Julia Child, the beloved "French Chef" whose pioneering cookbooks, instructional television shows and culinary joie de vivre changed the way America cooked, died Thursday at her home in Southern California, three days before her 92nd birthday.
Mrs. Child had been suffering from kidney failure and died at her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., according to a niece, Philadelphia Cousins.
In a career that spanned more than four decades and made her a culinary legend, the immensely talented but down-to-earth Child inspired generations of chefs and taught a nation obsessed with convenience that making good food could be fun.
"She stands front and center of the American culinary revolution," said renowned wine critic Robert Parker. "She was there in the beginning."
A 6-foot-2 American folk hero, she was known to fans as Julia. Her cooking lessons on her landmark public television shows ended with a set table and her signature sign-off, "Bon appetit."
In an A-line skirt and blouse, and an apron with a dish towel tucked into the waist, Mrs. Child grew familiar enough to be parodied, including by Dan Aykroyd on NBC's Saturday Night Live. But she always seemed to accept the jokes - and the imitations of her instantly recognizable voice - with her own good sense of humor.
Decades of popularity prompted President Bush last year to give her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Alice Waters, executive chef and owner of Chez Panisse, the celebrated restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., said Ms. Child paved the way for the championing of fresh, locally grown ingredients in Ms. Waters' own food movement in the 1960s.
But while Ms. Waters saw food in part as a vehicle for social change, Mrs. Child focused on it as pleasure.
She remembers being "completely embarrassed" by Mrs. Child at a forum early on in her career when she was first interested in organic ingredients.
"I was ranting and raving about the purity of a chicken, and it was more important to her how to cook the chicken. I was up on my soap box, and she didn't want that to get in the way of people's enjoyment of cooking - or eating. I came to respect that."
Before Mrs. Child burst on the public scene in the early 1960s, American food was suffering from an overdose of concern for convenience and too little attention to flavor, freshness and taste.
"She brought a new level of culinary consciousness to Americans," said Diane Feffer Neas, a Kingsville restaurant consultant who knew Mrs. Child and cooked for her a number of times. A few years ago, when Mrs. Child was in town for a meeting of the American Institute of Food and Wine, which she helped found, Ms. Neas introduced her to steamed Maryland crabs.
With mallet in hand, Old Bay on her fingers and advice from companions, she attacked her crustaceans with gusto. "They're absolutely marvelous. I hope to have them again," she said then.
Ms. Neas said that when she cooked for Mrs. Child, she always tried to make simple fare, like crab cakes. "As long as I used good, fresh and simple ingredients, she loved it," Ms. Neas said.
In the introduction to her seventh book, The Way to Cook, Mrs. Child shared her philosophy about entertaining: "Dining with one's friends and beloved family is certainly one of life's primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal. ... In spite of food fads, fitness programs, and health concerns, we must never lose sight of a beautifully conceived meal."
John Shields, chef and owner of Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, remembers working as a chef in a French restaurant in the 1980s in Berkeley, Calif., and simply using Mrs. Child's books and recipes. Years later, they met and she helped him promote his television show.
"It was a joyous event for her to be around food," he said.
In this era of celebrity chefs, Child was refreshingly unpretentious.
"We would be in a meeting, and when we went around the room and everyone would introduce themselves, she would always say, 'I'm Julia Child, and I'm a teacher.' She would never say, 'I'm a chef,'" Ms. Neas recalled.
"We'd go to the market, and she'd buy Wonder Bread," said celebrity chef Jacques Pepin, who had been friends with Mrs. Child since 1960 and starred with her in several television shows. "She had no snobbism about food whatsoever. She loved iceberg lettuce."
He remembered the first time he went to her house for dinner with his wife. She led him back to the kitchen and together they prepared oysters, pork chops and potatoes. "There was never a time I had breakfast, lunch or dinner at her house that I didn't cook. It was very casual. She liked to get everyone involved."
Her easygoing personality was evident in her cookbooks, said Cynthia Kammann, 54, from Linthicum Heights, who was shopping at Williams-Sonoma in Cross Keys yesterday. "You couldn't read one of her cookbooks without chortling or smiling."
Mrs. Child seemed an unlikely candidate to become an American fixture. She did not take a cooking lesson until she was in her 30s. And she was in her 50s when her first television series began in 1963.
