocle.
Perhaps I should wear a monocle, I think, from now on. Yes. I’m going to go and buy myself a monocle.
On one occasion, they even managed to fill the whole of the Royal Albert Hall in London with people desperate to see them work.
Now, if you look on You Tube you can find recordings of some of their shows. They’re definitely worth checking out. You can also check online videos of the popular comedian, Benny Hill, parodying them.
It was during these cooking shows that Fanny refined the style of the character she portrayed on television when it came to call. Astringent, grand, innately superior, dismissive, she behaved as one writer described her,
“as if she were a grande dame condescending to offer cookery tips to the great unwashed.”
Fabulous character. I love that. She was so hysterical.
Oddly, this worked rather well, and their TV show, which carried the same name as their stage show, “Kitchen Magic,” became one of the most popular on television. Her love of Escoffier meant that much of her food was laden with cream and brandy. She had a love of offal, and would cook veal brains with cream. And, perhaps most famous or, uh, infamous of all, wait for it, was a “Green Cheese Ice Cream,” which was ice cream flavored with Gruyere and dyed a pea green.
The success of the show brought them both enormous fame and wealth. Enough to buy grand houses, Rolls Royce cars, and a cruiser that moored near Cannes in France. Her TV career continued on until well in to the 1970s.
In the end, however, what brought Fanny Cradock’s career to a virtual standstill was that “innate superiority” that had also been so much of her appeal.
In 1976, Cradock was asked to appear as a guest on a hugely popular show called “The Big Time.” A show where, in quotes, “ordinary people” were given the chance to do extraordinary things. In this episode, a nice lady from Devon named Gwen Troake had won a competition to cook a meal for a banquet to be attended by the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath. As part of the program, Gwen was given the opportunity to present her menu to an expert, in this case, Fanny Cradock.
What happened next, something that I was lucky or unlucky enough to see, became part of British television history. Fanny’s responses to Gwen’s menu was to lambaste her for presenting such an amateur meal to a Prime Minister. There was much eye rolling, classic Cradock condescension and she even famously made plentiful “I am about to throw up in my mouth” noises as the menu was described. I thought it was a horror show and the culinary TV equivalent of strangling a puppy.
The host of the show, Esther Rantzen, described it as looking like,
“like Cruella de Vil meets Bambi.”
While jokes at the expense of her dyspeptic husband were allowable, berating a gentle housewife from Devon was not, and the response was immediate and devastating to her career. She was berated in the press, sacked by the BBC, and disappeared from screen, apart from a very few occasional appearances.
She lived the rest of her life in what was reported to have been a sad decline. Johnnie died in 1987 at the age of 82. Fanny passed away at a nursing home in East Sussex in 1994 at the age of 85. Pretty much forgotten except as an oddity from the early days of television.
Now, it is easy to look back at the extraordinary life of Fanny Cradock with some amusement, but it is worth remembering that for all her many problems, she was a hugely important part of food television history. She sold thousands of copies of the 100 cookbooks she wrote, which included a whole book on the apparently many ways one can use aluminium foil – you notice I say “aluminium” still. And with her TV shows, she is said to have
“changed a whole nation’s cooking attitudes.”
One thing is for certain, Food TV will never ever see the likes of Fanny Craddock again. Although, perhaps some may argue it really doesn’t need to.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about, to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
Now, let’s move forward on to the elegant and important. . .
Now, until I started the research, I had never really heard the name Dione Lucas. I suspect, today, the same would be true of most people. Which is a great shame, as she was obviously a fascinating woman and a truly professional chef.
I do think because of the time in which she was cooking, she is, to my not so humble opinion, just as important as some of the “bigger” names that we will discuss today. By most of the articles I read about her, she was, for certain, one of the very earliest celebrity TV cooks in the United States.
Which is interesting as Dione Lucas’ life began thousands of miles away in Kensington in London. She was born Dione Narone Margaris Wilson on October the 10th1909. Her British father was a very successful artist and architect, and, apparently designed the gates of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
Her initial education was as a jewelry maker trained by her father, and then she went on to study as a cellist at the conservatoire in Paris. Her mother, however, encouraged her to pursue her love of cooking. So, in the late 1920s, she began to study cooking at the Cordon Bleu cookery school in Paris, where one of her teachers was actually Henri-Paul Pellaprat, a master chef who helped establish Le Cordon Bleu as a world-class cooking school.
