Why We Celebrate Julia Child's 100th Birthday

Julia Child empowered Americans to embrace the kitchen.

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That the American diet has not been entirely overrun by fast food and microwaveable dinners is due, in at least some small part, to Julia Child.

Child, who would have celebrated her 100th birthday Wednesday, brought French cuisine—and perhaps more importantly, the courage to cook it—to the American table. "She was a force of change," explains Paula Johnson, a curator at National Museum of American History—which is hosting a series of events to celebrate Child's birthday.

"She inspired people to try new things, to get in the kitchen to try something new, and to share good food and the pleasures of the table."

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Born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, California, she worked for the Office of Strategic Services, through which she met her husband Paul Cushing Child while posted in what is now Sri Lanka. The two married in 1946 and established a home base in Washington, D.C,—a sunny, yellow Georgetown house—while Paul's job with State Department sent the couple to Paris, France.

There, Child learned the techniques of French cuisine, as depicted in the 2009 film Julie & Julia, and taught American women to cook from her Paris kitchen. Her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published in 1961, and she continued to write about cooking for various magazine and newspapers.

Ris Lacoste, the owner and head chef of Washington D.C.'s Ris, explains what made Julia's lessons so accessible to an American audience:

"As a student herself, she was able to teach Americans in the early '60s when TV dinners and fast food was taking center stage."

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Lacoste cooked dinner for Child for her 90th birthday at another D.C. restaurant, 1789, where she was executive chef at the time. "She brought a sense that, you can cook, you can make French food," which was once thought to be too elite and formal for American kitchens, says Lacoste. "She gave herself totally: great food, fearlessness, comfort, and she empowered us to be able to cook at home,"

After living in many different locations across Europe, Child and her husband purchased a home in Cambridge, Mass. in 1961. After a 1962 appearance on a book review television show, Child went on to host a variety of cooking television series, including The French Chef (many of them shot from her Cambridge kitchen) and published many more cookbooks. She remains a staple on kitchen bookshelves and television, even after passing away in 2004.

To celebrate her birthday, the American History Museum reopened her famed kitchen, one of its most popular exhibits until it was closed to be moved to a different wing of the museum.

"Throngs of people came rushing in to see Julia Child's kitchen," reports Johnson. "It was packed within five minutes of the museum opening."

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The kitchen will stay open for two weeks and then access will be restricted (though the kitchen will be partially viewable) as the museum prepares for a new exhibit, FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000, opening Nov. 10.

"Julia Child's kitchen will be the opening story of exhibit," says Johnson.

Johnson, with two other curators still working at the museum, helped move Child's kitchen from Cambridge to the Smithsonian museum in 2001. Lacoste was also involved with the move. "She was thrilled that her kitchen would inspire someone else," she says.

In addition to the numerous books and TV shows, Child encouraged Americans to take on the culinary arts through the American Institute of Food and Wine, which she founded in 1981, with winemakers Robert Mondavi, Richard Graff, and others.

"Julia and Robert really wanted to have cooking and the study of wine and food to be some something of an educational foundation. They wanted it be revered as law school or medical school," says Lacoste, who worked closely with Child on the board.

Robert Vanasse, who filmed a documentary of Lacoste cooking Child's birthday dinner, explains how her legacy is still relevant today.