personal essay

The Single Greatest Lesson I’ve Learned from Julia Child Has Nothing to Do with Cooking

published Aug 15, 2022
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Illustration of Julia Child in the kitchen with some of her classic recipes.
Credit: Tara O'Brien

August 15 is Julia Chid’s birthday. She died in 2004, just two days shy of her 92nd birthday. And if she were alive today, she’d be turning 110. Still, her legacy lives on through the countless beef Bourguignon and coq au vin dishes home cooks around the world valiantly attempt to recreate every day. The beloved chef is as relevant now as she was back in the 1960s when her cookbook and her TV show changed history.

More than half a century later, Julia continues to empower people to step out of their comfort zone and try their hand at her often-challenging signature dishes.

I know that’s true for me. Watching each episode of Julia, HBO Max’s recent limited series, I realized that The French Chef taught us some amazing cooking hacks — like cutting up turkey before roasting and adding a little oil to your sauté pan to prevent butter from burning. Not to mention, she introduced so many culinary tools we can’t live without, nowadays. But it also became clear that the most important lessons I’ve learned from Julia Child go far beyond her famous kitchen.

Credit: Courtesy of HBO Max
HBO Max's series Julia, starring Sarah Lancashire.

“I have a secret,” she tells viewers on the final episode of Julia. “You’ve known how to make a chocolate soufflé all along. All you have to do is plunge in. And I’ll tell you another secret: That’s the key not only to the kitchen, but to life itself.

And there it is. Julia taught me to go after what I want and not to stop until I get it. This is a lesson I’ve taken to heart, spurred on by Julia’s own persistence and her refusal to take no for an answer. The woman was relentless in the best possible way — and it’s why we’re still talking about her almost two decades after her death.

Julia didn’t become a star until she was in her 50s. Although all she originally set out to do was share her passion for cooking, once she discovered she actually did want to be a star, no one could get in her way — but you can bet they tried.

Remember that, in 1963, the idea of a woman hosting a cooking show on American television was unheard of. Julia was a true pioneer, but along with that role came a lot of challenges — all of which she was able to rise above with hard work and humor. (I mean, just look at all the fun Julia Child had in the kitchen.)

One of my favorite Julia moments was her first appearance on TV as a guest on a PBS book review show to promote her now-iconic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She knew she would have to find a way to stand out because no one seemed to be taking her book seriously. So she brought along a hot plate and proceeded to make an omelet — and a name for herself — live on the air. Viewers fell in love with her and the rest is, literally, history.

I wanted, like Julia, to taste life and to show women that they, too, could do so much more than they ever imagined.

With Julia as my role model, I decided to take a chance myself and become a travel writer in my 50s. I fully embraced my age and created a blog called Midlife at the Oasis. It opened up the world to me and gave me opportunities I would never have been able to experience otherwise, such as hugging koalas in Australia, spending a morning getting to know a group of Samburu women in Africa, sleeping in an ice hotel in Norway, and indulging in Michelin-starred meals around the globe.

I wanted, like Julia, to taste life and to show women that they, too, could do so much more than they ever imagined.

Whenever something went wrong — and, let’s face it, something always goes wrong — I would think of Julia saying, in that unmistakable, trilly voice, “Cooking is one failure after another and that’s how you finally learn.”

She taught me that it’s OK to make mistakes and that “if you accidentally drop an eggshell into the pan, just fish it out and keep cooking.” Substitute any activity for “cooking” and the lessons are just as valuable.

It took Julia 284 pounds of flour to master pain français, and it may take me 284 drafts to create my own master-pièce de resistance — but that’s OK because it’s all about persistence. In fact, it’s the effort that makes finally achieving your goal so satisfying. 

Julia never gave in to what other people thought she should do, always remaining true to herself.

Julia’s insatiable appetite for both food and life was infectious. She did everything with gusto and didn’t worry about the calories. As a writer, I want to use words the way Julia used butter — with complete abandon, to add joy and richness and flavor. 

Julia never gave in to what other people thought she should do, always remaining true to herself. When she was told no one would care about her recipe for sweetbreads, she created an episode around them anyway, telling her viewers, “I have a feeling they may not be a favorite of many of you, but they are a favorite of mine.” And that was good enough.

Credit: Courtesy of Everett Collection
Happy birthday, dear Julia!!

I try to remember that when it seems like I’m dancing to my own beat. Rather than listen to those who tell me I should stop posting my political opinions, I’ve followed Julia’s lead and listened to my own voice rather than theirs. Just like Julia, I’ve put my imperfect self out there, and the rewards have always outweighed the criticism.

Authenticity is everything.

Julia truly redefined the idea of growing older, launching a new TV show with real French chef, Jacques Pépin, when she was 87. While others her age were trying to make lemonade from lemons, she went even further, whipping up both a lemon pound cake and lemon loaf cake that are now considered classics. 

I may never be able to recreate Julia’s decadent Queen of Sheba cake or her rich French onion soup. But adding zest as an essential ingredient to every bit of life? That’s one recipe I know I can follow.

How has the legendary Julia Child inspired you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.