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August 18th, 2008
01:27 PM ET

Spying or Frying? Mastering the True Art of Julia Child

Alex Guarnaschelli
Executive Chef, Butter Restaurant

Julia Child a spy? She admitted freely that she worked overseas for the OSS, a forerunner to the CIA, and even met her husband while on assignment in China. Pondering this revelation, I stare at the iconic image on the back of Julia Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking in search of the answer.

This book was a staple in my mother’s kitchen while I was growing up and the image is burned in my brain. For me, the photo personifies the image of strong women, not unlike my own mother, who collaborated on documenting and making the cuisine of France accessible to Americans. Dare I say, I took my cue from them in deciding to enter the field of cooking myself!

But now, as an adult and professional chef, I find myself asking a different set of questions.

Looking on the back cover of Mastering, Julia stands with colleagues Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, two members of the “Cercle des Gourmettes”, over an array of pots. Their “maître” Chef Max Bugnard hovers in the background as the three women taste, contemplate and discuss the “final flavoring” of their cooking.

But is there something larger at work? Are they refining a batch of the famous shark repellent she was said to have concocted or putting the finishing touches on a batch of her beloved Onion Soup Gratinéed with Cheese (page 44)? Are they developing a new coating for military armor or swirling in the last bits of butter into the sauce for the “Caneton à l’Orange” (page 277)? Or perhaps the sauce for their “Sole à La Dieppoise” (page 214) simply needed some additional cream? Perhaps that delicious Sole dish, a true French classic, led her to the idea of squeezing fish to see if a soldier in a lifeboat could procure any potable water?

So what of Julia the spy? I glance at the her photograph again and marvel what an unlikely candidate, with her delicate but towering 6’ 2” frame, she makes for blending in with the crowd as an effective spy or as one of America’s culinary foremothers. I think Julia Child’s (mostly administrative in nature) spy work further informed her cooking.

For a chef, traveling is one of the most important aspects of developing a culinary repertoire, and Julia was no exception. I can see Julia traveling with the OSS on assignments and enriching her own knowledge of food and cuisine, tasting the various dishes and libations of the world. She claimed a meal of oysters and Sole Meunière represented, as she said in the New York Times, “an opening up of the soul and the spirit for me”.

She was also a cherished television personality, dropping chickens and making very “human” mistakes as she cooked, making it all the harder to envision her as a secret agent. “The French Chef”, the longest-airing program on public television, gave Americans permission to cook French food, fumble along the way and still have enough self-esteem leftover to enjoy (and devour) the results. A case in point: I’ve just gotten back from the green market where I bought the most beautiful eggplants and Operative Child’s “Eggplant Stuffed with Mushrooms” (page 502) is calling my name.


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soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. Heather,Ca,US

    I remember the day when I heard Julia Child was going to be at a store signing her latest book.Oh I wished I could have waited in line just to say thank you and which is better spying or cooking? She was quite a classy lady who lived quite a life.She served her country in a very distinguished way and then served the public such delicious recipes with that unique voice that only Julia Child had.Everything sounded so good.
    I remember Bill Cosby pretending to be her on his show.I never really cared what she did in her spying,I just thought what a wonderful and honorable way to serve and defend your country.Still miss her cooking show.Nothing showy nothing but her showing and teaching us how it's done in such a friendly way.

    August 18, 2008 at 8:05 pm |
  2. deborah, OH

    I always liked Julia Child's program, & her 'human way of cooking'. To think she might have a played a role like this is extraordinary–just a talented woman doing 'her bit' for the war effort. Wonder who else is on that list?????

    August 18, 2008 at 5:40 pm |
  3. MH

    She must have been some spy if she was as good at it as she was dressing a turkey.

    August 18, 2008 at 4:06 pm |
  4. Cindy

    I don't think Julia was a "real" spy if you want to call it that. I doubt very seriously that she was out doing any covert operations. She may have worked in the offices as a secretary or what not but I think this whole thing is being blown way out of proportion.

    Cindy...Ga.

    August 18, 2008 at 2:13 pm |
  5. Vilmarie

    This story on Julia Child is truly amazing. One never really knows who works in covert operations. Some look like Shrek, others like Mr. Magoo. This is all really humorous.

    August 18, 2008 at 1:58 pm |