Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Julia Child in China: Of spies and opium

(Last week I posted the truncated version of this two-part article as in appeared in Zester Daily. In celebration of her 100th birthday last week, here is a look at an early stage of her colorful life that really hasn't garnered the attention it should have, with part 2 linked right here...)


If your knowledge of Julia Child has been more or less shaped by what you learned in the movie Julie and Julia, you might think that her first defining moment as a foodie took place in France during that meal of sole meunière at La Couronne in Rouen, but you’d be only half right.

The truth is, her earliest steps toward becoming a knowledgeable connoisseur took place years earlier when she was stationed in an intelligence network on the other side of the world. Writing about her years in China during World War II, Julia Child remembered, “That is where I became interested in food.”[1]

It’s hard to imagine our doyenne of French cuisine discovering the joys of dining in wartime China long before she ever even visited France, but if any part of her life is worthy of a movie, these relatively hidden years certainly are.

Set in south-central China during a tense international conflict, in a spy organization no less, and with Julia herself handling the “operational opium” that was doled out to the local spies, all of this seems ripe for a portrayal light years away from the relatively staid woman portrayed by Meryl Streep. And not only that, but prior to heading overseas, Julia worked on developing shark repellent for the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, the precursor to the CIA), which was deemed a “critical tool” in keeping sharks from detonating the explosives used to target German U-boats.

“About 1942 or 1943,” Julia explained, the OSS sent her to the Ceylonese base in Kandy (in what we now know as Sri Lanka), where Julia first encountered new foods like the durian fruit, which she described as smelling like “dead babies mixed with strawberries and Camembert.” This tropical Shangri-La was a place where small elephants did the heavy lifting, where tarantulas and scorpions wandered, and where Julia received such high security clearance that she processed all of the classified materials for the pending invasion of the Malay Peninsula.

But it was not all cloak and dagger for the young Julia Carolyn McWilliams. Her taste buds woke up at just about the time as her heart when she became romantically involved with the man who would one day be both her husband and her sophisticated guide to the world’s pleasures: Paul Child.

“That’s where I met my husband, Paul – in Ceylon,” she once noted, when both were working for the OSS. Their first meeting, though, was not at all romantic, as Julia was a confirmed prankster. On that fateful day, she slyly complained to the people dining with her that she was tired from censoring everyone’s outgoing mail, which caused Paul to have a meltdown over this presumed invasion of privacy. Later, he referred to her funny side as a “pleasantly crazy sense of humor,” something that American audiences would fall for, too, when she became a television star two decades later.

(Next up: where our families [sort of] crossed paths, and JC's proclamation that "I just loved Chinese food.")

Illustration by Carolyn Phillips, (c) 2012



[1] The quotes and information for this two-part article were taken from the following sources:

Central Intelligence Agency, “A Look Back… Julia Child: Life Before French Cuisine,” featured story archive, 13 Dec. 2007, https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2007-featured-story-archive/julia-child.html (accessed 28 Jul. 2012).

Julia Child, My Life in France, 12 – 13,. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Noël Riley Fitch, Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child, 1 – 6, 89 – 126. New York: Anchor (Random House), 1999.

Sharon Hudgins, “A Conversation with Julia Child, Spring 1984,” Gastronomica, Summer 2005, 104 – 5.

Laura Jacobs, “Our Lady of the Kitchen,” Vanity Fair, August 2009. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/ 2009/08/julia-child200908  (accessed 28 Jul. 2012).

Patrick Scally, “Remembering the Hump After 70 Years,” Go Kunming blog entry, 29 Mar. 2012. http://www.gokunming.com/en/blog/item/2651/remembering_the_hump_after_70_years  (accessed 28 Jul . 2012).

Laura Shapiro, Julia Child: A Life, 8 – 20. New York: Viking, 2007.

Smithsonian, “Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian: Story 1 [of 18] – Julia and World War II, n.d. http://americanhistory.si.edu/juliachild/jck/html/ textonly/st1.asp (accessed 28 Jul . 2012).

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