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Julia Child introduced Americans to French cuisine

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. There's a new documentary about Julia Child, who introduced Americans to French cuisine with her 1961 book "Mastering The Art Of French Cooking" and became a public television star who cooked on screen for four decades. In this scene from the documentary, Russ Morash, a producer at Boston public television station WGBH, explains that Julia Child's show began after she'd appeared on a book review program to talk about her new cookbook and made an omelet on the set.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JULIA: THE DELICIOUS LIFE OF AMERICA'S FIRST FOOD ICON")

RUSS MORASH: When Julia did her omelet on that first example of her cooking on television...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

MORASH: ...The phone began to ring. And the station actually got a pulse. What a sketch. What a take on French cooking. Boy, I think I'm going to buy her book when it comes out. It was all positive, and it gave the station management the idea that maybe a TV series could arise from this appearance.

I was summoned to the office. And they said, we'd like to try two or three programs featuring Julia Child cooking. We'll make three pilots.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: The new documentary, "Julia: The Delicious Life Of America's First Food Icon," directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, is in theaters now. Today we're going to listen to some of Terry's interview with Julia Child recorded in 1989. She told Terry about the food she grew up eating in Pasadena, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JULIA CHILD: I grew up in the teens and the '20s, when most people had - middle-class people had maids or had someone to help. And we had very sensible, New England-type food because my mother came from New England - you know, roasts and vegetables and fresh peas and mashed potatoes. But nobody discussed food a great deal because it just wasn't done. And there was no wine served at the table, at least not in my family who were very conservative. We always ate very well, but it wasn't talked about.

TERRY GROSS: Well, your family had a cook. Did your mother cook at all, and did you...

CHILD: No, she...

GROSS: ...Learn to cook at all?

CHILD: No, she really didn't cook at all. She knew how to make baking powder biscuits and Welsh rarebit. That's all she knew how to make. And I didn't do any cooking then at all.

GROSS: When you graduated from college, you went to New York with the hopes of becoming a novelist or of writing for a magazine.

CHILD: Or going...

GROSS: Why did you - yeah?

CHILD: Or writing for The New Yorker, at least getting into Time or Newsweek. Nobody wanted me for some strange reason. And then along came the war, and I got into the - I went down to Washington and eventually got into the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS.

GROSS: Did you want to be a spy?

CHILD: I did want to be a spy, and I thought I'd be a very good one because no one would think that someone as tall as I would possibly be a spy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHILD: But of course, I ended up doing office - menial office work. I was in the files the whole time. Actually, though, it was fascinating as an organization to be in, and at least I knew everything that was going on.

GROSS: Well, you were telling us how being in the OSS led you overseas. You lived for a while in China. I think you lived for a while in India.

CHILD: Yeah. It was Ceylon and China.

GROSS: And then after the war, you were telling us you went to Washington, then went back to Paris - went to Paris and lived there. This was in the late 1940s.

CHILD: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: So you had wonderful food in Paris, food...

CHILD: Oh, it was just marvelous. It was still the old classical cuisine, and it was just delicious. I've never had such good food again as we had then.

GROSS: Well, how did eating wonderful food lead you to want to start preparing wonderful food?

CHILD: I was very much impressed with the food. And I just, having started in cooking after we got married, I thought that I would go to the Cordon Bleu. They had kind of classes for what we call fluffies. Well, it did - at that same time, they were having some classes for the GIs on the Bill of Rights. And I decided after doing a little bit that I would really like to do much more serious delving into cuisine so that I was able to join the GIs. And they didn't object, luckily. And we started in at 7 in the morning and finished at around 11. And then I would rush home and prepare a fancy lunch for my husband, Paul. In those days, the American Embassy followed the two-hour lunch - French lunch hour, so he always came home for lunch. But in those days, two middle-class women were not going into cooking, either the French or the Americans. And the French, of course, all had maids. It was the way we had lived before the war in the USA.

GROSS: When you co-wrote "Mastering The Art Of French Cooking," did you see it as a way to introduce Americans to French cuisine?

