“Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child” by Bob Spitz (Random House of Canada, hardcover, C$33) takes readers beyond the image of this tall, eccentric woman with a funny voice and establishes her as one of the most distinctive cultural individuals of the 20th century.
This in-depth, intimate tale is full of fresh information about Child from her childhood up until her death. Spitz gleaned an amazing amount of material from her private papers, scrapbooks, letters, keepsakes and notes, family, friends and colleagues, many of whom “were still around who were eager to talk,” he says in an interview.
“I had complete access to all her original television scripts and her notes for her bestselling cookbook, 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking,'” says Spitz, a New York award-winning writer whose previous biography was “The Beatles.”
He says her journals also shed light on her job working in Washington’s Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War.
It was during one of her postings in Asia that she met Paul Child, another civil servant. They were married in 1946.
The archives at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University have all of his letters. Child wrote them every day from 1940 until 1974 and they contain vivid descriptions of his and Julia’s lives.
Spitz was in Italy in 1992 on assignment for a magazine when he got a call from a friend at the Italian Trade Commission asking him if he could escort a woman who would be travelling alone in Sicily.
“I said, “I don't do that kind of work,' but then they told me it was Julia Child. Of course I accepted,” he said, chuckling.
For several weeks, Child and Spitz crisscrossed the island — “eating of course,” he writes in the book. “She was exactly like her television persona: warm, funny, outgoing, whip-smart, incorrigible and most of all real.”
He asked her if he could write her biography and she agreed. “Julia had been disappointed by an earlier biography and knew I was eager to capture her spirit and do a thorough account.”
When the Childs returned to the U.S. after the war, Paul was posted to Paris by the federal government.
He introduced his wife to French cuisine.
Julia was transfixed. Never a good cook, having been brought up in a wealthy home in Pasadena, Calif., she embraced it with fervour, taking lessons at the famed Cordon Bleu culinary arts school.
It was there and from her new friends, chefs and others involved with French cuisine that she developed an obvious talent in the kitchen.
Food became her raison d'etre and she and Paul would dine out often in Paris restaurants, shop in the quaint markets and entertain frequently so Julia could treat her friends to her newfound love.
Returning to the U.S., she was determined to encourage people to learn how to cook the French way and as a result she carved out another career, teaching cuisine on television.
At the age of 50, she became host of “The French Chef,” the first nation-wide cooking show.
It was the first time a woman was seen as a professional in the kitchen. Frustrated housewives welcomed the larger-than-life personality and showmanship of this outspoken woman on their television screens.
“Julia believed in high-quality ingredients and meals that were well prepared and nothing packaged,’ says Spitz.
He says that before "The French Chef" aired on PBS, many housewives sought convenience in the kitchen and were in thrall to packaged and frozen food, TV dinners, fish sticks, converted rice, Jell-O moulds and iceberg lettuce.
“Watching Julia cook with competence and ease, viewers were convinced that they could too, and American cooking was never the same.”
"If she was still alive she would be thrilled that so many people are concentrating on good food,” says Spitz.
One amusing story he recalls is when he and Child returned from Italy.
“When we got back to the U.S. she told me she had a yen for a particular restaurant,” he says. “It was McDonald’s and we each had a Big Mac and large fries. She was in heaven.”
And no doubt, as she was about to devour the burger, she uttered her famous words: “Bon appetit!”
Former Toronto Star food editor Marion Kane, who knew Child well, has developed a series of documentaries called "Remembering Julia." It can be found on her website, www.marionkane.com.