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Julia Child On France, Fat And Food On The Floor

Child, who made French cuisine feel accessible to Americans, died in August 2004 at age 91. (Getty Images)

This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 14, 1989.

In a 1989 Fresh Air interview, Julia Child recalls being hooked on French cooking from the very first bite. She made her passion her life, and spent the rest of her career guiding American amateurs through the intricacies of French cuisine.

Originally from Pasadena, Calif., Child was in her 30s when she arrived in Paris with her husband, a U.S. diplomat. She signed up for a course at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.

Eventually, it was Child herself who was teaching cooking classes, along with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The trio would go on to collaborate on the landmark two-volume book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

"I found that the recipes in most — in all — the books I had were really not adequate," she told Terry Gross. "They didn't tell you enough. ... I won't do anything unless I'm told why I'm doing it. So I felt that we needed fuller explanations so that if you followed one of those recipes, it should turn out exactly right. My feeling is that once you know everything and have digested it, then it becomes part of you."

Child would go on to host eight television cooking series, including the Emmy Award-winning The French Chef, which appeared on more than 100 public television stations in the U.S. She died in 2004 at the age of 91.


Interview Highlights

How cooking has changed since the 1960s

"In the 1960s, you could eat anything you wanted, and of course, people were smoking cigarettes and all kinds of things, and there was no talk about fat and anything like that, and butter and cream were rife. Those were lovely days for gastronomy, I must say.

"In those days, too, it was classical French cooking, and you didn't deviate from the rules. Then shortly after that ... in the 1970s we got nouvelle cuisine, in which a lot of the old rules were kicked over. And then we had cuisine minceur, which people mixed up with nouvelle cuisine but was actually fancy diet cooking.

"Then we went into the organic phase, where we had bean sprouts and tofu to a large extent. And now we're in kind of a fright situation, where people are very much afraid of fats and oils, and cholesterol has reared its ugly head."

On her first meal in France

"I remember my first meal there. We had come over on the boat because that was in 1948, and airplane traffic was not rampant, or it hardly existed. And we had our big, old, blue Buick on the boat and drove from La Havre to Rouen, and I remember my first French meal. It was just delicious.

"Of course we had wine, which I had not known much about, and oysters on the half shell, and then a beautiful dish of sole in white wine sauce with mushrooms, and I just couldn't get over it. I hadn't ever had that kind of food."

On making mistakes on her cooking show

"Well, one time, I was cooking — blanching some broccoli, and it was in a salad basket, which was lowered into a big kettle, and when I picked it up, my fork slipped, and it all fell on the floor. ... We did stop [taping] because it was a real mess. But every time we stopped, it would cost several hundred dollars because it always took half an hour to get back [on track] again, and you have to pay overtime.

"Another time, there was a short circuit on my microphone, and every time I touched the stove, the microphone would go bzzzzzzzzz and I'd clutch my breast."

On being "alone in the kitchen"

"People would say, 'Well, I saw you drop that chicken on the floor,' which of course I never did. All I did was flip a potato pancake into the stove, and then I put it back into the pan, and I said: 'Well, if you're all alone in the kitchen, nobody will know.' "

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

While planning our All You Can Eat series, we decided to save a place at the table for Julia Child.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE FRENCH CHEF")

Ms. JULIA CHILD (Chef): Welcome to "The French Chef." I'm Julia Child. You know, the egg can be your best friend if you just give it the right break. And I'm not talking just about breakfast eggs but eggs for brunch, eggs for lunch, eggs for appetizers, for company, and eggs for elegance.

Now, take, for instance, l'oeuf en cocotte, or eggs baked in little dishes like this, or little, these are called little ramekins...

GROSS: That was Julia Child on her public TV show "The French Chef," which made her the first famous TV chef. She introduced millions of Americans to French cuisine. Her 1961 book "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" helped launch her public TV career, which lasted nearly four decades.

Her longtime editor, Judith Jones, said Child changed the way cookbooks are written, addressing them to home cooks rather than professional chefs.

Child died in 2004 at the age of 91. I spoke with her in 1989.

Ms. CHILD: I grew up in the teens and the '20s when most people had, middle-class people had maids or had someone to help. And we had very sensible New England type food because my mother came from New England, you know, roasts and vegetables and fresh peas and mashed potatoes. But nobody discussed food a great deal because it just wasn't done. And there was no wine served at the table, at least not in my family, who were very conservative. We always ate very well but it wasn't talked about.

GROSS: Well, your family had a cook. Did your mother cook at all and did you like to cook at all?

Ms. CHILD: No, she really didn't cook at all. She knew how to make baking powder biscuits and Welsh rarebit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: That's all she knew how to make. And I didn't do any cooking then at all.

GROSS: When you graduated from college, you went to New York...

Ms. CHILD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...with the hopes of becoming a novelist or writing for a magazine. Why did you...

Ms. CHILD: (Unintelligible)...

GROSS: Yeah?

Ms. CHILD: Or writing for The New Yorker, at least getting into Time or Newsweek. Nobody wanted me for some strange reason.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHILD: And then along came the war and I got into the - I went down to Washington and eventually got into the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS.

GROSS: Did you want to be a spy?

Ms. CHILD: I did want to be a spy. And I thought I'd be a very good one because no one would think that someone as tall as I would possibly be a spy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: But of course I ended up doing office - menial office work. I was in the files the whole time. Actually, though, it was fascinating as an organization to be in, and at least I knew everything that was going on.

GROSS: Well, you were telling us how being in the OSS led you overseas.

