I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Julia Child: Changing TV Forever

by Thomas Michalski
May 18, 2013

Right off the bat here, I’d like to make a confession: I’m not what you’d call a foodie. I could try to bamboozle you into thinking otherwise, by throwing in fancy words like apéritif or gastronomy or some hoity-toity nonsense, but this is a safe space and I’d rather give it to you straight. It’s not that I don’t like good food -- good food is good – but dining out costs money, which I don’t have, and at home I’m such a lousy cook it’s a fire hazard for me to attempt anything beyond boiling water (and even then…). Plus I just don’t care that much; if you put some Duck a l’Orange in front of me, I’ll gladly tuck in, but a frozen pizza would do the trick just as nicely. What then, you may reasonably ask, qualifies someone who takes his culinary cues from hobos and people trapped in bomb-shelters to write anything about legendary gourmet Julia Child? Well, while I may not know much about food, I know far, far too much about TV, and though she remains synonymous with French Cuisine in America, it’s doubtful that’d be so if she didn’t become an unlikely television star first.

Believe it or not, Child, born Julia McWilliams on August 15, 1912 in Pasadena, California, didn’t display an innate flair for cooking at first either. She was very good at eating, impressing people with the voracious appetite that her husband later described as an effort “to eat all she could hold at every meal”, but in the kitchen she seemed hopelessly clumsy, and indeed she didn’t pursue any sort of education or employment in that field until later in life. She was a goddamn spy though, or at least kind of; during WWII, after being deemed unfit for Navy service, she was hired by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of today’s CIA, established by Franklin Roosevelt. There probably wasn’t a whole lot of cloak-and-dagger involved in her tenure with the OSS (even if it’s fun to imagine her garroting a double agent or something), but she did go from being a typist to a high level researcher and even worked on a project to decrease the threat of German U-Boats to American ships. During this time, she married a fellow operative, the artistically-inclined Paul Child, whom Julia followed to Paris after he was transferred by the State Department.

Bored and lacking much direction besides a vague ambition to become a writer, Child’s love of a good meal led her to enroll in Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute, where at the age of 32 she discovered that, even if it didn’t come naturally, preparing food was as fulfilling as eating it. Upon graduating, she formed a new cooking school with two French chefs, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom she also collaborated on a cookbook aimed at an American audience, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was published in the U.S. in 1961. The goal of the volume was to acquaint the average American with the finer points of French cuisine, and being one herself, who until recently hadn’t been too handy in the kitchen, Child’s perspective and non-judgmental cheeriness was a big reason it became successful. The instructions and prose may have been written in plain English, but with hundreds of recipes, some quite difficult to prepare, it didn’t oversimplify its subject either. “It will probably remain as the definitive work for nonprofessionals,” observed Craig Claiborne in his 1961 New York Times review, before noting, “This is not a book for those with a superficial interest in food.”

To promote the project, Child appeared on a public television show called People are Reading, which aired on WGBH in Boston and focused on reviewing new releases and interviewing authors. For all her talent and outgoing, exuberant tenacity, Child, superficially at least, didn’t seem like a great fit for TV at first. For one thing, her voice, a strange asthmatic falsetto, certainly wasn’t that of a professional broadcaster, and her looks weren’t particularly striking, except for the fact that she stood a towering six-foot-three, which, during her initial appearance, left the director at a loss as to how to get her and the food she was preparing into the shot at the same time. After some on-the-spot troubleshooting (sticking books under everything so they could reposition the frame), Child charmingly breezed her way through the demonstration with an effortlessness that belied the fact that she had been anxiously rehearsing making omelets at home all week. It was unusual for People are Reading, largely concerned with serious minded, intellectual issues, to host a cooking segment, but calls started to come in wondering when she would be on again, which eventually led WGBH to give her a permanent timeslot.

Her program, The French Chef, premiered on the station in 1963, and was quickly picked up by stations coast to coast on the National Educational Television network, a noncommercial service which was replaced by PBS in 1970. Throughout its ten year run, the show garnered high ratings and earned Child both a Peabody and an Emmy award, thanks mostly to her effervescent personality, which made viewers feel as if she were an old friend and, perhaps more importantly, that they too could pull off the dishes she whipped up every episode. After the French Chef ended in 1973, she brought that same upbeat demeanor to a host of other series that ran on and off until she retired at the turn of the millennium, among them Julia Child & Company (1978-1979), Dinner at Julia’s (1983-1985) and Baking with Julia (1996-1998), to name but a few. The American viewing public is a fickle animal, and there’s not many people they care to invite into their homes week after week, year after year, decade after decade, but even as cable TV inundated subscribers with ever more channels and options, Child’s was a familiar face they never got sick of seeing.

It wasn’t merely her longevity that made her a television legend; in fact, one can trace the impact she left on the medium in ways both big and small. The success of the French Chef transformed WGBH into a well-funded public media powerhouse, which has created and produced dozens of noteworthy series, making Child indirectly responsible for PBS staples like NOVA, Frontline and American Experience, and while she wasn’t the very first TV chef, she was the first to find a mass audience. Every cooking show that followed, and indeed cable stations like the Food Network, owes her an incalculable debt. Without Child, who passed away in 2004, it’s conceivable that “celebrity chef” wouldn’t be a job description, and everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Gordon Ramsey to Guy Fieri would be back in the kitchen instead of in front of a camera. She singlehandedly defined an entire television genre, which along with her many books, articles, home video series, etc. retrained American audiences to think about food not just as sustenance, but as a rich, rewarding experience that anyone with some patience and enthusiasm can partake in. Short on both of those things, I’m content to sit back and watch.







Thomas Michalski is a writer and radio host from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can keep up with his comings and goings over at http://www.voodooinspector.com/