CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- She is undoubtedly the most famous French chef in the country, though she is neither French nor -- she says -- a chef. She was a TV star at 6 feet 2 when tall was not at all fashionable. Now, as full of contradictions as ever, Julia Child is about to turn 80.

Few birthdays are so celebrated. There was a gathering of friends from around the country last weekend. And a gala at the Hay-Adams in Washington last night, prepared with affection by Washington's top chefs (though chicken-costumed protesters walked outside, carrying signs: "Meat Stinks"). In Los Angeles, the French chefs are honoring her at a party called "Merci, Julia"; in Boston the festivities are in November, and a family celebration is set for Vermont on her actual birthday, Aug. 15.

Not that Child sought to make much of the occasion. "I was just terribly surprised to realize, gosh, I'm 79," she says in that familiar patrician voice, rinsing champagne glasses in her fabulously equipped kitchen. "I hadn't thought of it really very much until I got up to about that age. And suddenly here was I, who was always, I don't know, about 33."

Child has taught more than one generation to cook through seven books and her spunky public television cooking classes. She has won a Peabody, an Emmy and France's Ordre de Merite Agricole. Having once aspired to write for the New Yorker, she has instead been profiled by the magazine. And been on the cover of Time.

For three decades Julia Child has served as not just a cooking teacher but also a role model. While women were supposedly acceptable on television only if they were young, pert, beautiful, thin and without an accent, Julia out-starred everyone though she was gangly, with a voice that bellowed its New England regionalism, and didn't begin her video career until she was past 50.

It wasn't that she could do no wrong; rather, she made doing wrong so right. The more she faltered -- dropping the entire side of lamb on the floor, failing to make a dent carving the suckling pig, unmolding the mousse with a splat -- the more viewers loved and trusted her. Just remember that you're all alone in the kitchen, she would recommend, as she dusted off the lamb and thus gave permission to thousands of viewers to do what they already were secretly doing.

In recent years she has developed a way with makeup and a do for her hair. Jewel-toned silk blouses and bright slim skirts have replaced the utilitarian cotton shirts and cardigans she used to wear on TV. Her Volvo is bright red. She's launching a new TV series (again on public television) and a campaign to bring good taste to the forces of healthy eating. She just came back from France, and she's heading for California in October.

To hear her tell it, 80 is the prime of life. "One knows so much more. You have many more friends, many more skills. And you have your own kind of self-confidence that you hope you may have built up along the way."

Child, it is clear, is a master at looking on the bright side. There is, however, another side.

Paul Child, her husband of 46 years and 10 years her senior, is in a nursing home a half-hour's drive from their Cambridge house. She visits him every day when she is not traveling, and calls him every night when she is, though he can respond little. "We had a wonderful life," she says. "We had a very good marriage, and lots of fun.

"I think that so many people, particularly women, are faced with this situation. I know people who have their spouses at home, and it's a killer, an absolute killer. And I think that in a case where the spouse doesn't really know what's going on, I think the survivor has to survive."

And Julia Child, never pausing, is back to the positive: "I'm so busy, I've got so much to do, that thank Heaven ..."

The Cause

No octogenarian escapes a skein of sadness. Child has just said goodbye forever to the house in Provence where she and Paul spent 30 summers. It was on the property of Simone Beck -- Simca -- her recently deceased friend who in 1951 launched Julia's career by inviting her to coauthor that first book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." "The heart had gone out of it for me," she says now. "The whole atmosphere had changed so much."

The circle of her contemporaries is shrinking fast. Last year, she lost her colleague Elizabeth Bishop; this summer M.F.K. Fisher died. Before that, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, England's two grandes dames of cookery.

Professionally, her one great obsession is the American Institute of Wine and Food, and it has proved to be a continual frustration. For more than a decade she has been ceaselessly promoting this organization dedicated to research and scholarship in the advancement of gastronomy. Like a prodigal child it is constantly in need of financial infusions, prone to management shake-ups and scandals. While the AIWF has run highly respected conferences and published, though intermittently, an admirable Journal of Gastronomy, its critics dismiss it as primarily a society eating-and-drinking club. Not so, says Child. "It's not like the Wine and Food Society," she maintains. "It's an educational institution."

"We've had a great many difficulties," she explains with a fond and forgiving tone. She admits that the AIWF has had leaders who "had no idea of finance whatsoever." Still, she blames its failures partly on the economy.

"If we can have 30,000 members ..." she says wishfully of the organization, which has merely 6,700. "We want the Journal of Gastronomy to be the one place you can read the unbiased truth" about food issues, she says. It should be filled with "pertinent things that are just going on right now" such as lobbying efforts to move wine from the purview of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the Department of Agriculture. "Wine should not be associated with alcohol. It is really part of the food chain, and it should not be abused any more than bacon or sausages should be abused," she insists.

