Television That Tastes Good

The generous pedagogy of Julia Child and The French Chef
by Dana Polan  posted August 6, 2009
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With Nora Ephron’s movie of Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia, opening this week, Julia Child undergoes a transposition from the popular-culture forms she mastered (the cookbook, the television cooking show) into an expanded array of media platforms: here, her first book (Mastering the Art of French Cooking) and her first series (The French Chef) inspire a blog, which inspires a book, which inspires a movie adaptation.

But one wonders how necessary these latter-day translations of Child into new-media identities really are. In the Julie & Julia film, Amy Adams certainly offers a plucky and perky performance, and predictably there are moments of pleasant humor, especially around kitchen disasters. But it’s saddening, I think, that no one felt Julia Child’s life worth making into a biopic until Julie Powell annexed Child’s life to her own. Child’s story is absolutely fascinating in itself but the bipartite structure of Julie & Julia means that so much of it has to be left out or only alluded to. For instance, the intensity of Julia’s budding romance with Paul Child when they met as OSS operatives during the war is never directly shown but merely evoked in a wordy dinner-party scene in which Paul and Julia look back on their past. One watches Julie & Julia wishing for more of Julia (played by Meryl Streep) and realizing just how compelling a personality she was in her very zaniness and vital exuberance.

As I have constantly been reminded when screening The French Chef in classroom and public lectures and in scholarly seminars, you only have to start showing episodes of the series for the audience to immediately get it—to immediately get her and to lock into her wacky and infectiously joyous way of using the television medium to present a unique, energetic pedagogy of the kitchen. Despite—or because of—the awkward vulnerability she displayed on camera (would she be able to pull off this or that dish without disaster striking?), Child mastered American television in the early 1960s and became a key icon of the period. By her efforts, she revolutionized both television (The French Chef won the first Emmys to go to PBS) and key components of American lifestyle, helping in no small way to move the dominant home dining experience from mere ingestion of an expedient, mass-produced blandness into an experience of sensory pleasure and fun gained through contact with, in Child’s case, the distinctive, even exotic cuisine of France.

Most young people probably found the dinner-party world of The French Chef a bit too fuddy-duddy and were less inclined toward haute cuisine than the newer exoticism of brown rice, macrobiotics, diets-for-a-small-planet that would bring about yet newer food trends in the 1970s. Still, it’s amusing that the legendary underground magazine, the Berkeley Barb, ran a review in 1966 of The French Chef by video guru and “Puff the Magic Dragon” lyricist Leonard Lipton praising the show for what he saw as an avant-gardishly slow unfolding of temporality that made it the best televisual proof of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the “medium is the message.”

Television was very much the central popular-cultural form of 1960s America. For her fans (and they were legion), Julia Child helped reveal and confirm the medium’s power to blend captivating entertainment with engaging pedagogy. Child is central to the history of television and in particular to the brand of nonfictional hosted program popular from the 1950s through the 1960s and peopled by the likes of Jack LaLanne, Zacherley, Officer Joe Bolton, Vampira, Loretta Young, and Captain Kangaroo. In such shows, the spectator is invited by the host into a place of intimacy (just the viewer and the presenter, alone together), a space of private codes and procedures where one becomes privy to special knowledge and performs rituals of membership (for example, the aptly named Mickey Mouse Club with its incantatory songs). There was often the impression of a door being opened into an inner sanctum whose marvels one encountered through the caring and guiding steps of the host.

Although television was frequently watched by more than one lone spectator (even the privatized space of the home was about a community of viewers—the family), TV hosts were all about letting the viewer in on something special, something secret, something just for you. One infamous incident occurred on January 1, 1965, when children’s host Soupy Sales suggested to the kids watching him that since their parents were undoubtedly still asleep after New Year’s Eve revels, they should sneak into Dad’s wallet and mail him the green pieces of paper with pictures of presidents that they found there. More benignly, we might reference the widely watched documentary tour of the White House hosted by Jackie Kennedy in 1962 where viewers (one of every three Americans) were allowed access, in hushed tones, to the secrets of hitherto mysterious locales (parts of the White House that had been off limits to the public). Like these other hosts, Child breathlessly welcomed viewers into her private world. As with them, the rhetoric of her televisual appearances had her looking outward toward spectators and taking them into her confidence.

The television host often invited the viewer into an interior realm, a domestic one even, and the thrill was not that of television going beyond the everyday but a new look at an everydayness that often had not seemed worthy of representation. Child revealed all the secrets of what necessarily had to happen behind the closed doors of the kitchen so that one could bring out spectacular meals that would impress one’s social peers (this was the period of what sociologist Vance Packard termed “the Status Seekers”). And if what happened was always fun, it wasn’t always pretty. (Some viewers still cringe at the memory of her onscreen cooking of live lobsters; many others have made a mythology of Child’s dropping a flipped potato pancake on the counter, scooping up the bits, throwing them back in the pan, and declaring that the home cook can get away with such things because there’s no witness to these secret sins—this despite the mass audience watching her at precisely such a moment.)

