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Our French chef Julia Child dies

Julia Child shows off the recently remodeled kitchen in her Montecito, Calif., home in 2002. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Julia Child shows off the recently remodeled kitchen in her Montecito, Calif., home in 2002. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
From wire reports

LOS ANGELES – Julia Child, whose chirping words of encouragement and unpretentious style brought French cuisine to American homes through her television series and books, died Friday. She was 91.

A 6-foot-2 American folk hero, “The French Chef” was known to her public as Julia. She showed a delight not only in preparing good food but in sharing it, and ended her landmark public television lessons at a set table with the wish, “Bon appetit.”

Child died at her home in an assisted-living center in Montecito, about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles, said her niece, Philadelphia Cousins.

Child, who died two days before her 92nd birthday, had been suffering from kidney failure, Cousins said.

“America has lost a true national treasure,” Nicholas Latimer, director of publicity for Child’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, said in a statement. “She will be missed terribly.”

Child started a revolution in the kitchen in 1961 when she published, with co-authors Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” With more than 1 million copies sold and a 40th anniversary edition published in 2001, it is still considered the definitive classical French cookbook in the English language.

She went on to blaze trails on public television, where her cooking shows have charmed and educated millions.

Child was a skillful – and sometimes messy – chef, beckoning everyone to have no fear and give exquisite cuisine a try.

“Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal,” she said in the introduction to her seventh book, “The Way to Cook.” “In spite of food fads, fitness programs, and health concerns, we must never lose sight of a beautifully conceived meal.”

Her gourmet philosophy also included drinking. In one TV program, chef and friend Jacques Pepin asked what kind of wine she preferred with picnics – red or white.

“I like beer,” Child said enthusiastically, pulling out a cold bottle and two glasses.

Pepin recalled a friendship that began in 1960.

“We’d go to the market, and she’d buy Wonder Bread,” he said. “She had no snobbism about food whatsoever. She loved iceberg lettuce.”

Like the rest of us, she sometimes dropped things or had trouble getting a cake out of its mold.

“She just kind of opened the doors … to the idea that cooking could be a pleasure and it wasn’t drudgery in the kitchen,” said Alice Waters, executive chef and owner of Chez Panisse, the celebrated Berkeley, Calif., restaurant. “It wasn’t just for fancy French chefs.”

By the late 1970s, in her A-line skirt and blouse, and an apron with a dish towel tucked into the waist, Child was an American icon, ripe for parody. In a classic “Saturday Night Live” skit, comedian Dan Aykroyd showed her blithely chattering about chicken giblets and livers despite chopping off her finger and drenching the kitchen in blood. Throughout the piece, Aykroyd trilled and warbled in the distinctive falsetto familiar to anyone who had ever watched her shows.

Delighted by the spoof, Child was the first to admit that cooking was often messy and its results imperfect. But that was part of the fun.

Along the way, Child introduced Americans to the tools of good cooking and to a bounty of unfamiliar foods, launching a march to kitchen supply stores and supermarkets for copper bowls and wire whisks, goose liver and leeks.

“She made mistakes in the kitchen. But by making them and fixing them, she made everyone realize that’s OK,” said Sara Moulton, a prep cook for Child before becoming executive chef of Gourmet magazine and a host on the cable Food Network. “She took away the fear of cooking.”

Pro-butter, pro-salt, pro-fat and pro-red meat in moderation, Child prided herself as the loyal opposition of “food terrorists,” believing their alarums about cholesterol, calories and contaminants would deprive the palate of joyful tastes.

Born in Pasadena, Calif., Child once said she was raised on so-so cooking by hired cooks.

She graduated from Smith College in 1934 with a history degree and aspirations to be a novelist or a writer for The New Yorker magazine. Instead, she ended up in the publicity department of a New York City furniture and rug chain.

When World War II began, she joined the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. She was sent off to do clerical chores in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where she met Paul Child, a career diplomat who later became a photographer and painter, on the porch of a tea planter’s bungalow in 1943.

They married in 1946 and two years later were sent to Paris.

Child enrolled in the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school, motivated at least in part by a desire to cook for her epicure husband.

“I’d been looking for my life’s work all along,” she said. “And when I got into cooking I found it. I was inspired by the tremendous seriousness with which they took it.”

In France, she also met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom she collaborated on “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The book was nine years in the making and became mandatory for anyone who took cooking seriously.

It was published in 1961 and was followed by “The French Chef Cookbook”; “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II,” with Beck; “From Julia Child’s Kitchen”; “Julia Child & Company”; “Julia Child & More Company”; and “The Way to Cook,” in October 1989.

She was 51 when she made her television debut as “The French Chef.” The series began in 1963 and continued for 206 episodes. Child won a Peabody award in 1965 and an Emmy in 1966.

There was no retaping to cover up goofs or dishes gone awry. Many viewers tuned in “to see just what rule of gastronomic or television decorum Julia might break tonight,” food historian Robert Clark once observed.

The cooking program went on hiatus while Child worked on the second volume of “Mastering,” then returned for another run from 1970 to 1973.

More than two decades after the last show was filmed, the series remained a hot property for PBS and cable. The Television Food Network broadcast Child marathons on Thanksgiving Day.

One of her last cookbooks reflected changing tastes and technologies of the 1980s. Called “The Way to Cook,” it encompassed more dishes thought of as American, endorsed the use of such tools as the food processor, and was more health conscious.

She was criticized over the years for favoring food that padded the hips while depleting the pocketbook. “Take Julia Child off the air,” one unhappy viewer complained years ago.

She never gave in to the critics whom she accused of fanning fear of food. Nor did she care for the products marketed to the fat-conscious that she called “fake food.”

Child helped found the American Institute of Wine and Food with vintner Robert Mondavi in 1981. She donated 2,500 books, papers and manuscripts – the largest collection of cookbooks in the country – to the library of gastronomic literature at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University and Radcliffe College.

Although bent with age and walking with a cane, she still had the stamina to tape a new show, with master chef Jacques Pepin, when she was 85, and went on the road to promote it and the accompanying book. By then, Paul Child was no longer by her side. He died in 1994 at 92. The couple never had children.

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