Most ambitious of her dreams for the AIWF is its role in legitimizing cooking as an academic career. She's campaigning to move gastronomy from the trade schools to the universities. She has been donating her papers to Radcliffe College's Schlesinger Library, and recently arranged to have Simone Beck's housed there as well. "The French don't consider gastronomy a serious subject at all," she laments.

As Child has changed the way Americans think about food, she has had to change her own thinking to keep in tune with modern ideas. She's encountered thunderstorms along the way. Child has done battle with dietitians who "forget it's got to be edible," but now she has joined with diet doctor Wayne Calloway to promote "a new approach to eating that tastes good and is good for you." She's been publicly accused of being homophobic; indeed, the AIWF recently settled a discrimination suit brought by a homosexual who claimed he wasn't hired because the management didn't want to risk offending Child. Yet she speaks fondly of two women friends who are "partners" and have adopted a child. Of course such subjects were never discussed years ago.

In fact, when Child was growing up, even food wasn't much discussed.

The Big Cookbook

Julia McWilliams was born in Pasadena, Calif., to a family who aimed her for Smith College -- where her mother went -- from birth. While her father managed the family land, her mother raised three children. But she didn't cook; rather, she hired a cook.

"Gray lamb with mint" was typical for dinner. No wine, of course. And on Thursdays, the cook's day off, the family went out to dinner. Well, maybe not always. Julia's mother did sometimes make an "English cheese thing."

After Julia was graduated from Smith, she worked in advertising in New York, then went home for a couple of years, and in 1942 came to Washington to see how she might contribute to the war effort. She lived in the Brighton Hotel on California Street, and had a refrigerator in the living room with a two-burner hot plate. Not that it mattered: She didn't really know how to cook. "When I left, the wall was a bit spattered." Nobody who's watched her early TV shows would doubt it.

She worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, because she was too tall to get into the WACS or WAVES. So she spent her days across from the Willard Hotel, looking up people on file cards. "It's amazing they could run an intelligence service without computers," she says now.

"Young people can't believe that was a holy war," she says of World War II. Everyone she knew was in it. And finally she was too.

Posted to Ceylon, she met the urbane, swashbuckling Paul Child: photographer, painter, art and French teacher, ex-lumberjack, furniture maker, with a black belt in judo. They were married in 1946, and lived in Washington -- on Olive Street in Georgetown -- where she began to be interested in cooking because Paul was interested in eating well. She read "The Joy of Cooking" and Gourmet magazine. A couple years later Paul was posted to Paris with the United States Information Service. Julia studied French and took a course at the Cordon Bleu cooking school with 12 ex-GIs. Then she met Simca and Louisette Bertholle, two Frenchwomen who were working on a cookbook for Americans. They invited her to join their ladies' gastronomical society, and eventually the three started a cooking school in Julia's home. 1951 was the historic moment: The two Frenchwomen invited Julia to work on their cookbook.

Thus began a decade of work. Julia insisted it be a teaching book, not just a recipe book. She wanted to explain techniques and the reasons for them, to take the reader through every step and to show what the food should look and feel like at each stage. She also wanted to explain how to recoup failures.

Most of the collaboration was conducted by mail, since the Childs moved to Marseille in 1952 and Bonn in 1954. Houghton Mifflin had given the trio a $250 advance for the book, but when Child showed up four years after the deadline with more than 800 pages on just poultry and sauces, the publisher balked. Child, then living in Norway, rewrote the book over the next two years. Once again Houghton Mifflin turned it down. Next it was shown to Knopf, where editor Judith Jones loved it but had to overcome the resistance of other editors. Finally the manuscript was accepted, and in 1961 the first volume of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was published, to immediate acclaim.

Here's where fact must be separated from fairy tale. As the story is usually told, this was the lone serious cookbook to appear before a public enamored of Cheez Wiz and TV dinners. While it is true that only 49 cookbooks had been published in the United States in the previous year (compared with more than 800 a year nowadays), "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" had considerable competition. Craig Claiborne's "New York Times Cook Book" was also published in 1961, along with the first English-language edition of "Larousse Gastronomique" and Paula Peck's revolutionary duo, "The Art of Fine Baking" and "Art of Good Cooking."

It was Child herself who opened up the path to television. She sent a copy of her book to a literary talk show in Boston, and was invited on. She brought along a copper bowl, a whisk and eggs, and whipped up the whites on TV. She was such a hit that she wound up with her own cooking show, "The French Chef."

It may have been the tight budget of the show that was responsible for its being a runaway success. Money was so short that there was none for reshooting, so it was filmed in one continuous session -- on used tape, so it is rumored. Julia turned out to be a master of the ad lib. And unflappable. And funny. When something dropped, spilled or failed, her candid responses tickled viewers. They loved her naturalness, the way she smelled and patted and prodded and tasted the food. She was one of them.