She became one of the first women to ever graduate from the Cordon Bleu in Paris.
By 1930 and back in London, she married an architect, Colin Lucas. In 1931, the now Dione Lucas and a fellow classmate from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Rosemary Hume, had persuaded the mothership to let them open a small version of the school in London. It was appropriately dubbed, “L’Ecole du Petit Cordon Bleu” or the School of the Little Cordon Bleu.
It was definitely small to begin with, operating out of one large room for the kitchen and one small room for an office. However, it was soon successful enough that, in two years, it moved to a facility in Sloane Street, London where Colin Lucas designed the interior.
Dione Lucas and Hume also opened a restaurant called, “Au Petit Cordon Bleu.” I have actually done a few short courses at Le Petit Cordon Bleu back in the day, so I can attest that it is still a very fine school. Lucas would be proud.
By 1937, Lucas and Hume ended their partnership.
Thereafter, Lucas began a series of culinary adventures, which included working on a restaurant that never actually opened. She also allegedly spent some time working at a hotel in Hamburg, Germany, just prior to the beginning of World War II, where she described in a book published in 1964, the “Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook,” that she had cooked a dish for someone of true infamy.
“I do not mean to spoil your appetite for stuffed squab, but you might be interested to know that it was a great favorite of Mr. Hitler, who dined at the hotel often.” . . . “Let us not hold that against a fine recipe, though.”
One of her sons, Mark, disputes the story because he never heard her share that story with friends and family. But I do like to think that Hitler, who was supposed to be a vegetarian – at least, according to one of the young women who served as his food testers during World War II – did once have a passion for stuffed pigeon.
Lucas’ next adventure took her to Ottawa in Canada, and from there, down to Manhattan where she arrived with one small child, Mark, and a newborn. By now, World War II was well under way and Colin had remained in London to help with the war effort.
Initially, she was able to procure work at a number of restaurants including one at Longchamps Restaurant on Madison Avenue where her sole task appeared to be fluting mushrooms on display in the window of the restaurant all day long. She also taught emergency meal training classes to the New York Junior League. And another, out in the state of Wyoming, where she had the unlikely task for a classically trained French chef of cooking for cowboys on the Hope Williams Ranch in Cody.
In 1942, she was able to open a version of Le Cordon Bleu restaurant and school in New York, on 117th East 60th street. It attracted a wide range of celebrities who had come to watch her making omelets.
By 1948, her profile had grown so much that she was also able to publish the first of her many cookbooks, “The Cordon Bleu Cookbook.” It was a terrific success and brought Lucas to the attention of the newly emerging medium of television.
She broke gender barriers when she became the first woman to host a cooking TV show in America. The show was rather pretentiously called, “To the Queen’s Taste,” and lasted from 1948 until 1949 on a New York CBS station. The title was later changed to the much less preposterous, “The Dione Lucas Cooking Show,” which milked her increasing name recognition. Through the 1950s, she also hosted “The Dione Lucas Hour,” “Gourmet Club,” and “Dollar and Sense Cooking.”
She was a hard worker and her son, Mark, describes her as a perfectionist. With respect to her style on camera, the author, Jeanne Schinto, notes in her in-depth article on Lucas, called “Remembering Dione Lucas,” that, on TV, Lucas was
“Low on chitchat, she is not attempting to entertain; she is teaching, only teaching.”
Time Magazine, in 1955, also described Lucas on TV as,
“She calmy refuses the customary TV gimmicks, chats informally with a sprinkling of wit and common sense as she displays her skill with a skillet.”
Lucas’ director, Frances Buss Buch, herself a groundbreaker as the first female director at the CBS Network, said in a 2008 interview,
“She was a marvelous chef and interesting to listen to, very formal in her approach, no waving around of pans like Julia Child.”
Buch also said of Lucas,
“She didn’t have much humor, but she was a grand chef.”
While I, like so many other people, love all of the hustle and bustle of Julia Child, there is something about watching the quiet efficiency of Dione Lucas that I find very relaxing. Lucas’ show was popular enough that it also persuaded well known celebrities to appear with her, including famed surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, who appeared with a parade of his pets.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Lucas continued her travel adventures to Australia, where she made TV appearances.
