FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000

A Passion for Food

Julia Child experienced foreign and unfamiliar cuisines for the first time during World War II. Working for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA), she traveled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and China. With her OSS colleagues, including her future husband, Paul Cushing Child, Julia went out to eat in China as often as she could and discovered that Paul’s interest in food was becoming an interest of hers as well.

After the war, in 1946, Julia and Paul married. Paul’s work for the United States Information Service took them to Paris in 1948, and Julia found, “As soon as we got over there and I tasted that food I just couldn’t get over it.” 

In Paris, Paul encouraged her to find something to do, and suggested she go to the elite Cordon Bleu cooking school. Because of her war service, she was eligible for U.S. government–funded training, and, along with several American GIs, she entered the professional course. The training she received there, with its emphasis on precise, hands-on technical knowledge and demonstrations by chefs, convinced her that she had found her life’s work.

Signaling mirror

Julia kept this signaling mirror in her kitchen junk drawer as a reminder of her wartime service in the OSS. Gift of Julia Child.

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Julia in China with her OSS colleagues, including Paul Child, far right

Julia in China with her OSS colleagues, including Paul Child, far right

Courtesy of Sam Cousins and Phila Cousins

Julia Child with master chef Max Bugnard at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, around 1950

Julia Child with master chef Max Bugnard at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, around 1950

She was a rarity, the only woman in the professional class. Photograph by Paul Child. Courtesy of Julia Child Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Diploma, 1951

Julia Child completed her course at the Cordon Bleu in 1950, but the head of the school, Madame Brassart, delayed the exam, standing in the way of Julia receiving her diploma.  After letters and testimonies from chef Max Bugnard, Mme. Brassart relented and, finally, a year later, Julia Child received this signed diploma. Gift of Julia Child.

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Legion D’Honneur Medal, 2000

Julia Child was awarded the Legion D’Honneur, France’s highest honor, for introducing Americans to French cuisine and cookery through her books and television shows. This recognition would have surely vexed Mme. Brassart, the head of the Cordon Bleu cooking school, who had tried to deny Julia her diploma. Gift of the Cousins and McWilliams families.

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