CHILD: Yes. I was tremendously interested in French cuisine because it was - it's the only cuisine that has the real rules on how to cook. And I wanted - I guess I had started in quite late. I was about in my early 30s when I started cooking. And I found that the recipes in most - in all the books I had were really not adequate. They didn't tell you enough. And I, for one, I won't do anything unless I'm told why I'm doing it. So I felt that we needed fuller explanations so that if you followed one of those recipes, it should turn out exactly right. And that's why the recipes were very long. But they have full detail. My feeling is that once you know everything and have digested it, then it becomes part of you.

GROSS: When you moved back to the States and you wanted to continue French cooking, were there ingredients that you couldn't find in the States?

CHILD: No, the - well, there were some differences. I think the cream was not as thick, but that was easy enough to make your own what they called creme fraiche by adding a little buttermilk or yogurt to heavy cream and making it thick. And in those days, cream was very chic. Nowadays, people are afraid of it. But - the flour is different, but you could - because the French - general French flour is softer and more made for pastries. And you can perfectly well duplicate that by using part unbleached all-purpose flour with a little bit of plain bleached cake flour added to it, which softens the gluten content.

GROSS: You became nationally famous in the United States for your cooking show. Were your early shows live?

CHILD: No. Nothing was live with the early shows because we were very, very - very strict budget. It was really live on tape. And so once we started in, we didn't stop at all unless there was a terrible disaster. And we only had about two or three, I think.

GROSS: Tell me one of the terrible disasters.

CHILD: Well, one time I was taking - I was cooking - blanching some broccoli. And I - it was in a salad basket, which was lowered into a big kettle. And when I picked it up, my fork slipped, and it all fell on the floor. I didn't pick it up and use it, so we did...

(LAUGHTER)

CHILD: We did stop because it was a real mess. But every time we stopped, it would cost, I mean, several hundred dollars because it always took half an hour to get back again, and you would have to pay overtime. And another time there was a short circuit on my microphone. And every time I touched the stove, the microphone would go (vocalizing).

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHILD: And I'd clutch my breast (laughter). So we had to stop for that. But otherwise we just didn't stop at all, then people - it's funny. People would say, well, I saw you drop the chicken on the floor, which, of course, I never did. All I did was flip a potato pancake into the stove, then I put it back into the pan, and I said, well, if you're all alone in the kitchen, nobody will know.

GROSS: So were there often mistakes in the actual show that you would recover from, thinking that...

CHILD: Yes.

GROSS: ...Well, this kind of thing happens all the time?

CHILD: And I think some people would accuse me of doing things purposely. But anyone who's been in the kitchen knows that awful things happen all the time. And you just - if you're a cook, you have to make do with whatever happens. I mean, I was just cooking as one normally would at home, which I think people rather enjoyed because it was informal and it was the way most people cook at home anyway.

GROSS: I'm sure you must have seen the Dan Aykroyd "Saturday Night Live."

CHILD: Oh, yes. We have a tape of that.

GROSS: Do you?

CHILD: That's great fun.

GROSS: What he'd always do is when he was doing you is take a little nips of wine (laughter) until he got really giddy while he was cooking.

CHILD: And then people accused me of that, too. No, I would never. I mean, that's a - would be a very gauche thing to do in public, wouldn't it?

GROSS: I want to ask you what you think of nouvelle cuisine.

CHILD: Nouvelle cuisine is through, I think. But I think it has been very useful in that it released people from a straitjacket. Then we've gone into silly seasons and so forth. But one thing that was very useful was of paying attention to how the food looks on the plate, to make it really attractive. Then, I think, that gets exaggerated, so something looks like a Japanese flower garden and the food looks fingered, which is not attractive. I think food should look like food, but it should be very appetizingly arranged.

GROSS: When you say food looks fingered, what do you mean?

CHILD: That means as though you'd taken your thumb and sort of wet your thumb and put these little things all around the plate in the shape of petals and so forth.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHILD: And it's - I don't find that attractive because you know that they have been probably licking their fingers and putting it on the plate (laughter).

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

CHILD: Well, good to talk with you. Bye.

DAVIES: Julia Child spoke to Terry Gross in 1989. Child died in 2004. The new documentary "Julia: The Delicious Life of America's First Food Icon," directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, is in theaters now. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "Licorice Pizza," the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOKER ERVIN'S "GIT IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.