Back in New York, she opened a number of restaurants such as the “Egg Basket” at Bloomingdales and “The Gingerman” on the Upper West side of Manhattan. At both of which, she showed her mastery of omelet making. At The Gingerman, she had an open kitchen where people could sit and marvel as she made a dish that was still relatively new to the US market.
Her busy life continued until the beginning of the 1970s when she had a number of surgeries for cancer. She moved back to London to be closer to her son, Mark, and despite further treatments, she died of pneumonia on the 18th of December in 1971 at the age of only 62.
In the years since her death, Lucas’ role in the beginning of TV cookery has been almost forgotten. This, I think, is a really great shame, for while most people think of Julia Child – of who we will speak of later in the episode – as having the title of
“The mother of French cooking in America”
that was a title that Child herself bestowed upon Lucas, whose shows were on television nearly a decade before Julia Child had her first opportunity.
Quite why this happened is, is probably not hard to explain. While Child was approachable and capable of making fun of herself, Lucas was, by her own son’s explanation,
“An extraordinarily complex person.”
And someone who, though well liked on television, was particular in her approach as a chef and often cooked dishes that no one at home would ever attempt. It was said that she would suppress any showmanship. It was an approach that brought respect, but not love.
Among chefs and critics, however, she is still held in the greatest admiration. James Beard saying of her,
“I am fond of her . . . and wish I could perform with my hands as she does.”
Her books are still available, and while quite dated, are definitely worth seeking out if you are a collector. And, her Dione Lucas chef’s knives that she created to her own specification and made with Molybdenum Chrome Steel remain one of the great collector’s items for anyone who is a knife completist.
I don’t own one. I think I am now going to go and change that fact.
Now, let’s move on to someone who worked to break down the racial barriers in the United States in the 1940s. . .
Lena Richard broke racial barriers in the United States when, in the 1940s, she became the first African American to have a self-titled cooking show on television.
This remarkable woman built her own culinary empire that included a catering business, a fine dining restaurant, a cooking school and an international frozen food business during the time of the vicious and restrictive Jim Crow laws. She also celebrated and promoted the Black roots of Creole cooking.
Richard was born Lena Paul in New Roads, Louisiana most likely in 1892. She began her culinary life assisting her mother and her aunt as a part time domestic worker for a local wealthy family, the Vairins. She was, apparently, drawn towards the kitchen and was allowed by her employer, Alice Vairins, to spend time there one day a week learning new skills.
After sampling one of her meals, Lena became one of their full-time cooks. So impressed were they with her abilities that the family then sent her for further culinary training, at first locally, but then to a school in Boston founded by the author of the “Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” Fannie Farmer.
It is believed that she was the only woman of color on the program. That was not because the school did not admit people of color, but because before they could do so, they would have to seek permission from every white woman who was also on the program, which is an unbelievably ridiculous rule.
Once Richard did join, it turned out that she was already much more advanced than her classmates, and she recalled in a later newspaper interview
“When I got way up there . . . I found out in a hurry that they can’t teach me much more than I know. I learned things about new desserts and salads. But when it comes to cooking meats, stews, soups, sauces and such dishes we Southern cooks have Northern cooks beat by a mile. That’s not big talk; that’s honest truth.”
Her classmates were not shy about coming to Lena for advice during the eight-week course, and it was at this point that she began to think about turning what she knew into a cookery book that might be useful to others.
Lena returned back to Louisiana when she graduated in 1918 and started a catering business. She also returned to cook for the Vairins as well as in a lunchroom and at a dining club exclusively for white women.
She got married to Percival Richard and together they had a daughter, Marie. She also opened a number of restaurants.
The thought that her teaching was calling her came to fruition in 1937 when she opened her first cookery school. She aimed to teach Black students because she realized that the students could use the skills she taught them to build a better life for themselves at a time when they were particularly disenfranchised from the community. Her vision was
“to teach men and women the art of food preparation and serving in order that they would become capable of preparing and serving food for any occasion and also that they might be in a position to demand higher wages.”
