It’s all coming Julia Child appears recently. In January, I spoke with co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen about their documentary “Julia,” which at the time had just been shortlisted for an Oscar. Earlier this month, the Food Network and HBO launched a Julia Child-themed series. In these projects, and in American culture in general, Julia Child is the undisputed star.
But in her new book, “Warming Up Julia Child: The Remarkable Figures Who Shaped a Legend,” Pulitzer Prize finalist Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz opens the curtain on an uncharted part of Julia Child’s life – the formidable team of six with which she collaborated to shape her legendary career.
Related: Julia and Paul Child’s wedding was ‘a true feminist love story’, say ‘Julia’ directors doc
Horowitz spoke with Salon about her approach to researching this book, Julia Child’s unexpected disdain for (certain types of) television, and how fate led her to write a previously underexplored story about pop culture’s favorite chef.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Ashlie Stevens: I was really inspired by the lens through which you wrote about Julia Child’s life in this book — putting the spotlight on six of her collaborators. What prompted you to approach it this way?
Helen Horowitz: The book has a curious beginning. I mean, I think that’s true for many books and many authors. I started wanting to pay homage to my own editor of three books at Knopf, Jane Garrett, who had just retired, so I was going to write a book about editors.
I thought, “How do you do that?” And I had no idea. So I went to the Schlesinger Library, which is very close to my home in Cambridge. I looked up a publisher I had heard of, Judith Jones. At that point, the acting director invited me to lunch…and she said, “Oh, I know you’re watching Judith Jones, but you absolutely have to watch the Paul Child papers.
So, I went back after lunch and called a box and started reading them. Paul offered such rich commentary on the daily life he and Julia lived. He wrote frequently about those with whom Julia worked and socialized. Well, it took me a while to switch gears – probably several weeks – but I was familiar with some of Julia Child’s literature, especially the works of Laura Shapiro and the letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, edited by Joan Reardon.
But I was beginning to see something else in Paul’s letters and that’s what caught my attention: the important relationship that Julia was also establishing with others. It took me in a new direction with the book and put Julia Child at the center.
What I came to feel was that Julia clearly could have done it on her own, but at the heart of the success she had were six people. I think my book appropriately changes our view of her creativity without diminishing all that she has achieved. I mean, she is who she is – and one of her great strengths was her ability to be friends.
AS: One part of the book that really enchanted me is that you tell how Avis and Julia developed a kind of transatlantic partnership where they sent articles back and forth. Julia also relied on Avis for commentary on the American cookbook and culinary market; what did Julia discover through this process?
HH: Well, one concern of Julia was that everything had to be done quickly. The focus was on convenience and speed and she really wanted to stop women from using canned vegetables and all the conveniences advertised. Avis, as a wonderful cook herself, believed in it. She spent much of her days at the stove and in the oven.
Avid, however, introduced Julia to new products like the blender, for example. She was also aware of the availability of goods in the markets and the spices you could get. One thing she constantly pointed out was that many women did not have servants. Therefore, the result was that you had to create recipes for them that they could keep in the oven. Julia found ways to think about it and it was very important in the development of the cookbook.
AS: Tell me a bit about the challenges of finding William A. Koshland, who was in charge of administration at Knopf.
HH: Well, I think the main thing about Koshland was that he didn’t really want to be known. He was unofficial director of the publishing house Knopf. Of course, Alfred and Blanche Knopf were the bosses and they made all the decisions about which books were to be published, ultimately. But how do you kind of work around them without them knowing?
Related: Flashcards, small budgets and butter: how “The French Chef” was born
To put it mildly, he was just very, very smart and he didn’t want to be known at all. That said, I happen to be very lucky in my friendships. [The Stintons and Koshland families were connected as relatives] and through JB Jackson, the subject of an earlier book, I had met a Mrs. Stinton who had a son named Johnson. He was a cousin of Koshland, so I called him and said, “What do you know about your cousin, William Koshland?” And he said, “Well, why do you want to know?”
“Let’s put it this way. I don’t know if I was destined. But I was certainly lucky to have the contacts that I had, and, and who were very generous in offering the information. “
I told him that he was very important in the life of Julia Child and that I was working on a book about it… I learned [Bill] was a gay man who had a partner who was the house cook, and that he was very into food and his partner was an excellent cook. It led me to a kind of deeper understanding of him. Then I was able to find out more about Koshland because he went to Exeter and he went to Harvard and I was able to find him in the archives.
You know, it was just luck on my part. It happened again with Ruth Lockwood. Turns out I knew his daughter, so it was good luck on my part again.
AS: It sounds like you were destined to write this book.
HH: Let’s put it this way. I don’t know if I was destined. But I was certainly lucky to have the contacts that I had, and, and who were very generous in offering information, and in some cases documents. So that was wonderful.
AS: One of the things that I also found particularly interesting about this book is that it clearly shows that Julia Child had a conflicted relationship with the idea of television. When she told Avis she finally bought one, she said there were programs out there that she wouldn’t submit a dog to watch. In your research, what do you think ultimately drove her to be herself on TV?
HH: Educational television. She and Paul discovered WGBH and its existence. It was a time when public television was just beginning to take off.
By the time she became interested in public television, there was beginning to be a network of East Coast stations. Of course, over the years it grew and grew and grew until what we have today. And she and Paul have come to really appreciate it and the good news. They had concerts and series that were important.
As I explain in my book, there was a person she and Paul knew from their time in Paris when Paul was at the Embassy named Béatrice Braude. She was working at WGBH at the time and she really helped her put together a pretty formal proposal to WGBH. I mean, I watched the first two episodes of “Julia” on TV and it’s a very different story that’s presented. I don’t want to criticize it because I enjoyed it a lot, but nonetheless as a story it’s not accurate. There was very careful preparation and [Julia] had initiates helping him at the station.
AS: So, as you mention, it’s all sort of “coming soon Julia” recently. There’s the new HBO series about her life, a documentary that premiered a few months ago, and a new Food Network program centered around her recipes. Why do you think this is and what do you think is the key to Julia’s lasting appeal?
HH: One thing is that all of Julia’s shows are available on YouTube and you can keep watching them. I mostly watched them in preparation for the book. But right now we have a relatively new way of being able to see things from the past that weren’t available before.
Also, over the past couple of years with COVID, there has been a lot of interest in home arts like gardening, decorating – anything that has kept people active and enjoying life during COVID. I think cooking is one of those things. The truth is that when you turn to “The French Chef”, it’s a lot of fun.
And the truth is that recipes work, right? They have been tested and they work. So what can I say? I mean, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is a valuable book today.
If you want to know more about Horowitz’s work, you can check out an excerpt from “Warming Up Julia Child” hereor buy a copy of the book here.
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