The 1960s was a period in which prudishness came under assault. One motif of the decade involves the discovery of the senses and the corporeality of being. Think, for instance, of the vastly influential last line of Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Against Interpretation”: “In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.” Like so many of her confrères, Sontag called on her audience to engage in the world with a fullness of sensory being and to open up the body to experience. In this respect, too, the larger-than-life Julia Child was very much of her time. She appealed in large part because she was willing to get physical with food—French food might be refined, but its preparation did not have to be done daintily. If part of the mystery of French cuisine was in the aesthetic perfection of dishes that came to the table as veritable works of art, The French Chef went behind the scenes to show the sweaty, grubby, fraught work that transpired in the kitchen before the spectacle of finished, consummate product.

With the exception of some dieticians and health officials who complained about Child’s reuse of tasting spoons or hand towels and of some anti-alcohol campaigners who reviled the use of wine on the show, most writers of fan letters loved that Child was endlessly tasting the dishes, getting in close with the food. Amusingly, though, on The French Chef, Child actually substituted Gravy Master for wine, which would go to waste if decanted during the show. She even, in one episode, made a toast with, as she put it with a mock French accent, estate-bottled “Gravée mastère.” One of her bottles of Gravy Master is enshrined in a display case inside her kitchen, which she donated for display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Child did not merely reveal how French food was mastered—she also showed how visceral that mastering had to be. Yet at the same time, it was just as important that many episodes ended with Child plating her creation and then carrying it from the kitchen into the dining room, where she would sit opposite a place setting with an unoccupied seat, as if offering up the dish to a spectator who could fill in for the camera and the offscreen guest it represented. Many fans wrote that they wished they could move into the space of the screen and join her in the meal.

We might contrast this sense of communal tie between host and guest to the latter-day, privatized moments on Nigella Lawson’s cooking show Nigella Bites (first aired in 2000). Not acknowledging the camera, Lawson seems absorbed in her own thoughts and bodily pleasures (eating leftovers while lounging in a bubble-filled bathtub; sneaking down to the fridge for a late-night snack). Nigella Bites certainly includes moments of direct address, but the show’s visual stylistics give the impression that we are merely peeking in on a woman’s pleasures that are all her own and not necessarily to be shared. This seems in keeping with the possessive individualism, even narcissism, of Lawson’s cultural moment, in contrast to the generosity of Child’s historical moment.

If generosity involves a giving of one’s self with attendant risks of self-exposure (as when Child lets the viewer see her awkwardness and her fumblings), it is the converse of a narcissism that puts the self on display to invite slavish attention. In this respect, The French Chef and Mastering the Art of French Cooking are eons away from the book Julie & Julia where, from the visit to a gynecologist on the first page, the author imagines that every personal confession is interesting, amusing, and worthy of mention. It was wise of the filmmakers to reference, for the scenes that show Child’s life, Child’s own, more measured autobiography (My Life in France, co-written with grandnephew Alex Prud’homme) rather than to opt for Powell’s fictionalized version of Child’s life. While Child’s relationship with husband Paul was an erotically charged experience that she undertook with un-prudish gusto, there was never anything lascivious or embarrassing or gratuitous about her self-presentation and self-accounting. When, for instance, Paul appears on several episodes of The French Chef (available in the archives of WGBH-TV in Boston), the viewer is delighted to get this glimpse into the personal side of Child’s life, but it is a demure glimpse (and Paul himself was always the dapper gentleman in public). Paul appears in a trio of episodes to show the proper wines to serve with his wife’s food preparations, and in another he plays the role, quite common in the popular culture of the time, of the husband who calls home to announce that he is bringing unexpected guests for dinner. In other words, he matters here less for his identity as Julia Child’s husband than for his ability to fit into the contemporary character type of the “imposing husband.” Paul’s appearances are not really about autobiographical exposure but serve the higher function of a pedagogy that is never indulgent and never self-promoting.

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a veritable “cult of expertise,” where television figures serve as popular pedagogues on all sorts of subjects, high and low. Undoubtedly, the process of invitation and initiation into Child’s world was less hushed than in the case of, say, the White House tour and less overladen with an aura of technocratic expertise than, say, another key pedagogical show of the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Wizard (although Child would become enamored over the years with all sorts of gadgets and technology—ordinary kitchen items but also blowtorches and other gizmos), and it was accompanied by boisterous levity rather than high-culture seriousness.

In its own way, Child’s insistence on the pleasure of the senses, on generous pedagogy, on perseverance as a personal ethic, and on quality of experience in the realm of food offered life lessons that could resonate with the openness of the 1960s to new ways of being. Not unlike science fiction, where investment in new life-worlds comes with imaginings of new social practices, new tools, new material objects, and so on, Child’s kitchen was one in which new foodstuffs, new gadgets, new flavors, and even new social practices were brought to the consciousness of everyday Americans. And they were introduced by a figure who herself could seem the image of difference: a woman taking over the realm of French cuisine and making it available and accessible to ordinary Americans. She was unique and yet so representative of her age, and that in itself makes her an enduring cultural icon.

Portions of this essay are adapted from the author's book on Julia Child's The French Chef, forthcoming in Duke University Press's 'Spin Offs' series on television. 


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Dana Polan is a professor of Cinema Studies in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. He is the author of six books on film and has two books, The Sopranos and The French Chef, forthcoming in Spin-Offs, a new Duke University Press series on groundbreaking television shows.

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