At the same time, Lena, with the help of her daughter, Marie, began to collate all of her recipes into a cookbook. She self-published her cookbook called, “Lena Richard’s Cookbook” in 1939. It contained around 300 recipes that featured specialties of the area including gumbo, as well as recipes from around the United States given her own flavor.
The book began to receive critical plaudits, and New York Tribune food writer Clementine Paddleford, and food critic James Beard both endorsed her work. This was enough to bring her to the attention of publisher, Houghton Mifflin, who offered to republish her book, which they did in 1940 as the “New Orleans Cookbook.”
Richard’s book is now regarded as the first Creole cookbook written by an African American. And, it went some way to countering the practice of the time of books written by white authors who borrowed from African American traditions without giving any credit to or, by downplaying the contributions of, African American cooks. These books brought with them an implication that journalist and historian Toni Tipton Martin describes,
“assumes that [B]lack chefs, cooks, and cookbook authors—by virtue of their race and gender—are simply born with good kitchen instincts.”
These books also dismissed the immense amount of hard work that went into achieving such skills by describing what African Americans knew as a “sixth culinary sense.”
In contrast, Richard’s book detailed the time and labor that went into creating these recipes and learning her craft. In the act of writing the book itself, she also reclaimed the recipes that had been “borrowed” by white authors for her own community.
The success of the “New Orleans Cookbook” persuaded Lena to leave the city for a while to cook at some major and established restaurants, such as the “Bird and Bottle” in Garrison, New York and the “Travis House” in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. At the Travis House, the reviews of her Scalloped Oysters dish – similar to Oysters Rockefeller – were tremendous with many swearing that her oyster dish was way better than any they’ve eaten in restaurants in France and New Orleans. Her food was so popular that even the wife and daughter of British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, wanted her autograph.
But, it wasn’t long until she felt the urge to return home to New Orleans and she opened a restaurant called, “Lena’s Eatery,” as well as starting a frozen food business that would sell her now famous recipes nationally.
By 1949, she had opened her final restaurant, “The Gumbo House,” which became a focal point for the African American community in the city. A city where she was so well known that everyone referred to her as “Mama Lena.”
About the same time, Richard also became the first African American woman to have her own show on American television. The show, which was called, “Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cookbook,” aired twice weekly on New Orleans station WDSU. It ran from about 1949 to 1950 and was, as her books had been, hugely popular.
In the late 1940s, television was very much in its infancy, and there are no recordings that I am aware of showing Lena in action. Which is a great shame as it seems to be something that she took to with her usual gusto.
One regular viewer, Ruth Zatarain, recalled that
“when she was talking to you, it was like you were talking to her in her kitchen.”
Unfortunately, what could and would have been a successful career in media to add to all her other successes came to an abrupt halt in 1950, when Lena Richard died of a heart attack at only 58 years old.
It was a tragic loss for someone who had contributed so much in a relatively short life. She was a former domestic servant who, through her own skills and hard labor, had not only created a culinary empire of restaurants, catering business, books and TV, but had used these to bring opportunities to people in her community and to solidify the Black ownership of Creole cuisine.
And, as the first African American chef to have her own show on television in the United States, she will always have a place in history. Quite right too.
And now, let’s move on to the one and only. . .
In 2015, I was invited to visit the Museum of American History in Washington, DC to take part in a weekend history conference. While I was there, I was lucky enough to be given a guided tour by one of the excellent curators there of a collection aimed specifically at the history of food. It is a truly terrific exhibition with many, many fascinating items on display. But, the main draw for just about everyone who came to this gallery lay right in front of the exhibition.
It was a kitchen.
Yes, an entire kitchen – cocooned in a protective Perspex bubble so that it could be seen but not touched. It was protected from prodding fingers like the shrine of a saint.
And indeed, for someone in the culinary world, this was a shrine. A shrine to one of the most famous, respected, and beloved figures in American food history.
Now, to add Julia Child into an episode such as this one is a tough decision. Because as someone of her stature and profile very probably deserves a whole episode dedicated to her extraordinary life.
However, if I was to do an episode entitled, “4 Amazing Women from Food TV History” and I didn’t include Julia Child, can you even begin to imagine the sorts of e-mails I would get?
