In 1962, a middle-aged cookbook author named Julia Child made an impromptu omelet on educational television. On the program “I’ve Been Reading” to discuss her new book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she commanded a hot plate and whisked up lunch for the tweed-clad academic host. According to industry lore, WGBH in Boston, a little-watched station known for airing erudite lectures by male professors, received a few dozen letters from TV viewers who had caught Child’s performance and wanted more. The French Chef debuted nationally the following year, pioneering televised gourmet cooking instruction and making Child into a new kind of star for an emerging public television network.
Child’s early television career has resurfaced of late as source material for the voracious streaming era. The documentary Julia: The Delicious Life of America’s First Food Icon (2021, CNN Films), the prestige dramatic series Julia (2022, HBO Max), and the amateur cooking competition The Julia Child Challenge (2022, Food Network and discovery+) all revisit The French Chef and its role in the evolution of television and American food culture. As a feminist TV scholar, I enjoyed all three productions, which provide a treasure trove of archival footage, backstories, and fictionalized interpretations of the making of the iconic TV series. I also found that in different ways, each mythologizes Child as an agent of progressive change, obscuring the power dynamics of lifestyle media then and now.
The documentary Julia comes from the creative team of Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who made RGB (2018), and it follows the latter’s template by chronicling the life of an exceptional woman. The film opens with “The Chicken Sisters,” a scene from The French Chef in which Child introduces a lineup of six raw chickens (“Miss Broiler! Miss Fryer! Miss Roaster! Miss Caponette! Miss Stewer! And Old Madame Hen!”) and explains their distinct purposes in cooking before plunging a knife into the ingredient for the day. The documentary’s emphasis is placed on Child’s biography, especially her six years living in France with her diplomat husband, Paul, during which time she discovered a passion for French food, enrolled at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in a class whose other members were all men, and began work on Mastering with collaborator Simone Beck. This “great person” narrative casts Child as a self-made epicurean who triumphed in a male-dominated profession (even though she never actually worked as a chef) and, through her cookbooks and TV series, single-handedly improved the way Americans cooked and ate.
The excerpts from The French Chef that are featured in Julia, though, tell a more complex story. These clips highlight the over-the-topness of The French Chef on display in the chicken episode and hint at the cultural aspirations and tensions it managed. Child was an upper-class socialite who, despite working as an author and TV host, embraced her role as a homemaker. With her apron-clad six-foot-two frame, exaggerated patrician accent, and theatrical demeanor, she simultaneously evoked and unsettled codes of normative femininity and male expertise on television. She presented French cooking as an expression of a desirable way of life that she herself embodied, but her “boisterous act” had a “degree of carnivalesque clowning” that made learning enjoyable. 1 This blend of pedagogy, personality, and entertainment distinguished The French Chef from dull talking-heads programming and earlier TV cooking shows.
Unlike fictional TV housewives, Child got physical in the kitchen, darting about as she dispensed advice and demonstrated how to flip the contents of pans and chop ingredients at whirlwind speed. 2 She often sweated as she multitasked the preparation of a complicated meal in thirty minutes flat, mopping her brow with a towel or her apron as the cameras rolled. Child’s exuberance was extra, too, even when she ran out of time or made a mistake such as dropping a potato pancake on the floor, after which she put it back in the pan and famously told TV viewers, “Well, if you’re all alone in the kitchen, nobody will know.”
She seemed to play up the zaniness of it all for entertainment value, inviting comparisons to the antics of housewife Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. 3 According to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai, the performance of zaniness often obscures work as play under capitalism. 4 This makes sense, given that Child pitched a time-consuming approach to home cuisine as self-fulfilling and fun, even as the sexual division of labor made cooking an unwelcome chore for many women.
Child also mediated anxieties about class identity. The flow of identical consumer goods and commercial network television’s appeal to a lowest-common-denominator mass audience prompted “status-seeking” Americans to seek out tastemakers like Child to differentiate themselves. 5 Julia evokes, but does not critically unpack, this context. Food before Child is played as camp, with vintage advertisements for Swanson TV dinners and expert commentary on the use of canned soup for sauce and the popularity of Jell-O salad. Black-and-white video of recipes prepared on The French Chef is intercut with cinematic reshoots of those same dishes, which ascribes comparative value to them. The social inequalities perpetuated by judgments of taste are lost on the documentary. In a culture of perceived sameness, Child offered more than gastronomical escape from packaged food. By promoting French cuisine as the best cuisine, The French Chef could be put into service as a means of class distinction. In the 1960s, French food signified imported cultural cachet; with a French chef in the Kennedy White House, even the peasant dishes Child prepared could be harnessed as markers of superior taste and “culinary capital.” 6 As a project of educational television, The French Chef was mandated to disseminate legitimated culture and knowledge as a public good. This linked Child to the American Dream, as Dana Polan notes, to the extent that her “cooking lessons were also life lessons about social mobility.” 7 Child wore her L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes cooking-school badge on every episode, conveying a message that anyone could potentially master the classy culinary tradition she espoused. The French Chef resonated as a status symbol and a middlebrow operation. 8
While the documentary obscures this context, HBO Max’s Julia uses serialized drama to place the emergence of The French Chef within an aspirational cultural milieu. Thoroughly researched but not entirely factual, the series, developed by Daniel Goldfarb, a producer of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime, 2017–), nonetheless does a better job historicizing The French Chef than its documentary counterpart. Set in Boston and Cambridge, where the Childs settled after Paul’s retirement, Julia chronicles the first season of The French Chef on the heels of the publication of Mastering. Period costumes, meticulously re-created sets, and an all-star cast, including Sarah Lancashire as Julia, conjure the bourgeois cultural habitus that Child inhabited and bring the TV industry that made her a culinary celebrity to life.
