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Julia Child, 1912-2004

Giving Americans Entree to Cuisine

By Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2004; Page A01

Julia Child, America's foremost apostle of gourmet French cooking whose television programs and cookbooks helped elevate the epicurean standards of a generation, died yesterday morning at an assisted living center in Montecito, Calif., where she lived.

She had kidney failure, her niece, Philadelphia Cousins, told the Associated Press. She died two days before her 92nd birthday.

Julia Child shows a salade nicoise she prepared in the kitchen of her vacation home in southern France in 1978. (Nancy Palmieri -- AP)

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Child broadcast her culinary gospel to an audience of millions, beginning in 1963 as the host of "The French Chef," a highly acclaimed public television program that launched a career of more than 40 years on public and commercial television. She wrote best-selling cookbooks, the first of which, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," was said at its publication in 1961 to have been the definitive English language work on French cooking.

For aspiring chefs from coast to coast, she took the mystery and intimidation out of French cooking, explaining her meal preparations and procedures in simple and down-to-earth terms that encouraged a new spirit of adventure and creativity in American kitchens. "Any literate person with a reasonable amount of manual dexterity can concoct praiseworthy French meals," Child insisted.

On television, the 6-foot-2 Child had a superb sense of showmanship, a cheery exuberance and a delightful lack of pretense that endeared her to millions and made her a national folk hero. She often made mistakes in her kitchen, and these gaffes were not edited out of the show. This helped create a personal bond between Child and her audiences, most of whom had made similar mistakes in the kitchen.

Her aim, Child once said, was "to have things happen as they naturally do, such as mousse refusing to leave the mold, potatoes sticking to the skillet, Apple Charlotte slowly collapsing. One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot."

Such was her fame and influence that in November 2001, when Child left her Massachusetts home of 42 years to return to her native California, she gave her 20-by-14-foot kitchen to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. It opened to the public two years ago. Last year, President Bush awarded Child a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Rayna Green, curator of the "Bon Appetit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian" exhibition, said in an interview yesterday with Washingtonpost.com that Child convinced many people that cooking could be fun. "And that even cooking they imagined to be difficult . . . as in French cooking . . . could be easy and wonderful. She would never have pretended to introduce French cooking to those who already knew some version of it. She just wanted people to enjoy cooking and enjoy being in the kitchen."

Child's first cooking show was broadcast in 1962 on a trial basis on Boston's public television station, WGBH-TV. In 1963, she became a regular fixture on the station's programming schedule. This was when the Kennedys were in the White House, and the style and elegance of President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy captured the nation's imagination. They had a French chef of their own, Rene Verdon, and America was eager to learn about French cooking.

Within a few years, Child's show was being carried by 104 public television stations throughout the nation, and it became a prototype for dozens of televised cooking programs that followed in subsequent decades. It won the George Foster Peabody Award for distinguished achievement in educational television in 1965 and an Emmy Award in 1966. Time magazine did a cover story on Child in 1966, and her cookbook sales soared, opening a new vein in the book publishing industry. Forty-nine cookbooks were published in the United States in 1961 when Child and two colleagues released "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Forty years later, more than 1,700 new cookbooks are published each year.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Child had written more cookbooks, had three more television shows, and wrote columns for McCall's magazine and Parade. Three more PBS series appeared in the 1990s: "Cooking With the Master Chefs" (1992), "Julia's Kitchen With Master Chefs" (1995) and "Baking with Julia" (1996).

Ten years ago, she joined fellow television chef Jacques Pepin for the 1994 PBS special, "Julia Child & Jacques Pepin: Cooking in Concert" and a 1996 sequel, "More Cooking in Concert." Pepin became an important collaborator with her in the past 20 years. On their shows, he did most of the cooking, while she looked on and cooed dramatically.

Julia McWilliams was born in Pasadena, Calif. As a child she seldom entered the family kitchen. "Gray lamb with mint," was a typical family dinner, she later recalled. She graduated from Smith College and worked during the 1930s as a publicist and copywriter for W.&J. Sloan furniture stores in New York and Los Angeles.

During World War II she was a file clerk with the Office of Strategic Services, first in Washington and later in Sri Lanka and China. There she met Paul Child, an Office of Strategic Services mapmaker and connoisseur of fine food and wine. They spent their spare hours together sampling the delicacies of Asian cookery.

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