Also, and I know that some people in the United States may find this hard to believe, there are places in the world, where people may know her name, but precious little else about her. Her shows, for example were certainly not part of my culinary experience growing up in the UK, and I suspect that until that successful but rather dull film, “Julie and Julia,” was released in 2009, the majority of people in Britain were perhaps totally unaware of her existence.
So, with your permission, and specifically for those who don’t know everything about her, here is the story of Julia Child. And, even for those of you who think you do know her, I hope I can drag out some facts that will make even you look up from whatever it is you are doing, if only for a moment.
The lady who was to become Julia Child was born Julia McWilliams on August the 15th 1912 in Pasadena, California. She was born into a wealthy family with a father, John McWilliams Jr., who was an early real estate investor in California, and a mother, Julia Carolyn Western, who was an heiress to a paper company fortune.
All of which was to put young Julia into a very fortunate position that involved plenty of travel – including to Tijuana, Mexico and eat a Caesar’s salad at the restaurant of Caesar Cardini, who invented the dish. Her fortunate position also afforded her a great education at the exclusive Katherine Branson School for Girls, and then finally at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1934.
She went to college to learn to be a writer, and submitted many stories to The New Yorker magazine during her time there. Unfortunately, none of them were accepted. And so, after she graduated, and after a year spent at home where she threw, according to her mother’s letters –
“a whirl of parties”
– she moved to New York and was hired as a copywriter in the advertising department of a smart home furnishing company known as W. & J. Sloane. In 1937, she moved back to Los Angeles, primarily because of her ill mother, who later died.
Back in California, she worked at the Beverly Hills store of W. & J. Sloane as an advertising manager. There, she was apparently terminated for insubordination when she made an error about a document.
Despite this, the communication skills that she learned while at W. & J. Sloane, stood her in good stead. In 1941, as the United States entered World War II, she moved to Washington, DC to join a new intelligence service known as the OSS or the “Office of Strategic Services.”
She was rapidly promoted and soon found herself as part of the “Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Center” where, in one of those stories you can use to bore people with at dinner parties, she was part of a team that developed a “cake” that released a dead shark smell, which was meant to repel sharks if a servicemember fell in the water. For the record, the higher-ups said,
“slight repellence was shown.”
That’s what people say about me.
By 1944, she had been stationed in Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka, and it is there that she met Paul Child, who also worked for the OSS. After returning to the United States in 1946, they spent that summer traveling the country with many bottles of whisky, gin and martinis. They married by September. Paul and Julia were devoted to each other until his passing in 1994.
In 1948, the Childs moved to Paris when Paul was stationed at the American Embassy. One of the first meals that changed her – and perhaps because of that, our life – was partaken at a famous restaurant in Rouen called, “La Couronne.” They stopped for their lunch on their way to Paris, and they ate Oysters Portugaises and sole meunière, followed by a simple salad and filtered coffee. They accompanied their meal with a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé, the crisp Chardonnay of Burgundy.
Julia Child described it as
“The whole experience was an opening up of the soul and spirit for me…. I was hooked, and for life, as it has turned out.”
It is a restaurant that is still in existence. I think I might have to go and make a pilgrimage to have a meal there. What do you think?
This ignited a passion for French food that was to stay with her for the rest of her life. She attended the famous “Le Cordon Bleu” cooking school – the same school, you may remember, was also attended by Dione Lucas – which she took to with considerable vigor. Her husband declaring that he was
“practically a Cordon Bleu Widower. I can’t pry Julia loose from the kitchen day or night—not even with an oyster-knife.”
As well as food, she also devoured cookery books and in particular those of George Auguste Escoffier. Her teacher at “Le Cordon Bleu,” Max Bugnard, had actually studied under Escoffier, and she was later to describe Escoffier as her greatest hero.
After her courses there, she formed her own cooking school with two other former students, Simone “Simca” Beck and Louisette Bertholle. It was known as, “L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes” or the “School of the Three Gourmands.” The school, which drew mostly American customers living or visiting in Paris, was successful.
Her two colleagues had already published a booklet known as, “What’s Cooking in France?” And, they were working on a larger 600-page cookbook that they wanted to sell in the United States. Which meant that they would need to find an American collaborator to translate their work to English and who is conversant with American methods. That author, of course, became Julia Child.
