Julia Child earned her status as an American icon only after she burst onto the small screen in 1963 with her cooking show, “The French Chef.” Although it aired two years after the publication of her hit book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, no biographical detail or specific personality emerges from the cookbook, as Dana Polan astutely points out in his meticulously researched and entertaining book, Julia Child’s The French Chef, which analyzes the rise of Child’s popular cooking program and TV persona and her lasting influence upon the genre of the TV cooking show as we know it today.
Child had a palpable passion for her subject—to make French cooking make sense—which meant that she wanted to import and translate the secrets of French gastronomy for the American housewife, or man. Polan notes that Child did not cater to a particular or gendered audience, and in fact her show became popular with male as well as female viewers. She did, however, specify that her show was for adults. Interestingly, it became popular among some children as well, no doubt because of her larger than life personality, which came across so brilliantly on screen, as well as her “willingness to get physical with the food, showing how visceral the mastering had to be” (p.15).
This books calls attention to some ways in which her cooking methods—in particular, her fairly rigid adherence to recipes not her own—now seem antiquated. “Child’s version of French cooking is—unlike, say, Alice Waters’s—about planning, codes and codification, structured transformation, logical permutation, controlled combination” (p.112). Her television show was carefully codified too, but it was decidedly ahead of its time. In a chapter entitled “Television Cookery B.C. (Before Child),” Polan points out that many people today wrongly give Child credit for creating the form of the TV cooking show, when in fact there were other television cooking shows in postwar America, but none with a star like Child.
There is a reason these shows faded from our collective memory, while The French Chef remains sharp. “The emphasis on the pleasures of consumption that would be so central to The French Chef was not yet present in the early shows, where all that mattered was the homemaker’s efficiency in getting food made and not the enjoyment that ensued from eating it.” (p.46). By contrast, Child made cooking look like fun, never drudgery; she prepared “food that was fully socialized and no longer about domestic obligations; food that increasingly valued taste over sustenance; food that, it was claimed, went beyond the familiar and opened new gustatory horizons” (p.76). Also, she always ended her show by eating whatever she had prepared with the same palpable passion that she brought to everything she did in the kitchen. Polan shows how she was the first to use a “first person” approach toward filming, allowing the camera to look over her shoulder while she was cooking, and so placing the viewer in her shoes (p.29). Amusingly, this apparently helped viewers not to feel like couch potatoes, by making “the very act of TV watching seem a form of do-it-yourself activity,” combatting “notions of television viewing as wasteful and slothful” (p.35).
It is widely acknowledged that Child was a fascinating figure: “a bit freaky, not classically feminine and even somewhat masculinized” (p.183). Polan describes her as strong and soft, skillful but clumsy, a tireless advocate for French cooking, and yet decidedly American in her appearance, manners, and pragmatism. She has become almost a caricature at this point, so much has already been written on her. But Polan manages to find something new here by focusing on what it took for her to create and sustain the ten-year TV show that made her into the icon she remains. By including scripts, receipts, photographs, screen shots, newspaper clippings, and letters, he enables readers to understand how Child planned her show meticulously and yet left room for happy accidents. The show, in other words, was not only the creation but also almost an extension of the woman. With that tremulous falsetto, endearing clumsiness, and willingness to improvise, not to mention her infectious enthusiasm, it is no wonder Julia Child made People’s Top 50 list of greatest TV stars ever, a star on par with Captain Kangaroo and Vampira, according to Polan. While his book is an academic title (he teaches in the cinema studies department at NYU), it’s sure to appeal to all Julia-philes hungering for a new angle on their favorite French chef.