The Child in All of Us

Reconnecting with Julia Child through 'The French Chef'

August 15-21, 2007

In an age when original cooking shows air on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the life work of a former file clerk sticks to our national culinary consciousness like spun sugar. While her television contemporaries Dione Lucas, Justin Wilson and Graham Kerr are primarily Wikipedia footnotes, Julia Child’s voice, humor and wisdom remain not only instantly recognizable but utterly relevant.

Julia died on Aug. 13, 2004, two days shy of her 92nd birthday. Festivities commemorating the anniversary of her birth this year include “Celebrate Julia!” cooking classes at Sur la Table locations nationwide; food bloggers collaborating to collect Julia-related posts at the blog Champaign Taste; and far-flung restaurants across the country independently serving Julia Child-inspired menus. (The scope of these gestures pale in comparison to that of Warner Farm in Sunderland, Mass., which last year created a corn maze in her image.)

But in your own home, the most rewarding way to remember Julia is to kick back on the sofa and watch all three DVD volumes of her groundbreaking television show, The French Chef, which WGBH in Boston produced from 1963 to 1973.

Julia’s defining moment occurred in 1961, with the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the exhaustive volume that she, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle compiled to make authentic French cooking accessible to average American home cooks. Even though battered copies of the book can easily be found at thrift stores and used book sales, the volume has been in print continuously since its debut 46 years ago.

But it was through The French Chef that Julia Child became forever fixed on our pop-culture radar. The show aired in repeats on a handful of PBS affiliates until 1987, which means there’s a whole generation out there more familiar with Dan Aykroyd’s immortal 1978 Saturday Night Live spoof, with his spot-on warbling Julia voice and gallons of fake blood, than with the actual show itself.

For those of us included in this bracket–or those who haven’t seen a full episode of The French Chef in decades–seeing a grainy, black-and-white Julia presiding over her television kitchen is like discovering a long-lost Rosetta stone; everything clicks, and you fall in love with cooking, and with this hunched-over woman, all over again.

During its 10-year run, The French Chef placed Julia in a number of studio kitchens outfitted with the sort of cabinetry and major appliances that homeowners of today dream of replacing: electric stovetops with push-button controls; conventional ovens barely large enough to hold a turkey; and a puttery old Sunbeam electric mixer that Julia herself confesses is perhaps on its last legs. This could either be a case of WGBH’s budget or of Julia acting on her instinct to keep it real; if home cooks in 1967 had an electric mixer, it probably was a Sunbeam.

Though she’s a bit stiff at the outset of the first episode, “Boeuf Bourguignon,” Julia soon enough eases into a relaxed flow as she discusses stew-worthy cuts of beef. She handles the various hunks of uncooked meat lovingly but heartily, as if playfully smacking someone’s butt. (Throughout The French Chef, she was a voracious handler of raw ingredients.)

Many of today’s most popular cooking shows are heavily edited, with close-up shots of beautiful food and eerily amplified cooking sounds–pouring, sizzling, chopping–spliced into the proceedings to act as sensory triggers for the viewer. Mise en place (the tidy little glass bowls of minced parsley and premeasured vanilla extract that some unseen intern assembled offstage) sits at the ready in open, airy kitchens bathed in diffused light.

For very basic reasons of production limitations, The French Chef had no such frippery. Instead, Julia relied on sheer force of personality and the occasional outlandish stunt to hook her viewers–which is perhaps why large, dead animals played a starring role in the most memorable episodes of The French Chef. On “Roast Suckling Pig,” Julia handles the pale-skinned piglet with a glint of mischievousness, as if she knew and even hoped that her somewhat macabre positioning of the inanimate porcine would cause some viewers to wince. And so what if they did? Pork comes from pigs, and pigs have little ears and snouts and cloven hooves. A gigantic live lobster, a flayed mess of tripe, a halibut the size of a saucer sled–she proffered all of these ingredients-as-props to remind us that this is food, take it or leave it.

Impeccable food styling was not The French Chef‘s strong point. While handsome and loglike, the yule log cake she crafts on “Bûche du Nöel” is likewise a bit homely. What happens on the show happens in real time, and dazzling moments arose from the most minor incidents. When a small cake twig droops as she applies chocolate buttercream to her cake log, Julia presses on, musing, “That would probably happen in a forest.”

The knowledge and passion stirred by her discovery of her life’s calling (Julia didn’t start cooking seriously until her late thirties) were still fresh with her in these shows, allowing her to straddle the chasm between home cooks and professional chefs with poise and assurance; she was one of us, only better. Julia made mistakes like we all do, but she knew how to fix them.

Julia’s flubs on The French Chef are our Easter eggs. While they don’t happen as often as modern folklore would have it (it was pommes Anna, and not a raw chicken, that she breezily plopped back into the pan after a failed attempt to flip it), they are a delight to watch. Julia kneads dough and somehow manages to fling her bench knife across the kitchen in the process; she messily dribbles crêpe batter on the stovetop; she unceremoniously–and repeatedly–wipes crumbs onto the studio kitchen’s floor. I do not envy the man or woman whose job it was to clean up after the shoot.

Even when sticking with familiar, workaday ingredients, Julia brought together the exotic and the commonplace. “The Hollandaise Family” is much more riveting than a solid half-hour of a middle-aged woman making two variations of the same sauce should be. She transforms unassuming egg yolks and globs of butter into silky, sunny yellow hollandaise and béarnaise sauces, making kitchen magic happen right before our eyes.

I learned to make hollandaise as a student at the Culinary Institute of America, where the school-sanctified method at the time was to whisk the egg yolks in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water before whisking in a seemingly never-ending thin stream of clarified butter. It was a horrifying and tedious procedure that our chef-instructors related to us as if it were a ghost story, a process we should regard with awe and fear.

But in “The Hollandaise Family,” Julia voices her disdain for double boilers. “I think you have more confidence in yourself as a cook when you do things directly in the professional manner rather than using subterfuges,” she muses while plopping little blobs of softened, unclarified butter into her copper saucepan of frothy yolks. She makes it look so fun and easy, because guess what? It is. A 10-year-old could make a smashing eggs Benedict after watching that episode.

“Cooking’s just a series of the same old thing; sometimes there’s chocolate and sometimes there’s fish in it, but the principles are all the same,” she once said. That’s why Julia’s popularity and appeal endures. She was not there to impress and intimidate, but to demystify and reassure.

It’s impossible not to wonder if, in 50 years, any of today’s food-media superstars will command comparable admiration. Despite their talent, or any innovations of cookery or public relations, everyone else is inevitably following in Julia Child’s footsteps, because she was the first.

Television is an ideal medium for culinary education; the setting is intimate, and the energy of smaller, kitchenlike spaces translates so fluidly to our own humble homes. Ideally, cooking shows are educational and entertaining, though the latter seems to carry less and less priority in the eyes of network programmers. Edification does not have to be synonymous with boredom, as the sprightly activities of a 6-foot-2-inch woman with liver-spotted hands on The French Chef so readily remind us. Find these shows and relish them. Bon appétit, as Julia would say.

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