Teaching a nation to cook
Julia Child’s relationship with food and feminism
Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Starring Julia Child (archive footage), José Andrés, André Cointreau
Rated PG-13, Playing Nov. 5
These days, photos of fancy meals fill our social media feeds, and cooking competitions air daily on national television. As a result, it’s often difficult to envision an America that ran on TV dinners and Jell-O salads. As a child growing up in the 1930s, though, that America was Julia Child’s reality. It wasn’t until she traveled to France, and had a near-religious experience trying loup de mer (sea bass), that she began her transformation into the culinary icon that we know and love today.
Julia, the latest brainchild of Oscar-nominated documentary directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen (RBG), follows Child’s life from her conservative upbringing in California to her last appearances on television in her 90s. It portrays Child as revolutionizing the way that Americans thought about food, presenting cooking as a means of self-expression rather than a chore that needed to be done. It also humanizes her by exploring her relationships, touching on her love for husband Paul, her friendship with cookbook co-author Simca, and her support of pro-choice and anti-AIDS activist groups.
From the beginning, Julia highlights its namesake’s electric personality — it opens with Child animatedly making an omelette on a typically dry informational channel. The clips of Child are contrasted with monotone news reports and book reviews from that same channel, making it easy to understand why viewers fell in love. In fact, that one-off appearance received so much praise that it inspired a PBS station in Boston to give her a show. In an interview with The Tech, West described Child as “succeeding not because her brand was crafted by TV executives, but because her audience was hungry for authenticity.”
This theme of Child disregarding what was “expected” persists throughout the film. In a country where being a man was effectively a prerequisite for becoming a chef, Child enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu and began a cookery class for other women out of her home. The film pairs scenes of Child’s gradual mastery of French cooking with opera music and intimate close-ups of dishes — Julia invites us to see food through Child’s eyes, as an art form that’s meant to evoke emotion.
However, Child’s passionate, didactic approach to food was completely unheard of in both publishing and television at the time. Julia makes this obvious, showing clips of pretty, smiling, but silent women in advertisements for cooking products. Child’s cookbook very nearly didn’t get published because of how thorough it was — it was considered too intimidating for the American housewife by the overwhelmingly male decision-makers in the publishing industry.
It was actually a woman, Judith Jones, who fought for Child’s book to be published after its initial rejection by Houghton Mifflin. Several years later, Ruth Lockwood, the producer of Child’s show The French Chef, was a woman in the television industry as well, a rare occurrence. According to the directors, this theme of other women helping Child achieve icon status was a happy accident. However, this narrative of redefining gender roles was a common thread through both Child’s life and the film.
Julia stresses that Child did not identify as a feminist, “likely because in that day, you couldn’t — ‘women’s libbers’ were ridiculed, described as unattractive women who hate men,” Cohen mentioned in our interview. The film does an excellent job of capturing the nuances of her relationship with feminism, showing how she paved the way for increased female participation in the restaurant industry, but also describing how important cooking for her husband and her identity as a home-maker was to her.
In a world where feminism still sometimes evokes images of militant women, Julia is the portrayal of an icon that we need — inspirational, humanizing, and comforting. It celebrates her excellence and her impact while still highlighting the human elements that are so often stripped away from the women whose careers we idolize. We learn about Child’s technically perfect boeuf bourguignon alongside her love for feeding her husband, about her business-savvy side in addition to her struggles to conceive. In many ways, Julia does exactly what Child herself did so many years ago, masterfully presenting complicated material in a way that feels approachable for everyone watching.