Julia Child, American Spy

That Julia, she was quite a woman. In many ways that we already knew: she was a trailblazer, a mentor and teacher, a proponent of eating well, a liver of life and entertainer to boot. And, as both my morning papers spelled out today, she had a hidden layer just being discovered: she was once part of an international spy ring.

Anyone who’s read about Julia’s background knows that she worked in the offices of the OSS (precursor to the CIA) in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the early 1940s. I wrote a feature article about Julia and her love of seafood while I was at Simply Seafood magazine. For the article, I had occasion to meet with Julia in her Cambridge, Mass., home, which was a thrill beyond belief. Not only did I get to stand in the famous kitchen that’s now recreated in the Smithsonian (and slurp a couple mid-morning Olympia oysters with her, a gift Jon Rowley sent me with), but I was also allowed to look through her files that included a lifetime of photos. And spend a couple amazing hours with the woman who has been such a giant in our culinary consciousness in this country.

I gave some background of Julia’s life in that article, including the snippet about her time in Ceylon. “When World War II broke out, Julia joined the Office of Strategic Services with romantic dreams of becoming a spy,” I wrote. “She was assigned as a file clerk and, after a short time in Washington, D.C., went on assignment to Ceylon.” So apparently she lived out more of her romantic dreams that we realized! And doubly so. It was in Ceylon that she met Paul Child, a man who not only had a big impact on her personal life, but who is really the reason that Julia–a confirmed indifferent cook–became the culinary icon that she was.

There are a number of books that delve into how Julia became Julia, but my favorite is My Life in France, which chronicles those experiences that transformed her into an advocate for cooking at home and for enjoying all the delicious things in life.

Julia really did have an amazing life. And I have a feeling that, current OSS news notwithstanding, we will never quite fully grasp what a rich, fascinating and well-lived life that it was. Here’s a toast to you, Julia, and how you manage to keep us inspired even after you’ve moved on to that great La Cornue stove in the sky. In fact, tomorrow, August 15, would have been her 96th birthday. Let’s all raise a glass in her honor!


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