From Spy to Spatula to the Small Screen
When I was in third grade, I had to choose a famous role model to research and present to my class. Naturally, I chose Julia Child – not because I was an aspiring chef or because I wanted an excuse to buy a red wig – but because I left the theater after seeing “Julie & Julia” (2009) absolutely fascinated by her legacy; both inside the kitchen, and beyond its walls. A female public figure with a personality as strong as hers was rare during the 1950s, and her role as a volunteer spy during World War II taught me that no one is just one thing. Even though history often highlights people solely for what they were most famous for, it’s important to look beyond that and explore their multiplicity of talents and contributions to society.
I might not have known what feminism was at the time; however, my obsession with Julia Child was definitely influenced by her identity as a woman, and her passions for traditionally male interests: rich food and the military. On and off the small screen she was passionate, poised, and outspoken. Her mile-wide smile was as infectious to the world as were her meals and treats. As a shy third grader only beginning to develop my sense of self, I aspired to reach her level of self-confidence and comfort in speaking to large audiences about things she cared about.
During Child’s time, American women were (and still are) often discouraged from making the indulgent and complex recipes that Child is most-known for. At the time Child’s cooking show first launched in 1963, women were expected to cook TV dinners for their families and maintain slim figures to adhere to societal beauty standards. Child was the first woman to have her own television show; on it she introduced French cooking to American women as an art form to be learned, mastered, and enjoyed. Child not only expanded the horizons for female American chefs, but she also shattered a ceiling in the entertainment business. In more ways than one, Child broke the mold of what the women of her time were expected to both cook and look like.
She preached, “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” Having her as a role model encouraged me to indulge in food as an art form, rather than having an insecure and unhealthy relationship with food, which is sadly common for many women and girls. She also taught me that it’s not only okay to fail, but that failure is important in order to succeed; after all, before achieving wide success, she failed her first exam at the prestigious culinary school Le Cordon Bleu. After passing the exam on her second attempt, she later became the first woman to be inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Hall of Fame.
Child did clerical work for the Office of Strategic Services, a World War II-era spy agency, during the summer of 1942, and later worked directly for OSS Director William Donovan. When Child interviewed for a job at the agency, her interviewer described her like this: "good impression, pleasant, alert, capable, very tall.” She applied her diligent work-ethic to a completely foreign field of work that was comprised of mostly men. Child’s diverse resume teaches me not only that I can excel at more than one passion, but that no matter what career path I choose, it is imperative that I also work towards social justice.
At age ten I could spot a truffle cheese from a mile away, and had developed a rather sophisticated palette, thanks to my mom’s love for cooking, and to role models like Julia Child. Though that part of me will always be integral to my old soul, a lot has changed about me since I dressed up as Julia Child for my third grade class. Eight years after my biography presentation, I have grown into a young woman, who, like Child, has strong passions and specific goals in mind. I’m much more confident in myself and in my ability to speak up about issues and topics that matter to me, and to pursue a wide range of passions and projects. Multifaceted identities are everywhere – even in the kitchen – and thanks to Julia Child’s legacy, I’m not afraid to break the mold (pun intended!).
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.