Bob Spitz recalls watching Julia Child on TV every Monday with his mother, back in the 1960s. He'd get Child's delicious food for dinner the following night, because that was how his dear old Mom learned to cook.

Still, the American writer — who is releasing his book Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child on Wednesday, which would have been her 100th birthday — didn’t consider the famous TV chef the subject of a potential biography until 1992, when he ended up touring Italy with her.

"I was in Italy in 1992 doing some writing. I got a call from a friend at the Italian trade commission who said: 'We understand you have some extra time. Would you mind being an escort for an older woman?'

"I said: 'Lady, I don't do that kind of work.' And she said: 'Oh, it’s Julia Child.' And I said 'I'll be right over,'" he told CBC News.

Julia Child on a motorbike

"We spent a lot of time eating and talking about food, but also talking about her life in general, from her early days in Pasadena, Calif. to the adventure of becoming Julia Child. I had the good sense to run a tape recorder. I had her to myself for almost a month and that was the genesis for the book."

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Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz is being released on what would have been her 100th birthday. (Alfred A. Knopf/Associated Press)

What he discovered was a woman with a big personality; one who loved to eat, who said exactly what she thought and who walked into sacrosanct restaurant kitchens throughout Italy to taste what the chef had in the pot. She was 82 at the time they met, but when Spitz got onto his motorbike, Child also jumped on for a spin.

The writer was left with such a strong impression that when he finished The Beatles, his exhaustive history of the British band published in 2005, he began to research a book about Child.

In the resulting tome, Spitz makes the case that Julia Child has had an enormous cultural impact. When she began her TV show, The French Chef, American housewives were serving dinners based on canned or packaged food.

What she advocated wasn’t just a better way of eating — namely by using fresh ingredients and cooking more sophisticated meals — but also a way of making people shine, he says.

"Julia really cared about a woman's place, not just in the home but in society. She taught women how to be bold and inventive in the kitchen. She wanted them to step out from behind the stove and be a star," Spitz said.

A boost for PBS

Child also shook up the world of educational TV, according to Spitz. Getting her start in 1962 on a Boston PBS affiliate, at a time when public television often meant two professors from a local community college debating books, Child became the U.S. public broadcaster's first national star as the centre of its first syndicated show.

"Cooking shows on TV before Julia were very slapdash affairs: someone opening a can of Campbell's soup and showing you how to make a casserole. It was really about using packaged foods and doing things quickly," Spitz said.

"Julia taught women to cook using the most delicious ingredients, with time-tested recipes that were not only great but she knew they worked."

Julie Child at 100

On Wednesday, author Bob Spitz will be at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, where Child's Cambridge, Mass., kitchen (part of the museum’s collection) is being unveiled after a renovation. Other celebrations of the famed chef across North America are scheduled, including:

  • Toronto writer Marion Kane is releasing a podcast of her documentary series, Remembering Julia.
  • Restaurants in Boston and New York are offering special menus in honour of Child.
  • Child's hometown of Pasadena is celebrating her birthday with various events.
  • PBS has released an online mashup created from footage of her cooking show.

Child tested her recipes 15 to 30 times when writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the cookbook she wrote to explain the mysteries of French cuisine to American housewives. In Dearie, Spitz details the years of work that led to the influential book, including how Child tested recipes with ingredients and utensils that would be available in American cities so they would be fail-safe for readers. It set a new standard for cookbooks, he argues.

Dearie covers Child's entire life, from her tony upbringing in Pasadena as Julia McWilliams through her empty years as a socialite before finding work with the U.S. Information Service during the Second World War. It was then, working in Sri Lanka and later China, that she met Paul Child.

"He was the man who set her out to find herself and find something she wanted to do in life. He said to her 'Julia you love to eat. What about cooking?' It had never dawned on Julia but that's how she got to the Cordon Bleu," Spitz said.

Watershed lunch in Rouen

Child was already a great lover of food, but — as the 2009 movie Julie & Julia portrays so effectively — it was a lunch in 1948 she and her husband had in Rouen, on their way to his posting in Paris, that made her a fan of French cooking. 

Spitz had access to all 127 boxes of Child's archives, held at Harvard University. They are filled with her and Paul Child's letters to each other and her missives to friends, providing a revealing look at her thoughts as she encountered France for the first time.

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Bob Spitz travelled in Italy with Julia Child in 1992, spending time talking about food and life. (Alfred A. Knopf)

She took classes at the renowned Cordon Bleu culinary school and began writing her cookbook with two French friends, ultimately a process that would take almost 10 years. They also briefly ran a cooking school and it was Child’s natural skill as a teacher that made her so effective on TV, Spitz says.

She was never glamorous as today’s TV chefs tend to be: she had that whooping voice (captured beautifully by Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia) and she dropped things or forgot where items were on live TV, as she and Paul — by then retired — developed a way of presenting cooking on the screen. But her genuine cooking ability, enthusiasm for food and reputation for saying just about anything earned her a nationwide audience.

"She was an honest performer and a very honest person. She shot from the hip. She did not pull her punches at all," Spitz recalled.

'Everything in moderation'

Child also had longevity: her last TV appearances were in 2001. As food evolved, she evolved with it. She never liked the nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s, but enjoyed the wave of well-trained, creative young chefs who emerged in American restaurants in the 1990s, Spitz said.

Although she cooked with butter and cream, Child would both abhor the epidemic of obesity today as well as the obsession with removing fat from the diet because her philosophy was "everything in moderation," Spitz added

Several biographies have been written about Child, who died in 2004, and she also released a memoir of her life in France, but Spitz feels none of the other books do her justice or chronicle her entire life.

"I really wanted to write a book that would do a couple of things: number one, it would capture Julia’s fantastic spirit. That’s what was missing. And also the fact that you really needed to smell the food on every page."