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Happy Birthday, Julia Child

American television chef Julia Child shows a salade

American television chef Julia Child shows a salade nicoise she prepared in the kitchen of her vacation home in Grasse, southern France. Credit: AP, 1978

Julia Child, who died in 2004, would have been 100 today. Restaurant chefs and amateur cooks alike owe a debt of thanks to the woman who, along with James Beard, set the United States on a course of culinary excellence.

In 1961, when Child published her landmark cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” most Americans didn't know that you could make mayonnaise from scratch; you couldn’t buy a shallot or olive oil at the supermarket. Child acknowledged the country’s culinary shortcomings, but seemed to regard them as easily fixed. She never seemed to doubt that with a little practice, both individual cooks and the national dining scene could improve. (A new biography of Child has just been published; read the Newsday review here.)

Child’s first success was in book publishing, but her greatest influence was on television. It hadn’t really occurred to anyone before “The French Chef” debuted in 1963 on WBGH in Boston that a lot of people would want to watch someone cook on TV. For the next few decades, Child always seemed to have a series on PBS, and as she got older and less able to wield the tongs, she presided over cooking shows in which someone else did most of the cooking such as  “In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs” and, with her good friend Jacques Pepin, “Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home.”

Where television is concerned, I’m not sure that Child didn’t create a monster. In 2012, TV has become the dominant force in cooking instruction. The Food Network (and its sister network Cooking Channel) offer round-the-clock culinary programming. Non-food networks feature dozens of culinary shows; each season bringing ever more inane ones. Cookbook authors who aren’t on television have a tough time getting their books published while television stars put their names on books that have been authored by ghost writers.

Child herself, despite her small-screen success, was a gifted writer. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” remains an absolute delight to read — even if you don't intend to cook from it. When I was a child, I spent countless hours reading the little paperback tie-in volume that had been derived from “The French Chef.” That and Peg Bracken’s “I Hate to Cook Book” first put it into my head that I might like to write about food.

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