TV Cooking Icon Julia Child Dies

TV Cooking Icon Julia Child Dies
Julia Child
Jon Chase/AP

08/13/2004 AT 11:00 AM EDT

Though she was neither French nor a professional chef, America's beloved cooking teacher Julia Child changed the way America ate and thought about food with her pioneering television series, The French Chef.

The grande dame of culinary arts, whose signature sign-off, "Bon Appetit," became part of the cultural lexicon, died early Friday morning, two days before her 92nd birthday.

Child died in her sleep at her home in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"America has lost a true national treasure," Nicholas Latimer, director of publicity for Alfred A. Knopf publishing, said in a statement. "She will be missed terribly."

The French Chef, which aired from 1963-73, was as much a showcase for Child's folksy personality and joie de vivre as her cooking. It debuted at a time when home cooks prized convenience over tradition and sales of products like Jell-O and Swanson frozen dinners soared in the United States. Child, who stood at a towering 6'2", incited a new French revolution by democratizing such haute cuisine as beef bourguignonne with clear, easy-to-follow instructions.

Television audiences embraced her as much for her warbling voice and occasional blunders as for her recipes. "Always remember," she told Esquire magazine in 2000, "if you're alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who's going to know?" There had been televised cooking programs before The French Chef, but Child became America's first culinary celebrity.

"Cooking should be fun. I learned that from the master," Sara Moulton, host of TV Food Network's Sara's Secrets and executive chef of Gourmet magazine, told Salon in 1999. Moulton apprenticed on Child's third series, Julia Child & More Company. "Julia didn't just share what she knew. She made you want to do it, too."

Julia Carolyn McWilliams was born on August 15, 1912, into a prominent Pasadena, Calif., family. She grew up athletic and fun-loving but never evinced any interest in cooking. In fact, her family employed a cook to provide most of their meals. "When I was young, we always had good food at home, but it was good, plain New England food … things like roast beef and leg of lamb, which was cooked till it was well-done," she told PEOPLE in 1999.

After graduation from Smith College in 1934, Child moved to New York, where she worked in advertising. The arrival of World War II, however, led her to join the Office of Strategic Service, a predecessor of the CIA. In Washington, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China, Child processed top-secret documents relating to America's campaign against Japan – and despite rumors to the contrary, she insisted to Larry King in August 2002 that "I was never a spy!"

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