Warming Up Julia Child: The Remarkable Figures Who Shaped a Legend takes a refreshing approach to the woman who, dish by dish, became one of the most esteemed and industry-shaping home cooks in the American culinary canon. Focusing on the collaborators in Julia Child’s life, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz ’63 delivers a welcome expansion of the beloved cookbook author and television chef’s legacy.
Horowitz’s work is well timed. Thirteen years after Julie & Julia (written and directed by Nora Ephron ’62) brought a modern vision of Child to our screens, we find ourselves in the midst of another Child revival. HBO Max’s Julia portrays Child as she finds her footing with The French Chef on Boston’s WGBH in the 1960s, and the Food Network’s The Julia Child Challenge brings home cooks head-to-head over French omelets and coq au vin in a studio replica of Child’s famous blue-green kitchen. What Horowitz brings to this upswing is thorough research that portrays Child as more than a lone woman who simply fell into success—she was someone who was nurtured by a network of capable supporters, and she nurtured them right back.
Julia Child fans are likely already familiar with her husband, Paul Cushing Child. A diplomat, Paul brought her to Paris, where she fell in love with the food that formed the basis for her Mastering the Art of French Cooking; his essential role in Julia’s life is a through line of Horowitz’s work. That partnership wasn’t the only influential one in Child’s life, and Horowitz sets the scope on five others: Simone “Simca” Beck, who shared generations’ worth of knowledge of French cuisine and co-wrote Mastering with her; editor Avis DeVoto, who opened the door into publishing; William Koshland, who added her cookbook to the list at publisher Alfred A. Knopf; Judith Jones, who edited her work at Knopf; and public television producer Ruth Lockwood, who supported Child’s career at WGBH.
By parsing letters and appointment-book notes, Horowitz gives us a sense of not only how each person perceived and interacted with Child, but also who each person was, in their own words. “The Wifelet has been sparkling w/ pride all afternoon,” her husband wrote after Child earned a compliment from chef Claude Thillmont for the birthday cake she’d made for Paul. From Avis DeVoto’s early correspondence with her, we discover a quick-witted woman with stylish prose—an obvious fit for Child’s clever humor. Beyond each person’s contributions to her career, Horowitz portrays these friends as interesting and highly accomplished individuals in their own right, who found a good match in Julia Child.
As Child recirculates in both biographical and fictionalized depictions, it’s fair to ask—as cultural critics are doing more and more—whether her single story needs the spotlight yet again, especially if its prominence in media coincides with continued exclusion of other industry-shakers in American cuisine. Horowitz, for her part, makes a compelling case that Child’s story deserves retelling, if we cast our gaze farther afield. Her story was always also the story of the people who meticulously worked with her, Horowitz asserts, and together they forever changed how we cook, share, and enjoy food in the United States. The agency and contributions of those collaborators deserve the limelight, as well.
Makalintal is a New York City-based food and culture writer, currently on staff at Eater.