Sunday, May 29, 2022

Julia (Child) on CNN

You have to appreciate a celebrity chef who acknowledges the five-second rule. Julia Child wasn’t above brushing off a little dirt from kitchen mishaps, which was one of the reasons she was so fun to watch. For years, she was also the original and only really notable TV chef. If she were alive today, she would probably have her own streaming channel, but the magnitude of her success in her time was still no can of corn. Julie Cohen & Betsy West chronicle Child’s life and career in the documentary Julia, which airs tomorrow on CNN.

Before she served dinner, Child served her country as a staffer for the OSS, Wild Bill Donovan’s forerunner agency to the CIA. Her family insists she never did any spycraft, but that still seems like a good idea for a fictional thriller. Regardless, she met her future husband, Paul Cushing Child, when they were both posted to Ceylon. Eventually, his career in the Foreign Service brought them to France, where she met Simone Beck and started collaborating on
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, an unusually detailed cookbook, intended for American readers.

Public television was pretty grim in the early 1960s, but WGBH viewers appreciated how she livened up a book review program, by demonstrating the proper technique for making an omelet. As a result, they took a chance on a show of her own,
The French Chef. The best part of the doc gives a behind-the-scenes view of its early, by-the-seat-of-its pants years. The production process might have been an adventure, but the show was an immediate hit.

Everyone gives Child credit for making PBS watchable, yet Public Broadcasting thought it was time to put her out to pasture in the early 1980s, so she signed with
Good Morning America instead. It is clear throughout Julia that Child was a shrewd capitalist. However, Cohen & West (whose RBG celebrated Justice Ginsburg for having a kneejerk political record on the bench, rather than a coherent judicial philosophy) do their best to transform Child into a divisive figure, by celebrating her liberal activism.

Of course, what Child was really all about was fine cuisine, preferably French. Food TV stars like Ina Garten and Marcus Samuelsson definitely give her credit for starting it all. We also hear quite a bit from Jacques Pepin, whose programs and videos take a similar approach, showing viewers simple steps to transform easily available ingredients into tasty food.
Julia briefly addresses the disconnect between Child and the farm-to-table movement. Yet, it never fully develops the philosophical contrast between the democratic Child, who crafted her instructions for everyday supermarket shoppers, versus the elitism of organic snobs.

It is amazing to see Child enjoy a surge of popularity some fifteen years after her death. Soon after the theatrical release of
Julia, she was also the subject of an HBO Max series also [unimaginatively] titled Julia and her recipes were the basis for The Julia Child Challenge on the Food Network. The Julia doc helps explain why, by nicely capturing her charm. The best scenes in the film are just Child being Child. Recommended for Food TV viewers and as nostalgia for those who remember her peak of 1970s/1980s celebrity, Julia airs tomorrow night (5/30) on CNN, with limited commercial interruption.