Julia Child: Culinary Icon & World War II Secret Agent

Words: Crush

In the world of the culinary arts, few names stand as tall as Julia Child. Renowned for her prowess and undeniable charismatic presence, Julia’s career was nothing short of extraordinary. Though The French Chef stole the hearts of millions by cooking Boeuf Bourguignon on daytime television, few know that she was also a secret agent during the Second World War…

Julia Child 1978. Image: Shutterstock

Unlike the traditional espionage gadgets portrayed on screen, Julia’s tools of the trade were unconventional. Instead of using lethal weaponry, she wielded a typewriter and a cryptographic machine. Her wit and charm proved to be one of her many talents, as she decoded encrypted messages with meticulous precision.


Was Julia Child Really A Spy?

Born in 1912, in Pasadena, California, Julia Child was the eldest of three children. Though she thankfully ended up pursuing the culinary arts, Julia was first a history major at Smith College, Massachusetts, in 1930. After graduating, she actually worked as an advertising copywriter in New York City – talk about a woman of many talents!

In search of a more meaningful career, she volunteered for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA – as in Central Intelligence Agency, not the Culinary Institute of America – during World War II. She embarked on a covert journey as a top-secret researcher, assigned to analyse and decrypt sensitive documents for the Allies.

Julia was involved in the preparation and distribution of secret intelligence reports. Her ability to fluently speak French and German facilitated the translation of sensitive documents…

In 1942, Julia enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the women’s branch of the U.S. Army. Her initial assignment was in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a typist for the OSS. However, her linguistic talents and passion for adventure soon caught the attention of her superiors, leading her to more challenging assignments within the intelligence agency.


A Woman of Many Talents

With a knack for solving puzzles, Julia was soon transferred to the OSS’s research and development division. Her primary role involved deciphering encrypted communications and gathering intelligence from intercepted messages. Julia worked with a cryptographic machine called the ‘ECM Mark II’, a predecessor to modern encryption technologies.

Image: Sony Pictures Classics

One of the most intriguing aspects of Julia Child’s work as a spy was her use of her culinary passion as a cover. While stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Kunming, China, she posed as a typist for the OSS, ostensibly working on routine administrative tasks. Her culinary skills and friendly demeanour allowed her to move discreetly among diplomats and high-ranking officials, all the while secretly gathering information.

Julia was involved in the preparation and distribution of secret intelligence reports. Her ability to fluently speak French and German facilitated the translation of sensitive documents, ensuring that critical information reached the right hands.

While exact details of the specific intelligence she uncovered remains classified, it is known that she played a significant role in decrypting and analysing vital communications. Her efforts contributed to the Allied understanding of enemy strategies and intentions, aiding in critical decision-making during the war.

Paul Cushing Child and Julia Child. Image: Rick Friedman Corbis via Getty Images

After the war, Julia remained in the U.S. Foreign Service, working for the U.S. Information Agency (USIS). It was during her assignment in France, while accompanying her husband Paul, that she fell in love with French cuisine and attended Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. This pivotal experience ignited her passion for cooking and led to the creation of her groundbreaking co-authored cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which propelled her to culinary stardom.


From Stealing Intel to Claiming Hearts

When Julia Child’s cooking show, The French Chef, premiered on television in 1963, it became an instant hit. Her warm and approachable demeanour, combined with her expertise in French cuisine, charmed many across the nation. Through her televised demos, she brought the elegance and sophistication of French cooking into American homes, inspiring countless individuals to cook the likes of Coq Au Vin.

Though she was American, Julia Child’s deep understanding and mastery of French cooking earned her the endearing title of ‘The French Chef’. Her culinary journey exemplified how passion and dedication to a particular cuisine can transcend borders and cultures.

Julia Child’s involvement with the OSS during World War II is a fascinating chapter in her life, that remained a well-kept secret until declassified documents shed light on her covert activities. While she may not have been an action-packed, James Bond-style spy, her contributions as an undercover agent were nonetheless vital to the Allied effort.

Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child in the HBO Max series Julia (2022). Image: TV Insider

Though she sadly passed away in 2004, due to kidney failure, the culinary star still lives in the hearts and homes of many through her cookbooks, archived columns and biographies. She undoubtedly left an indelible mark on foodies old and young – her kitchen is even on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Famous actress Meryl Streep portrayed her in the biopic, Julia Child, and the more recently adapted comedy-drama television series, Julia (2022) based on her life, sparked the renaissance of her unforgettable legacy.

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