The series adopts the formula of Mrs. Maisel by foregrounding Child’s efforts to break into educational television as a woman of a certain age. Both series are set in the 1960s and take a light-handed approach to the obstacles that upscale white women encounter in male-dominated entertainment industries. (Midge Maisel is a stand-up comedian but is not based on a real person.)
This set-up lends itself to the display of class privilege. The Childs are affluent, due in part to Julia’s inherited wealth. They are also self-consciously refined, as symbolized by their stately home, shiny imported Volvo, patronage of high-end grocers and fine dining establishments, and disregard for the still newish medium of television. Paul misses Julia’s omelet lesson on WGBH because, for the purpose of the HBO Max series (though not factually), the Childs do not own a TV set. He initially objects to Julia’s cooking show, believing that television is subpar to books and the arts.
Julia references the denigration of mass culture as feminine that has been noted by Patrice Petro and others. 9 In an early scene, Paul and Julia shop at a supermarket for ingredients to prepare coq au vin for the pilot episode of The French Chef. As the camera pans cartons of meat wrapped in plastic and a towering Campbell’s soup display, Paul wonders out loud if they should have gone to their usual gourmet market. Both the supermarket and television are feminized spaces of mass consumption derided in part because of their association with women. Despite her upper-class pedigree, this contempt is extended to Julia when she pitches a cooking series to WGBH and a male producer dismisses the idea as fodder for “ladies of means.” No matter how fancy or French, cooking is out of sync with his vision of public television as a corrective to what FCC chairman Newton Minow, in his 1961 speech protesting the triviality and mediocrity of commercial television, famously called “the vast wasteland.”
Male contempt is also projected onto Julia’s body, revealing the overt sexism at play in the midcentury television industry. Male staffers complain that Child is too large, unattractive, and strange sounding to appear on television. These insults are intertwined with scenes that reveal Julia’s internalized anxieties about her “hideous” body and aging appearance. This may or may not have occurred, but biographers have indeed documented that, beginning in the early 1960s, Child underwent multiple plastic surgeries to improve her TV image. 10
HBO Max re-creates the production of The French Chef with historical fidelity, capturing the pressures of early television, particularly at WGBH—a station with a budget so small each episode of The French Chef had to be recorded in a single take. The fictionalized narrative offers some new insights, including the possibility that Julia’s frequent complaints about being hot on the set coincided with her menopause. For the most part, however, Child’s television persona is embellished to the point of near farce. Fumbles and gaffes spread out across entire seasons are concentrated in a single episode. Other foibles are invented, as when Child pitches her recipe for coq au vin with the statement “It’s just the most delicious coq I’ll ever put in my mouth and that’s saying something,” and laughs raucously at her own joke.
This prompts mockery from colleagues, but as with Mrs. Maisel, Julia situates inappropriate male behavior within the time capsule of the 1960s. The persistence of gender inequality in television production is foreclosed, and Child’s own prejudices are written out of the story. When Julia visits San Francisco, for example, she accompanies chef James Beard to a drag club and sings a duet on stage with Coco Van, a drag performer who idolizes her. This made-up event presents Julia as an ally of queer culture, despite her well-known homophobia. 11
Although there is no record of Child being overtly racist, The French Chef was premised on unquestioned white Eurocentrism and never acknowledged the civil rights movement or any resistance to French colonialism: the food was on its own, with no political context. 12 Julia massages this silence by inventing a Black female assistant producer who advocates for The French Chef, cooks the recipes from Mastering at home, and eventually replaces the show’s male producer.
In the penultimate episode of Julia, Child meets feminist author Betty Friedan, who has just published The Feminine Mystique (1963), at a public television awards ceremony. The encounter sets the stage for a limited engagement with second-wave feminism. In her acceptance speech, Julia claims that she “cooks for ordinary people, mostly women, housewives.” The French Chef, she explains, empowers them to “expand their horizons” and experience a sense of mastery when they take the time to make a great meal. Friedan tells Child her thirty-minute show is a dangerous illusion that makes her complicit in the problem that has no name: “Your recipes take days to make and hours to clean up….You’ve nicely raised the bar on what it means to be a good wife to professional levels. How can these women you have locked in the kitchen possibly find time for anything else, let alone a career?”
