August 30, 2004 12:00 PM

From the moment Julia Child first grabbed her giant whisk on a Boston public television show in 1962, viewers were captivated by the 6’2″ homemaker who cracked eggs—and jokes—with equal joie de vivre. The show’s producer Russell Morash recalls watching Child and thinking, “Who is this madwoman cooking an omelette?”

Americans were soon inviting her into their homes on a weekly basis. In an era when most people still counted on frozen peas as a side for their meatloaf, Child’s pioneering cooking show The French Chef gave them the courage to attempt boeuf bourguignon—at home, from scratch. Says Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl: “She made you want to go in there and do it yourself.” That alone was enough to make foodies everywhere mourn on Aug. 13, when Child, two days shy of her 92nd birthday, died in her sleep of kidney failure at an assisted-living center in Montecito, Calif.

The first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame (in 1993), Child hosted a total of eight cooking shows and won scores of awards, including three Emmys. But it was her earthy wit and loopy insouciance that most endeared her to legions of home cooks. “You must be careful not to set your hair on fire,” she deadpanned to viewers while striking a match to ignite a crepe suzette. Reaching into a hot pot with tongs, she lifted a piece of cheesecloth and said, “What’s cooking under this gossamer veil? Why, here’s a great, big, bad artichoke, and some people are afraid of it.” And once, while preparing a bird for the oven, she gushed, “I love putting butter on chicken—and he loves having me do it.”

In her later years Child, who lost her beloved husband, Paul, in ’94 and suffered from a painful nerve disease, remained irrepressible. As recently as three weeks before her death, wheelchair-bound but in customary good spirits, she made her regular Saturday visit to a local farmer’s market. And whenever Food Network host Sara Moulton inquired about the widowed Child’s love life, “She’d say, ‘Oh, dearie, they all go after the nubile young 70-year-olds.’ ”

Born Julia McWilliams to a wealthy family in Pasadena, Child graduated from Smith College and landed a job in Washington, D.C., with the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the C.I.A. Posted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), she met Paul Child, an OSS mapmaker, accomplished painter—and gourmet. The two wed in 1946 and were transferred to France, where Paul introduced his bride—who couldn’t boil an egg—to French cuisine. At 37, she enrolled as the only woman at the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school and in 1961 teamed up with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle—both of whom went on to become noted chefs—to publish the perennially bestselling Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which helped make her a millionaire.

On Paul’s retirement the childless couple moved to Cambridge, Mass., where he accompanied Julia to the set of The French Chef daily and illustrated her cookbooks. “He’s my chief taste tester and critic,” she told PEOPLE in 1975. Devastated by his death, Child nevertheless continued to work, entertain and teach. Whenever home cooks in a quandary phoned her to ask for help, says Moulton, Child took the time “to guide them through it.” In 2002 she donated her utilitarian kitchen, devoid of fancy gadgets but containing 800 knives, to the Smithsonian.

In the end the woman who introduced Americans to a culinary world beyond Spam and Cheez-Whiz leaves behind a legacy both delicious and hospitable. “She always tried to get people into food for the right reasons,” says Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., “to be cooks, to make a table, to sit at that table with friends.”

Christina Cheakalos. Caroline Howard in Washington, D.C., Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles and Nancy Matsumoto in Toronto

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