It should be no surprise, then, that "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" has gone through about three dozen printings and sold more than 2 million copies.

The Kitchen

Nor should it be any surprise that Child's kitchen has everything any cook could imagine owning, yet looks as if it hasn't changed since 1960.

The Childs' three-story gray frame house is on a very Cambridge street, hardly more than a block from Harvard's creative writing and women's studies departments. Two doors down, philosopher and psychologist William James lived from 1889 to 1910. Across the street, e.e. cummings was born.

The house is filled with paintings, Paul Child's work, just as their Santa Barbara, Calif., house was once filled with his photographs. On the door is a vibrant panel of stained glass: Paul made it. And in the hall is a massive and magnificent carved sideboard that looks like the kind of treasure you might find in a barn in Brittany. It too is the work of Paul Child.

But the kitchen. That's what everyone wants to see.

It's a comfortable old-shoe of a kitchen. Its painted-glass-fronted cabinets are schoolroom green. The long butcher-block counter is Julia Child height. A Scandinavian cabinet with clear plastic drawers evokes the 1960s, and the linoleum with its tiny mosaic-tile pattern is identical to those that probably covered half the kitchens in Cambridge in its day. Hardly '90s chic.

In the dish drainer are one pot, one metal bowl and one wineglass -- the remnants of someone living alone. But the walls tell the story of someone who entertains a lot. Two magnetic strips hold 28 knives, all of them properly sharp. The pegboard walls support 62 pots and pans, most copper, with a few iron pans in rare shapes and sizes. A half dozen pairs of shears, eight magnificent rolling pins (one crenulated, for puff pastry), two scales, three fish molds, a doughnut cutter, a corn-stick pan and a heart-shaped mold keep Child ready for any eventuality. Her KitchenAid mixer is startling blue, her Cuisinart gleams from proper care. This is a kitchen both crowded and orderly.

Child sits at a kitchen table large enough to seat eight comfortably. It's covered with yellow and white striped Marimekko cloth -- again the '60s come to mind -- and topped with a sheet of plastic, then woven grass place mats. Two salt cellars, two pepper mills and a bowl of fruit are ready to cope with as many people as might stop by.

Child removes the metal stopper from an open bottle of champagne -- a grand bottle that was a gift -- and pours it into two saucer-shaped glasses. "I don't like flutes, because you can't smell it," she says as she hands one to a guest.

She still maintains a red wine cellar and a white wine cellar. And of course she cooks. "I don't go out very much. I love to have people at home," she says. But that doesn't mean elaborate meals of Veau Prince Orloff and Charlotte Malakoff.

"People have a misconception of what French food is. They're really talking about tourist food; they're not talking about the actual way that French people eat." The French are not fat, they don't eat big helpings the way Americans do, and they don't snack, she says.

When she entertains, she doesn't even have a first course unless it's a formal dinner party. For six guests or fewer, she cooks and cleans up herself. "I just have a main course and fruit for dessert."

After being photographed that morning, she served lunch to the photographers: a salad of leftover steak, thinly sliced, with lettuce, plus canned cannellini beans with chopped onions and vinaigrette. The night before, for a friend, she'd roasted a locally grown free-range chicken. "I basted it with a little butter, and chopped onion in the pan, and boiled up the neck and so forth for a little sauce. And it was delicious." This sounds exactly like the Julia so familiar on television. "And some potatoes with it, and we had a salad with a lot of tomatoes and lettuce." Dessert was strawberries.

Child has been told to lose 15 pounds. Her dieting method is to eat small helpings of a great variety of food, starting with fruit and tea for breakfast. "It really worries me that so many people are afraid to eat anything," she says. "And so many people don't know how to cook anything at all."

To reverse the trend, she proposes teaching more children to cook. "I think it should start right in the schools. You could do it with a hot plate, a portable oven and a table. ... If we can teach the little kiddies how to cook and eat, they can teach their parents."

As for restaurants, Child complains, "all this grilling is getting to be very tiresome. I think there's nothing worse than grilled vegetables. Usually they're thrown on, and half of them are raw and the other half are burned. I think it is mostly inedible."

Even in France, she despairs, "people are not going to know anything about the kind of wonderful French cooking I found when we first went over to Paris." In the south of France in June nowadays, she says, people are eating produce "exactly the same as the rock-hard peaches we get here. People say, 'Oh, I love these little individual stores,' and they get their things from exactly the same places the supermarkets do. They always come from Morocco or some other place. I was not impressed. And their beef is horrible; at least it is now."

Yet there is, as usual, the bright side. In Cambridge, she does manage to get good ingredients. Local farm markets and even supermarkets have good produce, as long as you buy only what's in season and ripe. "If you're very fussy and you just want the best, you wait until it is available."

That might be what she'd describe as the secret to living well, too. Enjoy things in their season.