In my parents’ home, for as long as I can remember, the crown jewel of the kitchen decor has always been a framed, sun-bleached photograph of Julia Child. In it, she’s winding up to smack my father, the audio technician, in the head with a copper-bottom pot while he cowers in mock fear, a smile creeping across her face. The new documentary Julia suggests that this is a pretty accurate summary of her natural state: fun-loving and funny, treating her work like play, the ideal antidote to stuffy chefs with a monastic relationship to the making of food.
“She had a fantastic sense of humor,” co-director Betsy West tells the Guardian. “She loved when Dan Aykroyd impersonated her on Saturday Night Live, so much that she used to play it for guests at her dinner parties. But she did take her skill as a cook very seriously.”
“Julia changed the way Americans thought about food, fully and completely,” co-director Julie Cohen adds. “From the idea that the goal shouldn’t just be about speed and convenience, but deliciousness and the joy of creation.”
Their latest project offers the same respect and admiration of their Ruth Bader Ginsburg bio-doc, RBG, to the great Julia Child, another one of the “groundbreaking women” toward which West and Cohen gravitate. In a mid-century culture besotted with ready-to-eat TV dinners and other microwavables, Child showed audiences – and, eventually, the world – that whipping up something mouthwatering was far from an alchemical process. Her easygoing demonstrations proved that anyone can cook, requiring only a dash of confidence and a sprinkle of adaptation. “She wouldn’t worry when she made a mistake, and just incorporated it into her show,” West says. “She didn’t come across as didactic, just as someone trying to share what she knew, which gave her so much pleasure.”
Child launched her first TV series, The French Chef, for which she was paid a lowball rate of $50 a show by the Boston-area station WGBH, at a time when the American culinary palate desperately needed a shake-up. She brought French cooking from the height of exclusive elegance to a more accessible pedestal, demystifying the steps to constructing the picture-perfect omelette or roasting a chicken to optimal brownness. And she arrived not a moment too soon, lighting up a gustatory dark age of Jell-O molds, mayonnaise-based “salads” and tinned pineapples. “Both Julie and I grew up in the pre-Julia Child era, or at least experienced that food, and we knew first-hand how much she changed this world of American eating,” West says.
Cohen recalls the highlight of her girlhood diet being the weekly Spaghetti Day on Wednesdays, describing this era as a “desert” for creative, flavorful meals. “We’ve got interviews with French people recalling visiting America in the 60s and just being appalled at the state of the grocery stores,” she laughs. “Things were pretty paltry, especially in produce. If you wanted mushrooms, you’d have to go to the canned food aisle. I love the scene in the film when Julia holds up an artichoke and tells the audience not to be afraid of it.”
Simply by sharing her enthusiasm for just how good food could be, Child defied the commonly held perception that men create cuisine while women merely put dinner on the table. Standing at 6ft 2in, her voice in a distinctive singsong suggesting the image of a large bird, she was anything but the typical domestic goddess. Yet her “authority, knowledge and authenticity” were too much to deny, and she quickly amassed a wide following by marrying those virtues to a casual relatability. While she wasn’t the first person to bring these talents to broadcast, she paved the way for a generation of personalities putting their own skills and unique charms over the generic primped-and-pressed quality that supposedly makes a person telegenic.
“At every turn, people wanted to question, dismiss, trivialize or roll their eyes at what Julia Child was up to,” Cohen says. “And not just her, but her audience too; she writes this extremely complex, comprehensive, encyclopedic and yet very readable book, puts down on paper how to make French food in an approachable way, and the publishing industry thought women wouldn’t be interested! ‘It’s too hard. It’ll be too complicated for their brains.’ But then she shows up on TV, makes her omelette, and the station gets a pulse. And then, the executives’ response isn’t that they have a superstar on their hands, it’s giving her three shows for $50 a week. She didn’t let that deter her as she pushed forward, but it took her quite a long time to get the respect she deserved.”
The documentary exists in no small part to give Child her due, but West and Cohen were mindful not to drift into full-blown hagiography. They consider her in all her humanity, which eventually means confronting the odd flaw, in this instance her evolving attitude about the queer community. The film conveys that as unconventional as she may have been, Child had a rather traditional stance about a woman’s place in the home, touting the three Fs of good wifeliness: to feed, flatter and fuck your husband. That social conservatism also extended to the emergent gay population, whom she could be heard referring to as “homos”. In time, she would come around and make amends by speaking out during a moment of grave crisis, her ignorance spun into a testament to her newfound open-mindedness.
“Our whole goal is to tell an engaging and fascinating story that’s also fun to watch,” Cohen says. “Truthfully, Julia’s change of heart on gay issues felt like an important part of this. She had a narrative arc. We start off, unsurprisingly for someone with Julia’s relatively sheltered background, in a pretty homophobic state of mind. It was a common attitude back then, and we didn’t want to shy away from that fact. An important part of that story is how drastically Julia changed her mind on the matter. Her attorney, Bob Johnson, who she was quite close to, became ill with Aids. She was compassionate toward him as he was dying, and went a little further afterward, realizing how horrible it was that people weren’t speaking out about this brutal disease. She spoke out in 1988, at a time when many celebrities weren’t really doing that yet, especially celebrities with the middle-American fanbase she had.”
Today, Child’s influence on the art of food has a deeper presence than the woman herself, evident in every small-screen stylist of the scrumptious. But in its purest form, her legacy is concentrated in the home, where amateurs are still having the miraculous epiphany that they don’t have to go to a restaurant for a Michelin-star meal. Cooped up during the editing process in the early days of lockdown, West and Cohen connected to Child’s spirit by following her recipes, and found that the everyday magic hadn’t faded one iota. From butter, oil or salt, one can conjure beauty or speak in a wordless love language.
“We were watching all this footage of Julia’s cooking, and we couldn’t help but be affected by that,” West says. “Julie and I both like to cook, and we really dug into it even more during this time of isolation. It gave us a renewed energy to try some of Julia’s dishes: beef bourguignon, we found, was very doable. We found out later on that we’d both started to really enjoy making salad niçoise. The film shows you pretty specifically how to make roast beef and that potato dish – now that’s how I make potatoes! In these difficult months, that’s one of the things people have discovered as a source of pleasure: making food, and serving it to people you love.”