Today, we’re celebrating the anniversary of Julia Child‘s birthday. Julia brought French cuisine to American households with the debut of her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her hallmark public television programs. With her unmistakable shrill but warm voice, she welcomed us into her kitchen. She taught us recipes that looked really hard to make with enthusiasm and engaging conversation. She made cooking French food both fun and approachable. She understood that mistakes were part of the process (including dropping the lamb!) , and wanted her pupils – millions of home cooks – to improve from their kitchen nightmares. She was fearless, passionate and eager to teach, which made her the ultimate role model inside and outside of the kitchen. In honor of her birthday, here are 12 facts about one of our country’s first cooking icons and public television superstar, Julia Child. Bon Appetit!
1. Her childhood nicknames were Juke, Juju and Jukies.
2. Julia Child was a basketball player.
At 6 feet, 2 inches, Julia was hoping she’d stand out on the court while playing for Smith College’s Basketball Team. Since she was much taller than her teammates, her school decided to change a rule of the game. No more “jump ball.” In her authorized biography, “Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child,” she admitted that she was “not good at the rest of the game.”
After being fired from her job as an advertising manager at a furniture store, Julia applied for a position with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. First, she was hired to do typing and research. However, she quickly rose the ranks and was promoted to work under OSS Director William Donovan. Later, while working for the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section, she helped develop shark repellent. During her last two years, she served as Chief of the OSS Registry in Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka, and Kunming, China, where she handled highly top secret papers about the invasion of the Malay Peninsula.
Growing up, most of Julia’s meals came from her family’s freezers or from a can. While working in China, she found the American food “terrible” and the Chinese food “wonderful” and tried to eat the local cuisine often. She said it was then that she became interested in food.
5. She was a late bloomer for her time.
Julia didn’t marry her husband Paul until she was 34 years old and she didn’t discover her passion for French cuisine until she was 36 years old. They met while both working for the OSS. Paul was an artist, a poet and a “foodie.” He took her to the oldest restaurant in France, La Couronne restaurant. The experience sparked her lifelong love affair with French food.
6. Her first television appearance was on her local public television station, WGBH, on a show called I’ve Been Reading.
Twenty-seven viewers wrote to the station requesting to see more of Julia. WGBH agreed. By the end of 1965, her show, The French Chef, was carried by 96 PBS stations. The French Chef ran from February 11, 1963 to 1973, and it was one of America’s first cooking shows.
According to Julia, “With enough butter, anything is good.”
9. She was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award that recognizes a diverse group of Americans from athletes to celebrity chefs.
On July 23, 2003, President George W. Bush presented Julia Child with the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom for teaching Americans how to cook and enriching American culture. In his remarks, he joked that Julia already held the highest distinction of the French Government because she had received The Legion of Honour for promoting American appreciation and the techniques of French Cooking.
She died two days before her 92nd birthday. Her last meal was homemade French onion soup.