Julia Child stepped in front of the WGBH-TV cameras a little after 9:30PM on Monday, Feb. 26, 1962. Her host for the show was P. Albert Duhamel, at barely past 40 already the star of Boston College’s English faculty and the book editor of the old Boston Herald. His weekly I’ve Been Reading was an erudite forum for the public network’s audience, which, though regional, was influential enough to have a national reach.
In these still early days of television, other hubs of power throughout the land, especially in Washington, D.C., and New York City, paid attention to what WGBH broadcast in Boston.
As it was, Duhamel usually culled I’ve Been Reading’s guests from his Rolodex of fellow academics, who, in turn, caught a bit of buzz for their books. The particular book to be featured Feb. 26, however, was different as were the authors and the story behind it.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking had begun as a “big jumble of recipes” crafted in the 1940s by Simone Beck, a Parisian friend of Julia’s, who, like Julia’s husband Paul, had helped expand the culinary horizons of the arriviste from California. Beck, her friend Louisette Bertholle, and Julia had even gone in on a successful English-language cooking school in Paris that charged the princely sum of 7,000 francs (or about $20 dollars) for three classes, but their collaboration really flowered when the trio turned to crafting Beck’s recipes into a ground-breaker of a guide to French cooking for Americans.
Child took the lead, working from 1952 onward to add not only some conversational spice that would make the recipes go down easier for an American audience but to tinker with the plans to make sure the recipes were correct. The task involved repeated trials and repeated errors, sometimes due simply to the differences in French and U.S. measurements, though often because of Beck’s glib approach to what appeared, to her French mind, obvious dishes. With the manuscript tightened, the three authors sent it off to publishers, only to see it come back repeatedly rejected; finally, eight years after Child entered the picture, Alfred A. Knopf, then a family-run independent publisher in New York, said yes.
The 732-page book was an almost instant hit, which helped explain its appearance on Duhamel’s WGBH show. Even before the cameras started rolling, there were signs that this particular I’ve Been Reading episode would be special, however, or at least different. The 49-year-old Child had phoned producer Russ Morash shortly before, requesting a particular piece of equipment.
“A hot plate, dearie,” Child replied, “so I can make an omelet.”
Morash had heard all sorts of requests during his nearly four years at WGBH. They were usually of the mundane sort: an orchestra needed an instrument replaced, someone had broken a beaker during a scientific experiment. A hot plate, and the on-air cooking that it implied, was totally novel to the 27-year-old out of Boston University. Still, he told Child he would see what he could do.
As it turned out, Child got her hot plate. She, with Paul in tow, also showed up with a giant whisk, an omelet pan and eggs. WGBH filmed in temporary studio space in Boston, the station’s Cambridge facilities just across the Charles River having burned down in October 1961. The Harris tweed-wearing Duhamel played his role as host unwittingly well, fading gradually into the psychological and physical background after effusively praising Child and her book in his introduction.
Then it was over to Child and her hot plate.
“I thought it would be nice if we made an omelet,” Child said directly into the camera. It was, according to one biographer, as if she’d said, “I thought it’d be nice to create nuclear fission.” Omelets were surely unknown to most Americans, an exotic French foodstuff like Cabernet Sauvignon; yet here was a very tall woman with an impossibly high-pitched voice, moving the culinary goalposts that much further on live TV. “They’re so delicious,” she continued, “and so easy to make.”
Child grabbed a small copper bowl and the giant whisk, cracking two eggs into the bowl with one hand and beating them into yellow pulp with the other. Child then lifted the omelet pan, explaining matter-of-factly that viewers were not likely to find one of their own, even in a cosmopolitan city like Boston. Still, they needed an omelet pan—that and butter, generous helpings of butter—to make the dish work.
Child was explaining how an omelet had to be “exciting” in the mouth when Duhamel interjected. “This is going to work on that little burner?”
“Oh, yes! And it’s going to be delicious, just you wait.” Child knew she was taking a risk here; the hotplate that NBC provided her and Beck for a similar feat on the Today Show barely reached the requisite temperature in time.
This time things went off without a hitch. Through a flurry of flourishes, the whisked eggs crackling in the sizzling butter, Child’s six-foot-three-frame moving up and down, side to side, in a strangely casual rhythm, her conversation with the camera rarely ceasing, she created an omelet. She proceeded to fork off a little bit for a clearly reluctant Duhamel; he ate it, his face lighting up, his mouth clearly excited.
“There, you see,” Child said, “just as I said: delicious.”
Morash saw the potential for what had just happened on an otherwise staid show on an otherwise predictable Monday evening in 1962 America. WGBH did, too: The network received 27 letters from viewers praising the show, an extraordinary number at the time. WGBH soon commissioned from Child three pilot episodes of a French-cooking show.
Taped in a single week in June 1962, with two cameras in a basement auditorium of the Boston Gas Company headquarters a few blocks south of Boston Common, the three pilots—The French Omelet, Coq au Vin, and Soufflés—aired the following month, drawing more praise, enough for WGBH to commit to twenty-six additional episodes, starting with one on beef bourguignonne and ending with Child crafting crepes suzette.
Crucially, and unlike cooking shows that had come before, they were broadcast in primetime, at 8PM, not during the day. By 1967, roughly one hundred public television stations across the U.S. were carrying The French Chef, and Julia Child was on the cover of Time magazine, the nation’s largest newsweekly.
Adapted from the upcoming book American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story.