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Until she met her future husband, Julia Child had never given much thought to food. On her own she made do with frozen food. (Jim Scherer)

Julia Child's Recipe for a Thoroughly Modern Marriage

Food writer Ruth Reichl looks at the impact of the famous chef's partnership with her husband Paul

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An admitted knife-freak, Julia had dozens, most of them well used. But the one here, which she called her “fright knife,” was mainly a prop. “I love great big things,” she always said, and she certainly understood how hilarious that big knife looked when she brandished it on television. “Doing television,” she said, “you want amusing things, something fun and unusual. I think also on the television you want to do things loud; people love the whamming noises.”

It was this instinct that got Julia on the air in the first place. Invited to appear on a book review show called “I’ve Been Reading,” she showed up at the WGBH studios with a hot plate, some eggs and a giant whisk, and whipped up an omelet for the startled host. The audience begged for more—and got it; over the next three years the station produced almost 200 shows and turned Julia Child into a national icon.

Working nearly until her death at almost 92, Julia went on to produce a stunning number of books and television shows. She is largely responsible for the fact that food is now part of American popular culture, and although she passed away in 2004, her influence keeps growing. A whole new generation fell in love when Meryl Streep played her in the movies.

Part of Julia’s appeal was that she was so down-to-earth. Although she had a battery of heavy copper pots (purchased at Paris’ legendary Dehillerin), Julia preferred a little enamel saucepan that she used for 50 years. I once asked her about her favorite frying pan, and she pulled out an ordinary no-stick aluminum pan. “You get it at the hardware store,” she said. “It’s perfect for omelets. I could not live without that.”

When she said that she was sitting at her handsome Norwegian table in the center of the kitchen. Julia usually kept it covered with a yellowish orange and white-striped Marimekko cloth, and on top of that was a sheet of plastic; it made it easier to clean. Although the house also had what she called a “beautiful, big dining room,” it was the kitchen where Julia most often entertained you. And if you were very lucky, you’d look underneath the table to find a hidden message.

One mischievous morning Paul, an incurable lover of bananas, peeled off a couple of stickers and left them, the sly signature of a man who had no need to make a public mark.

Paul Child was 60 years old when he retired to Cambridge. He could, according to his besotted wife, “do just about anything, including making a French-type omelet. Carpenter, cabinet-builder, intellectual, wine-bibber, wrestler. A most interesting man and a lovely husband.” Up to this point in their union, his career had dominated their lives as Julia followed him from one State Department posting to the next. His intention, on coming home, was to retire into the world of art and do the work he loved best.

But after the success of Julia’s book, the two reversed roles and he threw himself into her life with the same enthusiasm with which she had shared his. In a letter to his brother he wrote, “How fortunate we are at this moment in our lives! Each doing what he most wants, in a marvelously adapted place, close to each other, superbly fed and housed, with excellent health....”

That attitude was, for its time, truly remarkable. Mastering was published just a couple of years before The Feminine Mystique. Women all over America were feeling oppressed—and with good reason. I cannot count the women of my mother’s generation who paid heavily for their success. Their husbands resented it; their children did too. But Paul Child was a supremely confident man. “Whatever it is, I will do it,” he told Julia, becoming her manager, photographer, recipe-tester and taster, proofreader, illustrator. When she went on the road to promote her books, he went along. Few men of Paul Child’s generation would have been able to enjoy their wife’s success as he did.

And so when I look at this kitchen, I see more than just the practical simplicity that immediately meets your eye. And I see more than the place that welcomed so many Americans into the joys of cooking. When I look at this kitchen I see the legacy of a remarkable couple who were not only creating a food revolution, but also redefining what a modern marriage might be.

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