Ms. CHILD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You lived for a while in China. I think you lived for a while in India as well.

Ms. CHILD: Yeah, Ceylon. It was Ceylon and China.

GROSS: And then after the war you're telling us you went to Washington and then went back to Paris.

Ms. CHILD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Went to Paris and lived there. This was in the late 1940s.

Ms. CHILD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you had wonderful food in Paris.

Ms. CHILD: Oh, it was just marvelous. It was still the old classical cuisine. It was just, just delicious. I've never had such good food again as we had then.

GROSS: Well, how did eating wonderful food lead you to want to start preparing wonderful food?

Ms. CHILD: I was very much impressed with the food and I just - having started in cooking after we got married, I thought that I would go to the Cordon Bleu, they had kind of classes for what we called fluffies(ph). What it did at that same time, they were having some classes for the GIs on the Bill of Rights and I decided after doing a little bit that I would really like to do much more serious delving into cuisine so that I was able to join the GIs, and they didn't object, luckily. And we started in at 7 in the morning and finished at around 11, and then I would rush home and prepare a fancy lunch for my husband, Paul. In those days too the American embassy followed the two-hour lunch, French lunch hour, so we always came home for lunch.

But in those days too, middle-class women were not going into cooking, either the French or the Americans. And the French, of course, all had maids. It was the way we had lived before the war, in the USA.

GROSS: When you co-wrote "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," did you see it as a way to introduce Americans to French cuisine?

Ms. CHILD: Yes. I was tremendously interested in French cuisine because it was, it's the only cuisine that has the real rules on how to cook. And I wanted, because I had started in quite late. I was about in my early 30s when I started cooking and I found that the recipes in most, in all the books I had were really not adequate, they didn't tell you enough. And I'm for, well, I won't do anything unless I'm told why I'm doing it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHILD: So I felt that we needed fuller explanations so that if we follow - if you followed one of those recipes, it should turn out exactly right. And that's why the recipes were very long, but they have full detail. My feeling is that once you know everything and have digested it, then it becomes part of you.

GROSS: When you moved back to the States and you wanted to continue French cooking, were there ingredients that you couldn't find in the States?

Ms. CHILD: No. Well, there were some differences. I think the cream was not as thick, but that was easy enough to make your own what they called creme fraiche by adding a little buttermilk or yogurt to heavy cream and making it thick. In those days, cream was very chic. Nowadays, people are afraid of it. But the flour is different, but you could - because the French, general French flour is softer and more made for pastries. And you can perfectly well duplicate that by using part unbleached, all-purpose flour with a little bit of plain, bleached cake flour added to it, which softens the gluten content.

GROSS: You became nationally famous in the United States for your cooking show. Were your early shows live?

Ms. CHILD: No, nothing was live. But the early shows, because we were very, very strict budget. It was really live on tape.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHILD: And so once we started in, we didn't stop at all unless there was a terrible disaster, and we only had about two or three, I think.

GROSS: Tell me one of the terrible disasters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: Well, one time, I was taking, I was cooking - blanching some broccoli, and it was in a salad basket, which was lowered into a big kettle. And when I picked it up, my fork slipped, and it all fell on the floor. I didn't pick it up and use it, so we did...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: We did stop because it was a real mess. But every time we stopped, it would cost - I mean several hundred dollars, because it always took half an hour to get back again, and you would have to pay overtime.

And another time, there was a short circuit on my microphone, and every time I touched the stove, the microphone would go...

(Soundbite of crackling sound)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: And I'd clutch my breast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: So we had to stop for that. But otherwise, we just didn't stop at all. Then people - it's funny. People would say, well, I saw you drop that chicken on the floor - which, of course, I never did. All I did was flip a potato pancake into the stove, then I put it back into the pan, and I said well, if you're all alone in the kitchen, nobody will know.

GROSS: So were there often mistakes in the actual show that you would recover from, thinking that, well, this kind of thing happens all the time...

Ms. CHILD: Yes. Well, and I think some people would accuse me of doing things purposely. But anyone who's been in the kitchen knows that awful things happen all the time, and you just - if you're a cook, you have to make do with whatever happens. I mean, I was just cooking as one normally would at home, which I think people rather enjoyed because it was informal, and the way most people cook at home, anyway.

GROSS: I'm sure you must have seen the Dan Aykroyd "Saturday Night Live"...

Ms. CHILD: Oh, yes. We have a tape of that.

GROSS: Do you?

Ms. CHILD: That's great fun.

GROSS: What he'd always do is when he was doing you, is take little nips of wine...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...until he got really giddy while he was cooking.

Ms. CHILD: No, I - people accuse me of that, too. No, I would never. I mean, that's a - would be a very gauche thing to do in public, wouldn't it?

GROSS: I want to ask you what you think of nouvelle cuisine.

Ms. CHILD: Well, nouvelle cuisine is through, I think. But I think it has been very useful in that it released people from a straitjacket, then we've gone into silly seasons and so forth. But one thing that was very useful was of paying attention to how the food looks on the plate, to make it really attractive. Then I think that gets exaggerated, so something looks like Japanese flower garden and the food looks fingered, which is not attractive. I think food should look like food, but it should be very appetizingly arranged.

GROSS: When you say food looks fingered, what do you mean?

Ms. CHILD: That means you'd taken your thumb and sort of wet your thumb and put these little things all around the plate in the shape of petals and so forth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHILD: And it's - I don't find that attractive, because you know that they have been probably licking their fingers and putting it on the plate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. CHILD: Well, good to talk with you. Bye.

GROSS: Julia Child, recorded in 1989. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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