by Meredith O’Brien
Her career of choice commenced when she was in her late 30s, after her first career in government service during World War II had concluded. “I was 37 years old, and still discovering who I was,” she said. The book that put her on the map was published when she was 49 years old, followed a year later by her first appearance on her own TV program.
To read about the career of Julia Child and see it dramatized on the silver screen, is to be inspired. In a climate when some parents pressure their children to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives when they’re only in high school, the notion that Child, a graduate of Smith College with a degree in history, was able to launch her professional career in her forties was a revelation. “I knew I didn’t want to become a standard housewife, or a corporate woman, but I wasn’t sure what I did want to be,” Child wrote in her memoir, My Life in France .
I’ve been thinking a great deal about Child after seeing the delightfully uplifting film Julie & Julia  – starring Meryl Streep as Child – and after reading Child’s My Life in France, about how when she was 36 and arrived in Paris with her husband Paul in 1948, she didn’t know how to cook. Yet now, her name is synonymous with cooking. The movie traced Child’s evolution from that of being a former clerk with the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) to the wife of a diplomat who wanted to challenge herself. At the same time, Julie & Julia fast-forwarded to New York City, circa 2002, where Julie Powell, who was just turning 30, was feeling lost and turned to Julia Child for motivation. Powell, who only cooked recreationally, threw herself into a year-long project where she decided to cook her way through Child’s first and most famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking , a 700+ page tome whose eight-year creation was covered in the film. Powell’s odyssey through the 524 recipes was chronicled in her blog  which was later turned into a book, Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously .
The parallels between Child and Powell in the film were wonderfully serendipitous.
While living in France when her husband worked for the U.S. Information Agency, Child said she fell in love with French food and became obsessed with learning how to cook authentically Parisian cuisine. “I had never taken anything so seriously in my life – husband and cat excepted – and I could hardly bear to be away from the kitchen,” Child wrote in My Life in France. “ . . . How magnificent to find my life’s calling, at long last!” Child ignored the sometimes hostile criticism of her cooking, as well as sexism (she was the only woman in a professional level “boys’ club” cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school) in order to hone her new craft.
Powell, meanwhile, who’d aspired to be a writer but wound up working in a soul-numbing cubicle, suffered from a lack of direction in her life when she, encouraged by her husband Eric, decided to embrace the one thing she loved – cooking -- and publically blogged about her triumphs and failures in trying to follow in a master chef’s footsteps. Neither woman had children during the movie’s time frame; both suffered from infertility problems. Child, who died in 2004, never had children. (“We tried. But for some reason our efforts didn’t take,” she wrote in My Life.) Powell’s book mentioned difficulties in that department as a motivator for taking on her cooking with Julia project. (“I’m twenty-nine, I’m never going to have kids or a real job, my husband will leave me and I’ll die alone in an outer-borough hovel with twenty cats and it’ll take two weeks for the stench to reach the hall,” Powell wrote.)
So why am I writing about these two women here, on a web site called Mommy Track’d when neither were mothers? Because, if you spend any time on this web site at all, you’ll find a whole lot of commentary and discussion about the notion of re-launching (otherwise known as “sequencing,” “on-ramping,” etc.) your career at various points in your life. I’ve previously written about many high-profile women, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi , who didn’t start their careers in earnest until later in life, when their children were older. And I think it’s beneficial to remind ourselves, every now and again, that our careers aren’t over if we’ve simply pressed the “pause” button for a bit, or if we choose to go in a different direction. If a woman like Julia Child embarked on a completely new career in her late 30s and didn’t start making a living off of it until she was in her 40s, that’s worth keeping in mind.
Child’s life story, punctuated by moments of showing up doubters who didn’t think she could succeed – in the film, the head of the Cordon Bleu school told her she had no talent for cooking, and a publishing house later informed her that her first massive opus on French cooking would never sell – is what prompted Powell to commence writing her blog in the first place and re-discover her own confidence. (It’s important to note that both Powell and Child initially expressed the desire to become an author and, via cooking, got their wish.) In a recent interview , Powell said of Child, “her example and the blog changed my life” and that her experience trying to make it through Mastering “taught me a great deal about what I was capable of, how I could turn my life around.”
My conclusion after immersing myself in the film and My Life in France? They both offer viewers a recipe for success: Find your passion and dedicate yourself to it when you have the opportunity to do so, no matter what other, naysaying knuckleheads may say.