When she enrolled in Smith College in Northampton, Mass., she listed her vocational goal as "No occupation decided; Marriage preferable." She graduated in 1934 with little discernible ambition and returned home to Pasadena, Calif., to live life as a self-described social butterfly.
It was marriage that gave her the vocation of a lifetime. She met Paul Child after she signed up for government service during World War II. They met in Asia, where both were working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Paul Child was worldly, with an appreciation for sophisticated women, fine food and good wine, and with political views far more liberal than the affluent, conservative social circles of Southern California in which she was brought up.
Their marriage in 1946 produced a long and loving partnership. Paul Child died in 1994. They had no children.
Paul Child's assignment in Paris became the catalyst for his wife's vocation. Her introduction to French cuisine came as an epiphany. She was determined to learn to cook, and to cook well, enrolling at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.
"I'd been looking for my life's work all along," she once said. "And when I got into cooking, I found it. I was inspired by the tremendous seriousness with which they took it."
In France, she also met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom she collaborated on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was nine years in the making and became mandatory for anyone who took cooking seriously.
It was published in 1961 and made a revolutionary assertion - that anyone could learn to cook French cuisine.
The book was followed by The French Chef Cookbook; Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II, with Beck; From Julia Child's Kitchen; Julia Child & Company; Julia Child & More Company; and The Way to Cook, in October 1989.
Just like us
She was 51 when she made her television debut as The French Chef. The series began in 1963 and continued for 206 episodes. Child won a Peabody award in 1965 and an Emmy in 1966, and went on to star in several more series for Boston's WGBH-TV.
In the show, she seemed to be just like the rest of us. She wasn't always tidy in the kitchen, and she sometimes dropped things or had trouble getting a cake out of its mold.
Her jovial congeniality came with an enormous zest for life, as well as a type-A personality. She was capable of testing recipes dozens of times and regretted even the smallest errors in her books.
Mr. Parker recalled meeting Mrs. Child in 1987 in Boston over breakfast. He said she arrived at the hotel dining room carrying a bottle of Gigondas, a robust French wine.
"Would you mind if we opened this? You gave it a 90 [rating], and I want to see what you meant by that," she told him.
The waiter opened the bottle, and she poured herself a large slug. When she tasted it, she said, "Oh, how charming. This is the perfect breakfast wine."
Mr. Parker said he always liked telling that story because the wine has a reputation for being big, bold and burly.
Since the 1980s, Mrs. Child devoted attention to promoting the serious study of food and cooking. She co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food in San Francisco in 1981 and co-founded the James Beard Foundation in New York City in 1986. In 2001 she became an adviser and trustee for Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, in Napa, Calif.
And she continued to appear on television, joining Mr. Pepin for the 1994 PBS special, Julia Child & Jacques Pepin: Cooking in Concert and a 1996 sequel, More Cooking in Concert.
On a visit to Baltimore soon after her 89th birthday, Mrs. Child and Mr. Parker were honored by the local chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food.
Although the event was less than two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mrs. Child kept her commitment by flying from Boston despite canceled planes, long delays and security agents who almost turned her away because her artificial knee set off metal detectors.
In late 2001, Mrs. Child, a longtime resident of Cambridge, Mass., moved to Santa Barbara and donated her famous kitchen to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
These days, many tourists visiting the National Museum of American History head to Mrs. Child's kitchen before the exhibits of first ladies' dresses or Judy Garland's shoes from The Wizard of Oz.
At the exhibit yesterday, a loop of video clips from her shows gave voice to her spirit: "We're having vegetarians for dinner tonight," the avowed meat-eater said wryly in one take. "I mean, we're not going to eat them - we're going to have them over for dinner!"
A private memorial service was planned, but Mrs. Child asked that no funeral be held.
Julia Child's books
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I (written with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle), 1961
The French Chef Cookbook, 1968
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II (written with Simone Beck), 1970
Julia Child & Company, 1978
The Way to Cook, 1989
Julia Child & More Company, 1990
Julia Child's Menu Cookbook, 1991
Cooking with Master Chefs, 1993
In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs, 1996
Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, 1999 (written with Jacques Pepin and David Nussbaum)
From Julia Child's Kitchen, 1999
Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking, 2000
- Associated Press
Sun staff writers Ellen Gamerman and Annie Linskey and wire reports contributed to this article.
A Saturday front-page article on the death of Julia Child and an appreciation in the Today section incorrectly reported when Child died. It was early Friday morning, according to family members.The Sun regrets the errors.