Though Julia is momentarily shaken, the tension between female self-actualization and labor performed for others is soon forgotten. The narrative focus on Julia’s climb to fame cannot accommodate a structural critique of gender or domestic labor. Unlike the documentary, the drama does acknowledge Child’s own drive for celebrity. In a crucial scene, Julia visits a department store to finally purchase a TV set. In the store window, a family of mannequins is eating dinner on trays in a living room, under a banner that reads “Color Televisions Now on Sale.” Julia enters the showroom, which is outfitted with floor-to-ceiling TV sets. Gazing at dozens of screens broadcasting the same male experts, she sees herself with a mixing bowl on a lone television. Her resolve to use television to uplift American taste is fortified as she embraces her parallel desire for visibility, adoration, and influence.
This clarity does not extend to the institution of public television. In Julia, WGBH is depicted as so hostile to The French Chef that Julia funds the production on spec. An actual producer, who spoke at a WGBH publicity event piggybacking on the HBO Max series, claims it was in fact keen to air the show and also financed it. Julia’s battle with WGHB’s cultural elitism is not entirely fictional, however. In the 1960s, different visions of public television often clashed. The French Chef inaugurated a prominent strand of how-to programming aimed at upscale lifestyle clusters, including This Old House, also a WGBH production. This bread-and-butter fare was belittled by those who ascribed greater value to cultural and public-affairs programming. But productions like The French Chef attracted corporate sponsors, and Child lent her celebrity to fund-raising drives, during which stations often gifted her cookbooks to donors. 13 As I was writing this column, I received an email inviting me to support WGBH in exchange for one of Child’s numerous biographies. Today, countless cable brands, streaming platforms, and social-media platforms showcase niche lifestyle instruction and celebrity influencers, but public television set the stage for this mediascape.
The Julia Child Challenge on the Food Network strips Child of even these historical contexts in the service of neoliberal mythologies. Here, the specter of Child resurrected from clips of The French Chef presides over an amateur cooking competition, offering a new twist on a tired format. Each episode begins with a snippet of black-and-white video in which Julia demonstrates something, like assembling a fruit tart or flipping a French omelet. A panel of judges discuss the clips while quick facts about Child run across the chyron. The contestants are assigned challenges tangentially related to what they have seen from The French Chef.
Whereas Child argued that anyone could follow French cooking’s precise rules, the Julia Child Challenge requires the contestants to put their “unique spin” on dishes inspired by the clips. The timer ticks as the amateur cooks scramble to stay in the game, Project Runway–style, until the sole remaining contestant wins the official grand prize: a scholarship to the Cordon Bleu. The contestants must also perform as televisable versions of themselves, because this, more than formal training, is crucial to achieving book deals, social-media followers, and celebrity-chef status. As in any reality TV show, the amateurs provide free labor for the chance to break into show business, now increasingly intertwined with the very service professions (culinary arts, hairdressing, decorating) that it also glamorizes.
Then again, Julia Child also used television to sell her cookbooks and promote her image, and the TV industry made her into a media personality for its own purposes. The documentary Julia features clips from her abundant appearances on television over the years, where she returned the favor by performing on show after show as Julia Child. The recent Julia Child revival is a version of this dynamic. All the Julias use Child for their own purposes. They capitalize on each other while keeping the Julia Child brand visible and mobilizing new audiences for The French Chef, which can now be watched on Twitch, Pluto TV, and Amazon Prime. The variations among the productions correlate with their different content niches. All present Child as the godmother of a new kind of lifestyle television, but none address its persistent investment in whiteness, class privilege, and the mystification of domestic labor. Perhaps this is too much to expect from just-in-time television delivered on demand. Still, it is food for thought.
- Dana Polan, Julia Child’s The French Chef (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 182.
- Kathleen Collins, Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows (New York: Continuum, 2010).
- Polan, Julia Child’s The French Chef.
- Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
- Laurie Ouellette, Viewers Like You? How Public Television Failed the People (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
- Kathleen LeBesco and Peter Naccarato, “Julia Child, Martha Stewart, and the Rise of Culinary Capital,” in Edible Ideologies: Representing Food and Meaning, ed. Kathleen Lebesco and Peter Naccarato (New York: SUNY Press, 2008), 223–38.
- Polan, Julia Child’s The French Chef, 39.
- L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes was the informal cooking school Child formed in France with her collaborators Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.
- Patrice Petro, “Mass Culture and the Feminine: The ‘Place’ of Television in Film Studies,” Cinema Journal 25, no. 3 (Spring 1986): 5–21.
- Laura Shapiro, Julia Child: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2007).
- Tracey Deutsch, The Julia Child Project: The Cold War, France, and the Politics of Food, GBH Open Vault Scholar Exhibit, n.d., https://openvault.wgbh.org/exhibits/julia_child/authors.
- Public television in the United States is a decentralized system comprising the national Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and local stations. It was created with the passage of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act. Prior to 1967, public television was called “educational” television.
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