There’s no question Julia Child is an icon (and of course, here at GBH, she’s our hometown hero.) Throughout my work producing our You & Julia digital series, I’ve heard countless Boston chefs gush about Julia and her incredible impact on our city. Even as the years have passed, her influence is deeply felt by almost every chef we talk to; their eyes light up as they talk about the time they bumped into her at a holiday party, accidentally heard her iconic voice over the phone, or cooked oysters with her. These stories inspired me to dive into Julia’s Child’s autobiography, My Life In France, co-written by Alex Prud'homme, and learn more about the life of this pioneer.

Reading this book during this particularly challenging year was like a fantasy: a throwback to a time when it was safe to travel, explore, and gather over food. For now, it’s a delightful substitute. Although it’s a story about food, to me it’s really a story about a woman finding her passion and pursuing it at a time when women weren’t encouraged to carve out independent professional lives for themselves. It’s thrilling to witness someone discover their true life’s calling — and be incredibly successful doing it.

"My Life in France" by Julia Child
"My Life in France" by Julia Child
Meghan Smith

My Life In France is the story of how “a six-foot-two-inch thirty-six-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian” went to France and became one of the most celebrated chefs in history. Here are ten things I learned from reading Julia Child’s autobiography.

1. Julia and Paul Child had a wonderfully modern marriage.

During World War II, Julia McWilliams worked for the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA. She was stationed in Ceylon, modern-day Sri Lanka, where she met the artist Paul Child in 1944, who was also posted there to design war rooms. They were then sent to China, before marrying and settling in Washington, DC.

One of the best parts of Julia's book is witnessing her and Paul’s marriage as a truly equal partnership. Julia supported Paul’s Foreign Service career as they moved to multiple countries in Europe, including France, Germany and Norway, and Paul actively supported her cooking career in France. When Paul later retired and Julia’s television career took off, he was right there supporting her, even helping with microphones while she was on her press tour, giving advice on camera angles for The French Chef, and taking photos for her cookbooks.

2. Julia’s first meal in France was oysters and sole meunière.

When they first arrived in France and were making their way to Paris, Julia and Paul stopped at the famed Restaurant La Couronne in Rouen for their first official French meal. Julia was shocked that wine was consumed at lunchtime (“I had never drunk much wine other than some $1.19 California Burgundy, and certainly not in the middle of the day”) and didn’t even know what a shallot was.

They ordered a half dozen oysters, which Julia found much more flavorful than those from Massachusetts: “This platter of portugaises has a sensational briny flavor and a smooth texture that was entirely new and surprising,” she said. Next they ordered the sole meunière, which Julia called “a model of perfection,” had a fresh baguette, then had fromage blanc for dessert (yes — cheese for dessert.) “It was the most exciting meal of my life,” Julia says, now in love with French cooking.

3. At Le Cordon Bleu, Julia was the only woman in her cooking classes — but it didn’t faze her.

Before arriving in France, Julia hadn’t really cooked at all, so when she moved to Paris she enrolled in the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, hoping to understand French culture. She found the “housewife course” too elementary, so she enrolled in a more rigorous course for restaurateurs. She was learning alongside eleven former GIs who were studying under the GI Bill.

“When I walked into the classroom, the GIs made me feel as if I had invaded their boys’ club,” Julia writes about the class, taught by Chef Max Bugnard. “Luckily, I had spent most of the war in male-dominated environments and wasn’t fazed by them in the least.”

Julia Child and other chefs and students at Le Cordon Bleu
Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

4. Julia’s life in post-war Paris wasn’t always glamorous...

Americans love to romanticize France, but Julia’s writing shows that even as they fell in love with the country, Julia and Paul often experienced inconveniences to their daily life in France. In their first apartment, they often lost electricity and heating in the winter. While Julia cooked in the basement of Le Cordon Bleu, she would be left in the dark in the middle of a recipe, and frequent labor strikes caused disruptions to public transportation.

Julia says it taught her empathy: “I’d had such a soft life — never known Hunger, never known true Fear or been forced to live under the boot heel of an Enemy — that it was good for me to have an idea of what so many people in the world were going through,” she writes.

5. ...But she did get to do a few glamorous things.