All of them, particularly Simca and Julia, began to work immensely hard on the book with Julia conducting rigorous recipe testing in her own kitchen. Julia’s role as translator to American English was particularly tough as, at the time, there was not really a culinary language for French cooking in the United States. Also, she had to inform her partners when certain ingredients would simply not be available. They had a contract signed for publication in 1954 with Houghton Mifflin, but if this book was meant to introduce Americans to French cooking and to show a more approachable access to the cuisine, the book was going to take a lot longer to write in order to explain how a dish should look and feel at every step of the process.
In fact, the book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” did not make it to publication until the fall of 1961, when it was published by Alfred Knopf. That was almost a decade after it was first discussed by the three co-authors. And, by which time, Julia and Paul had returned to live in the United States, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The book was groundbreaking, hugely well received, and already went into second printing by December 1961, which was almost immediately after the book’s initial publication, and remained a cookbook best seller for the next five years. It also received extraordinary reviews from such notables as James Beard, who declared
“I only wish that I had written it myself.”
And Craig Claiborne of the New York Times who said,
“Probably the most comprehensive, laudable, and monumental work on [French cuisine] was published this week, and it will probably remain as the definitive work for nonprofessionals . . . [It is] a masterpiece.”
Dione Lucas, who we talked about before, also celebrated Julia and the book by hosting a dinner in her honor at Lucas’ restaurant, The Egg Basket.
Inevitably, Julia began to be approached by local television stations. In 1962, she made her very first television appearance on WGBH-TV, on a show called, “I’ve Been Reading” to discuss the book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” She showed the viewers how to make an omelet while using a hotplate.
Apparently, 27 people took the opportunity to write to the station asking to see more of her. Enough that by 1963, the station had decided to film a pilot for a show called, “The French Chef,” in which she cooked a souffle. At the end of the show, she sat at a table, ate the soufflé and helped herself to a large glass of wine. Something that had never been seen on a TV cookery show to that point.
In 1964, “The French Chef” won a Peabody Award. And, by 1965, the show was being syndicated to 96 PBS stations. And, the Julia Child we all know and love was here. Her style on television, whatever the elegance of the food she was preparing, was always approachable. And, because of the high costs of television editing at the time, any mistakes she made were often left in the show’s final edit, making her even more likeable.
So familiar did she become to the American public, that she was open to gentle parody. Perhaps most famously by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live.
Julia Child published at least 19 books, including an autobiography that was published posthumously in 2006. And, she appeared in at least ten television series, including one that I constantly cite as my favorite television cookery show of all, “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home,” where she shared the kitchen with another one of those genuine legends, Jacques Pepin.
And, of course, she was immortalized in that film, “Julie and Julia,” which I will say for the record, I thought was quite dreadful. I believe that Julia herself did not approve of the project of cooking all of the recipes from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a year, considering it something of a stunt. I would agree. But, perhaps at least, it did bring her name even more recognition outside of the United States, which she definitely deserves.
On the occasion of her 80th birthday, many chefs and food lovers fêted Julia in Boston, Los Angeles and New York. Good friends I have since come to know since moving to the United States were part of the organizing committee for the LA party, and they gave me a copy of the commemorative program, which included an interview by the journalist, Dick Kagan, with Julia. There, she opined on her influence saying,
“I have no idea. I hope so. I do occasionally run into people who say they learned how to cook because of the TV shows. I do know I helped popularize the blow torch – among chefs anyway.”
Julia passed away on August the 13th, 2004, just two days before she would have turned 92. But before she passed, Julia created, “The Julia Child Foundation” to
“support research in culinary history, scholarships for professional culinary training and internships in food writing.”
We shall make sure to put the link to the foundation on the website.
Now on that note, this seems like a good place to leave this episode. I hope that you have found it enjoyable, and I hope it has brought these remarkable women even more recognition for the incalculable part they played in bringing culinary skills onto our screen over the last seventy years.
Where would we be without them?
See you next week folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
And, if you like what you hear, please don’t forget to subscribe, recommend us to your family and friends and give us a good rating on your favorite podcast provider. That really makes a difference.
Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
The EAT MY GLOBE podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
[Pah pah pah pah pah sound]
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: November 22, 2021
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.