Before Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse, before Gordon Ramsay and Rachael Ray, before Lidia Bastianich and Anthony Bourdain, there was Julia Child.
Child made her TV cooking debut in 1962, in black and white, and by the time she'd finished making an omelet, audiences were hooked. TV cooking has never been the same.
Now, out in time for what would have been the late chef's 100th birthday on Aug. 15, Bob Spitz has written a soup-to-nuts biography of her life. Spitz takes readers from her childhood in Pasadena, Calif., to her days at Smith College and from her work for America's first intelligence agency during World War II to her introduction to serious cooking in France. While the book begins with her first television appearance, it backtracks to her youth, and readers don't even get to her enrollment in cooking classes at Paris' Le Cordon Bleu until more than a third of the way into the book. Early chapters can be a bit slow, since the topic readers inevitably want to read about is her cooking.
Still, Child's life and plucky attitude are quality ingredients. Add Spitz's storytelling skills and the result is a foolproof recipe for entertainment. Readers get tasty morsels on every page. Child loved Goldfish crackers and served them as hors d'oeuvres. She was paid $50 per episode for her first show, "The French Chef." At one point her mornings included 60 strokes on a rowing machine so that when she beat egg whites on television she wouldn't get out of breath. And on Thanksgiving, her home phone in Cambridge, Mass., would ring all day with people asking for help with their turkey dinners (her number was in the phone book).
Readers will swear that to write the book Spitz must have spent years as Child's sous chef, observing and writing down details, like the fact that when testing the perfect French bread recipe she used up 284 pounds of flour. Spitz did in fact follow Child for several weeks in 1992 while writing about her for a number of magazines. For his master work, however, he sifted through her archive of papers at Harvard and had the help of friends, relatives and chefs who knew her and agreed to interviews.
Spitz spent four years researching and writing the 500-plus-page tome. That's still shy of the 700-plus pages of Child's first cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," but what Spitz produces is also a deliciously satisfying read. As Child would say, "Bon appetit!"
"Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child" (Knopf), by Bob Spitz