One of my favorite vignettes in the book is when Julia describes life in Marseille. One very glamorous event that she attended, in particular, made me jealous. While working at the American consulate in Marseille, Paul was named one of the delegates to the Cannes Film Festival, so she and Paul journeyed to the coastal town in the French Riviera to take it all in.

At first, Julia, a self-described movie lover, worked on her cookbook while Paul attended the festival, but Julia insisted on going to the final cocktail party. “In Cannes the sun was hot and the champagne was cold, and it was extremely pleasant just to sit and look around,” she writes. “Paul was rather taken with the Spanish and Brazilian starlets sprinkled about, while I was smitten with the relaxed and charming Gary Cooper.”

6. She did meticulous research to make sure she could adapt French recipes for an American cook.

I was impressed by Julia’s work ethic as she poured her heart and soul into Mastering the Art of French Cooking with her co-authors Simone Beck (Simca) and Louisette Bertholle. They did years of research, conducting hundreds of experiments to perfect recipes and make sure that each could be made in an American kitchen with ingredients from American grocery stores. She would covertly mail recipes to friends in the US and ask them to try them in their own kitchen, labeled ‘TOP SECRET.’ “Perhaps it was my OSS training kicking in,” Julia writes about the cloak-and-dagger process.

One of Julia’s proudest breakthroughs was when she discovered how to make the classic French bread in an American kitchen. But it had a flaw: her trick, discovered by Paul, was to use asbestos cement — yes, asbestos — in the oven. She and her editor subtly changed that recipe in later versions of the cookbook when reports came out that asbestos is poisonous, yet still managed to yield perfect French bread.

7. Julia described her and Paul as “devoted Democrats.”

I was hoping to learn a little more about Julia’s political leanings from her book, and wasn’t surprised that throughout she mentions her progressive politics. It often came up when discussing her family, as she frequently clashed with her conservative father.

Another interesting political angle of the book is the backdrop of the 1950s. As part of the Foreign Service in Europe, Paul and Julia couldn’t avoid McCarthyism and the “red scare.” Paul was investigated, and many of their colleagues were suddenly forced out of their jobs as the American government scoured the population for communists. “This battle of ideologies in America was the most fateful of all the wars under way around the world,” Julia writes.

A black and white photo, Julia Child stands in her kitchen holding a baguette
Prideful hold of little bread
Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

8. Julia had extremely limited TV experience before The French Chef, but she was a natural talent.

For many years, she and Paul never even owned a television. When Julia was invited to go on the Today Show to promote her book, she hadn’t heard of the show. But she and Simca showed up and wowed viewers with their demonstration of making an omelette.

That press tour brought her to WGBH, where she was a guest on the show I’ve Been Reading, and that successful appearance led to The French Chef. They decided to tape the show in one continuous thirty-minute take, which Julia says was “a bit of a high-wire act, but it suited me. Once I got going, I didn’t like to stop and lose the sense of drama and excitement of a live performance.” The station had never done a cooking show before, but it became a hit.

9. The WGBH studios burned down right before Julia was supposed to film her first episode of The French Chef.

I was aware of the fire that had destroyed WGBH’s studios in 1961, but I didn’t realize the event affected Julia so directly. Right before they were set to film the first episode of The French Chef, the studio burned down, also destroying Julia’s personal copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Boston Gas Company “came to the rescue” and offered the crew a place to film in one of their demonstration kitchens in downtown Boston.

The first episode was “The French Omelette.” I love this scene of the show’s humble origins: “While Paul parked, I stood in the building’s rather formal lobby guarding our mound of pots, bowls, whisks, eggs and trimmings,” she writes. “Businessmen in gray suits and office girls rushed in and out of the lobby, eyeing me with disapproval.”

10. Julia and Paul settled in Cambridge, where they both had deep New England roots.

Julia grew up in California but had attended Smith College, where her mother attended, and had relatives in Massachusetts, whose roots were traced back to Plymouth Colony. Paul grew up in Brookline (which Julia describes as “the countryside outside of Boston”). Paul’s twin brother and his wife lived in Maine, so when Paul retired, Massachusetts was a natural place for them to settle. “I found Cambridge to have a special, charming New England character and to be full of interesting eggheads,” Julia writes. From there, Julia’s culinary career at WGBH took off.

The rest is history.