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Bon Appetit! Celebrating Julia Child’s 100th Birthday

August 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
On what would have been Julia Child's 100th birthday, the country celebrates the fun-loving pioneer who brought traditional French cooking techniques to the kitchens of American families. Jeffrey Brown talks about Child's passion for food and life with her great nephew Alex Prud'homme, who co-wrote her book, "My Life in France."
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the continuing influence of Julia Child on cooking and American tastes.

Today would have been the famous French chef’s 100th birthday. The tributes have already begun for one of the original pioneers in the PBS family.

We have our own look. And Jeffrey Brown is our guide.

JULIA CHILD: The chicken sisters, Ms. Boiler, Ms. Fryer.

JEFFREY BROWN: A little confidence, Julia Child taught several generations of Americans, is all you need to cook French cuisine — oh, and a lot of butter.

JULIA CHILD: If you do that, then the butter won’t burn.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, it wasn’t until her 30s that Child even began cooking seriously. She was born in Pasadena in 1912, and during World War II, worked for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA.

Then, in 1949, while her husband was stationed in Paris as a Foreign Service officer, she enrolled at the famed Cordon Bleu School of Cooking. In 1961, she published the first of 18 books and the one that made her a national name. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” not only launched Child as an author. It led to her first TV show, which debuted nationally on public television in 1963.

JULIA CHILD: Welcome to “The French Chef.” I’m Julia Child.

JEFFREY BROWN: In short order, she became a smash hit. There was no one else quite like her.

JULIA CHILD: You just have to have the courage of your convictions, particularly if it’s sort of a loose mass like this. Well, that didn’t go very well, but you can always pick it up. And if you are alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?

JEFFREY BROWN: She was famous enough to be parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”

DAN AYKROYD, actor: I’m going to make a holiday feast or les fetes d’holiday.

JEFFREY BROWN: And after Child’s death in 2004, Meryl Streep introduced her to a younger generation in the film “Julie and Julia.”

MERYL STREEP, actress: You should have seen the way those men looked at me. And then they discovered I was fearless.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, marking Child’s 100th birthday, PBS Digital Studios has released a musical remix of her years on the air.

JULIA CHILD: You can’t define these in a recipe. You can only know them by knowing how the food should taste.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, today, the National Museum of American History celebrated Julia Child, unveiling a new showing of her TV kitchen.

And some thoughts on Julia Child’s impact all these years later. It comes from her great nephew, Alex Prud’Homme. He co-wrote with Child the book “My Life in France,” which, among other things, documents her early years, her passion for French cooking, and her struggle early on to get published.

Alex, welcome.

ALEX PRUD’HOMME, Co-Author, “My Life in France”: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to start with those years in France, because — that you and she wrote about, because that’s really where she discovered herself, right?

ALEX PRUD’HOMME: It’s true.

Before Paul took her to France in 1948, Julia hadn’t traveled much at all. She’d been to Mexico. And although she had studied French her whole academic career, she said to me that she could never really speak French until she arrived November 3, 1948.

Paul was in the diplomatic service. He brought her here — brought over to France. And they stepped off the boat and drove to Paris. And along the way, they stopped in Rouen, the famous medieval town, and they had lunch. And her first French meal was a Sole meunière. And she described it to me as an opening of the soul.

It’s where she really discovered her true passion. And it was the meal that changed her life and arguably American cooking.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you knew her. This exuberance we see, the style, the way of talking, of describing things, that was her for real?

ALEX PRUD’HOMME: Well, the Julia you saw on television was the real Julia that I knew as a flesh-and-blood person.

I think, on television, it gets amped up a little bit. You know, she could sometimes get wild and crazy with her blowtorches and her giant knives and having fun with umbrellas on TV. She wasn’t like that at home, but she was really fun, really smart, inquisitive, somewhat mischievous and a very hard worker.

And so the Julia — the essence of the Julia that you saw on television was the real Julia.

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t know if you want to call it a philosophy, but this cooking as a social endeavor, cooking as something you talk to people about on the television and that you sort of do for people, that was — that was real?

ALEX PRUD’HOMME: Yes. That was real.

I mean, Julia was a great communicator. She was a natural at this new medium at the time, television. And, you know, she had spent years working in obscurity very hard on preparing her technique and learning about food. And then, when it came time for her to go on television and talk about it to the American public, she made it look easy.

And one of the things that she always said was, you know, it really is easy. Don’t get disturbed by these long recipes. It’s quite easy. And people followed her tune and, in fact, were really inspired by her to try things that they never would have otherwise.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when she became such a celebrity, she clearly was aware of it. Did it change any — change her, change anything?

ALEX PRUD’HOMME: Not a bit.

You know, Julia enjoyed the trappings of celebrity-hood, but she really thought of herself as a teacher and as a student and was in a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and experience. And so the celebrity thing was fun for her because she was a bit of a ham and she enjoyed being on television and having fun with it, and — but really her message was quite serious, which is that we ought to enjoy our food, we ought to take time and care and prepare it correctly, and we ought to have fun doing it and make it a communal event.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re saying she thought of herself first and foremost as a teacher, not as a cook or chef, not as a television personality?

ALEX PRUD’HOMME: Well, a teacher of cookery, as she put it.

(LAUGHTER)

ALEX PRUD’HOMME: Yes, yes, and as a student. She just loved to learn. And so I think this celebrity thing was a nice side benefit for her.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were telling — we were talking earlier before this started that she wasn’t a highfalutin eater herself. She was an eater, but she would eat the crackers and anything.

ALEX PRUD’HOMME: Well, one of her favorite hors d’oeuvre was the little orange goldfish that…

JEFFREY BROWN: Goldfish.

(LAUGHTER)

ALEX PRUD’HOMME: Yes. No, and she liked a good hamburger and a good french fry. But she also knew her sauces and loved very elaborate French meals and fine wines.

So she was very democratic in her tastes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you see her influence today?

ALEX PRUD’HOMME: Oh, you see it everywhere, of course.

She wasn’t the first chef on television, but she was the one who really brought, I think, cooking on television to a large audience. And you look at what has happened now, and there’s — it’s just exploded. It’s amazing.

But aside from that, there’s a seriousness about food in this country that I think she helped to inspire and to spur onward. And there is a real interest in cookbooks as a genre. And her influence extends in many ways. One of the things that I always like to point out is that she had a sort of life philosophy that she applied to cooking, but that one can apply to any aspect of life.

It was a very optimistic view of the world, very positive. She would always say, work hard, take risks. If you make a mistake, don’t apologize, and, above all, have fun. And, you know, she would sum it up by saying, bon appetit.

And I think that that was something that is part of her legacy. It’s this very optimistic, can-do, risk-taking, fun-loving approach to life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And no doubt why we’re still here talking about her.

ALEX PRUD’HOMME: Exactly. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alex Prud’Homme, thanks very much.

ALEX PRUD’HOMME: Merci.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s fun.

The celebration of Julia Child’s 100th birthday continues on our Web site. Watch the Julia Child remix made by PBS. Take a quiz about the French chef. Plus, find recipes, full episodes and clips from her programs and much more.