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Master chef

Julia Child: India and beyond


Julia Child's experience of India was brief, but explosive. In April 1944, the future cookbook writer and TV cooking show star stepped off the SS Mariposa, a cruise liner turned troop carrier, which had just docked in Bombay. She must have attracted quite a bit of attention as a 6'2" American women, with an exuberant personality to match.

She was Julia McWilliams then. Her father was a conservative California businessman with negative views about anyone not American and Republican, but his daughter had a mind of her own. She tried to break away from her upper-class background, going to New York to work and have boyfriends her father would loathe, but nothing led anywhere. When her mother died, she resigned herself, at almost 30, to go back to keep house for her father.

But as with so many such women, World War II came to her rescue. Suddenly there were jobs for women, some specifically for upper-class ones, who were felt not to pose a security risk. Julia got a job in the Office of Strategic Services, which would later become the CIA, and asked to be posted to India. "Here was a chance to travel to someplace completely improbably, someplace way, way off the map of her life so far, " writes Laura Shapiro in her elegant short biography, Julia Child: a Life

In an interview Julia later recalled how, "right after arriving in Bombay we were startled by the sounds of a great explosion. . . A ship in the harbour had caught fire and gotten loose from its moorings. The British, who ran everything in those days, were accustomed to take two-hour lunches. So the unattended ship drifted into an ammunition ship, which then blew up. " Julia had arrived just before the Bombay Docks Explosion of April 14, 1944 when the freighter SS Fort Stikine caught fire and exploded with such violence that 11 ships were sunk, 800 people killed and large parts of the docks were destroyed.

But after that memorable reception, she didn't stay. Her post was to be the Allies' South East Asia Command in Ceylon, and it was there that she met her fellow OSS staffer Paul Child, a worldly man who found himself unexpectedly drawn to this gangling, gregarious creature. Julia had a gift for creating both a constant party around her, and also chaos with undiplomatic remarks. In a letter to his brother Paul wrote: "She says things like this, 'I don't see why the Indians don't just throw out the British, 'and 'I can't understand what they see in that horrid little old Gandhi. '"

Julia Child's career as a 'spy' has become the focus of much fascination, even generating a book, Jennet Connant's A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS. But nowhere in all the memories is there any sign of her trying local food in India or Ceylon. Later, when Julia and Paul were posted to China, where they cemented their affair, they would try Chinese food with appreciation, but the subcontinent was a culinary blank, perhaps because their period combined shortages (most food was going to the warfront ) with the dreariest tail end of Raj food.

Ads in The Times of India from that era feature food manufacturers apologising for lack of stock or rising prices. Only canned products were easily available, like Dalda Vanaspati. The other widely available product was alcohol, of every kind, no doubt to buck up wartime morale. It would also have been really hard to get good Indian food. Restaurants and hotels like the Taj mostly served versions of European food, with a few unappetising sound Indian dishes like the 'Kari de petit pois et pommes' or Pea and Apple Curry that featured on a Taj Hotel menu at that time.

It is no surprise then that Julia had no memories of Indian food. But even later in life she showed little interest in it. Shapiro writes that she admired Madhur Jaffrey for her pioneering work with Indian and food, but had no interest in the cuisine itself. Nor did most American food interest her much, though she praised the quality of American ingredients. Her focus was firmly French food, as it had been since that first proper meal in France in 1948, on their way to Paris, where Paul was to take up a new job.

That meal has become famous in Julia's descriptions of it (it opens the film Julie & Julia, where she is played by Meryl Streep). In its simplicity - oysters and sole fried in butter - yet quality, it awoke in her a new appreciation for food. In Paris she would go to cooking school and then partner with two French women who were trying to write a cookbook on French food for Americans. She would effectively take the project over, making it into Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book that made her famous.

It is an amazing book, one which makes complex recipes seem doable and, even more important, fills you with a desire to try. (And it is not totally devoid of Indian flavour - curry powder, which has a surprisingly established position in French cuisine, shows up in recipes like Sauce au Cari or Fricassêe de Poulet a I'Indienne, which could qualify as a French chicken curry). But as Shapiro points out, it could easily have become just another cookbook, admired in its time, but forgotten after, if it wasn't for 'The French Chef', the TV show Julia started taping in 1963.

Julia got the job, partly because her book was just out, and she also seemed to be the sort of upper-class presenter that WGBH, the TV channel in Boston that recorded it, felt might appeal to what was still a fairly elite audience. But Julia gave them something quite different. She had the upper-class presence and the real knowledge of French cuisine, but added an extraordinary TV presence that no one had expected. It helped that the show was recorded in one shot - "the budget didn't allow for breaks or splices, " writes Shapiro. Julia was a TV natural, and the show presented her undiluted.

So if things went wrong, like a potato cake disintegrating or a turkey being dropped, Julia fixed it insouciantly and just kept going. Audiences were soon riveted, watching for the screw-ups and Julia's rescues, and the mouth-watering looking final results that her skill always ensured. "You're alone in the kitchen - who is going to see?" she told viewers conspiratorially, as she did all the things that cooks do, but don't talk about. The show was meant to be educational, but turned out to be entertainment, which even people who would never make the recipes could enjoy.

It was, in fact, an early example of reality TV, combined with food - the very combination that has been such a potent hit, not least in India today. If you are among the many people who are addicted to 'Masterchef Australia' or 'Come Dine With Me', remember that the original formula was cooked up, almost unintentionally, when a tall and talented American woman, in pearls, a good dress and with a ready laugh, cooked her way, with both precision and havoc, to a final delicious looking dish, always ending with the words: "This is Julia Child. Bon appêtit !"

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