Julia Child's career -- We look back at the chef's life as she celebrates her 79th birthday

Julia Child, who turns 79 on Aug. 15, started stalking about in her TV kitchen in 1962. The French Chef began small, a local how-to show on Boston’s public television station, WGBH. The next year it was a national smash on PBS, and the chef herself was public television’s first celebrity.

She became a star because she was able to convince Americans that we have nothing to fear in French cooking but fear itself. She became an institution because America loved her great honking falsetto the moment we laid ears on her. Throwing all of her 6 feet 1 3/4 inches into her task, she chuckled when she dumped crepes suzette into the flames. In her gusto, she once dropped a whole chicken on the floor, scooped it up, and turned it into a meal. She inspired a 1989 one-woman musical, starring Jean Stapleton. And of course, she remains the original behind Dan Aykroyd’s inspired Saturday Night Live imitation, circa 1977, in which a sloshed chef dismembers herself with her own utensils — perhaps Aykroyd’s finest moment.

Yet for all the jokes, Julia Child is one smart cookie. Her 1961 cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, cowritten with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, remains the definitive word on the subject. Her writings and cookbooks rest in the Julia Child Wing of Radcliffe College’s Schlesinger Library, not far from the papers of Betty Friedan and Susan B. Anthony. She’s got seven cookbooks, four television series, and a 1986 video series on her résumé.

Child’s current passion is the American Institute of Wine and Food in San Francisco, which she cofounded. She divides her time between a rambling old house in Cambridge, Mass., an apartment in Santa Barbara, Calif., and a house in the south of France. She lectures against Americans’ growing ”fear of food”; she does not suffer vegetarians gladly. At press time, the old girl was flying around Norway filming a PBS documentary partly sponsored by the Norwegian salmon industry. Godspeed, Julia, and bon appétit.

Aug. 15, 1912

It was a year of change: Discs replaced cylinders as the recorded music medium of choice, and at the movies Mack Sennet introduced his Keystone Kops series of bumbling boys in blue. ”When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” had us humming, while C.G. Jung’s The Theory of Psychoanalysis provided food for thought.