By Jay Sedmak
SNPJ Publications Editor/Manager
If you did any Google-ing yesterday, you probably noticed, as I did, the Google doodle celebrating Julia Child’s 100th birthday. Unfortunately, Julia never lived long enough to actually see her centennial year (she died in August 2004), but I found the Google tribute interesting – interesting enough for me to click on the doodle for more information.
I remember watching Julia’s culinary show, The French Chef, on TV when I was a kid. She wasn’t quite Graham Kerr (aka “The Galloping Gourmet”), but that’s just my opinion from recollections made some 40 years ago. I knew Julia had published several widely-acclaimed cookbooks in the 1960s and ’70s, and just yesterday discovered that she’d published a dozen and a half books over a span of four decades, the last released posthumously in 2006. In short, I knew – or at least I figured – that she could cook.
I also knew that Julia Child was a spy at one point in her life. I learned that little secret a few years ago (I’m not certain exactly when it was), and ever since then I’ve had trouble picturing her as a Mata Hari, the femme fatale so famously portrayed by Greta Garbo on the big screen back in the 1930s. I just couldn’t see Julia Child seducing highly-classified secrets out of suave and sophisticated double agents, although in retrospect, and according to the old proverb, “the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
Needless to say, I learned something about Julia Child yesterday. Julia was indeed a spy, but not in the sense of espionage that I had mistakenly positioned her. She actually worked in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War, compiling classified information while still a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division and conducting top-secret research while working directly for General William J. Donovan, the head of OSS. She was educated (she earned her bachelor of arts degree in English, a degree we share), she was a decorated civilian military employee (receiving the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat), she was tall (a towering six-foot-two) and she could COOK – quite a catch for Mr. Child!
Speaking of Mr. Child, Julia met her husband, Paul Child, in Sri Lanka when they were working for the OSS. Paul, who is described as having a “sophisticated palate,” introduced his wife to fine cuisine. A few classes at the famous Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, followed by some private study alongside several master chefs, and within a decade or so Julia Child was cooking her way into the hearts of American television audiences. From secret service to dinner service... you just can’t fabricate that kind of tale; it’s one of those almost-too-unbelievable-to-be-true stories.
Julia Child knew the secret (both literally and figuratively), but more importantly, she knew when to keep a secret and when to share a secret. Closing each episode of The French Chef with a cheery “bon appétit!,” she further endeared herself to her television audience, which leads me to think that perhaps I wasn’t too far off base as I tried to envision Julia the Spy. After all, every femme fatale learns how to ensnare her intended prey through charm, seduction and mystery – and in Julia Child’s case, an entire menu’s worth of gourmet meals.