Louise A. Barile
August 13, 2004 11:00 AM

Though she was neither French nor a professional chef, America’s beloved cooking teacher Julia Child changed the way America ate and thought about food with her pioneering television series, The French Chef.

The grande dame of culinary arts, whose signature sign-off, “Bon Appetit,” became part of the cultural lexicon, died early Friday morning, two days before her 92nd birthday.

Child died in her sleep at her home in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“America has lost a true national treasure,” Nicholas Latimer, director of publicity for Alfred A. Knopf publishing, said in a statement. “She will be missed terribly.”

The French Chef, which aired from 1963-73, was as much a showcase for Child’s folksy personality and joie de vivre as her cooking. It debuted at a time when home cooks prized convenience over tradition and sales of products like Jell-O and Swanson frozen dinners soared in the United States. Child, who stood at a towering 6’2″, incited a new French revolution by democratizing such haute cuisine as beef bourguignonne with clear, easy-to-follow instructions.

Television audiences embraced her as much for her warbling voice and occasional blunders as for her recipes. “Always remember,” she told Esquire magazine in 2000, “if you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?” There had been televised cooking programs before The French Chef, but Child became America’s first culinary celebrity.

“Cooking should be fun. I learned that from the master,” Sara Moulton, host of TV Food Network’s Sara’s Secrets and executive chef of Gourmet magazine, told Salon in 1999. Moulton apprenticed on Child’s third series, Julia Child & More Company. “Julia didn’t just share what she knew. She made you want to do it, too.”

Julia Carolyn McWilliams was born on August 15, 1912, into a prominent Pasadena, Calif., family. She grew up athletic and fun-loving but never evinced any interest in cooking. In fact, her family employed a cook to provide most of their meals. “When I was young, we always had good food at home, but it was good, plain New England food things like roast beef and leg of lamb, which was cooked till it was well-done,” she told PEOPLE in 1999.

After graduation from Smith College in 1934, Child moved to New York, where she worked in advertising. The arrival of World War II, however, led her to join the Office of Strategic Service, a predecessor of the CIA. In Washington, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China, Child processed top-secret documents relating to America’s campaign against Japan – and despite rumors to the contrary, she insisted to Larry King in August 2002 that “I was never a spy!”

It was overseas where Julia met her future husband, Paul Child, a war room mapmaker. He was a decade older, sophisticated and had a reputation as a ladies’ man, but they became friends anyway. They fell in love in China over plates of local dim sum – a more palatable alternative to the awful “American” food served on base, Julia told Grand Times in 1997. “That’s when I got interested in food,” she said. “Army food was terrible. We were hungry, so we were interested in eating.”

After their marriage in 1946, Child accompanied her husband to Paris, where he had taken a diplomatic position. Child described her first French meal of sole meuneire, a green salad and crème fraiche as “quietly joyful” in Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. “The whole experience was an opening up of the soul and spirit for me. I was hooked.”

Child enrolled in the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school and became the only woman in the advanced class. In time, she and two French friends opened their own school, giving lessons in her Left Bank apartment for $5. Out of these classes would come Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the seminal cookbook Child authored with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.

“A masterpiece,” raved New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne after the book’s debut in 1961. “It will probably remain as the definitive work for nonprofessionals.” Developed for American housewives, Child’s opus presented instructions on how to duplicate traditional French dishes using American equipment, measurements and ingredients. Its popularity sparked a craze for all things French, while in the publishing industry it set new standards of precision in recipes. More than four decades later, it remains a bestseller with more than a million copies in print.

A U.S. promotional tour led Child to tiny Boston public television station WGBH, where she whipped up an omelet on the air. Viewers responded positively, and The French Chef was born. The series, which debuted in February 1963, made Julia Child a household name. “I think people were used to formal instruction, and I wasn’t very formal,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 1997. “I’m sort of a ham.”

Child’s charm and unflappable calm in the face of kitchen disaster convinced a generation that anyone could cook. “She was able to transcend from the professional world to the home kitchen,” chef Jacques Pepin told Reuters in 2002. Child won an Emmy in 1966, and by 1978 she had become an icon, famous enough to be parodied by Dan Aykroyd in a Saturday Night Live sketch. Child would go on to star in several cooking series, many of them filmed in her own Cambridge, Mass., kitchen. She wrote 12 books, including 1989’s The Way to Cook, the first cookbook to be a main selection of the Book of the Month Club. After Child moved to a condominium in Montecito, Calif., in 2001, her kitchen was installed in an exhibit at the Smithsonian.

Food fads have come and gone, but Child remained an unrepentant carnivore and a loyal fan of butter and cream. “Small helpings, no seconds, no snacking, and a little bit of everything,” was her mantra. Although Child slowed down a little in her later years, she never retired. In 2002, she began working on a memoir about her time in Paris with her husband, Paul (who died in 1994).

Child leaves behind her sister Dorothy Cousins, brother John McWilliams III, six nieces and nephews, and a legacy of helping to refine American cuisine. “When I first started out, people hadn’t even heard of puff pastry,” she told the Christian Science Monitor in July 2002. “We now have world-class wines and food. We no longer have to apologize for anything.”

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