Nearly 60 years after the woman who was neither French nor a chef first appeared on Boston public television as ‘The French Chef’, Julia Child still inspires home cooks and fascinates showrunners. and filmmakers.
The most recent is the HBO Max drama series, “Julia,” about her life and early life on public television, a cooking contest, “The Julia Child Challenge” on Discovery Plus, and the 2021 documentary, “Julia,” which debuted last fall.
The Gazette spoke to culinary expert Marylène Altieri, Curator of Books and Printed Matter at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, which holds Child’s collection of articles, photographs, audio and video recordings and a private library cookbooks. Library staff also consulted with the creators of the “Julia” series and David Hyde Pierce, the actor who plays Paul Child, when the project was in development. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: Why do you think Julia Child remains such an enduring figure of fascination?
ALTERI: Two things are at play. One is just the unlikelihood of its success. Today’s standards of TV expectations for how women look while they cook – low-cut tops, beautifully styled hair and makeup – still reflect what was expected of women on TV. at the time. There had been women cooking on television before, but they were expected to be very solemn and restrained in their approach. She didn’t look like a glamorous woman, and she didn’t behave like a restrained woman. There’s this incredible personality at work there who, against all odds, is succeeding with audiences.
And then behind that, there is also the success of his books, in particular “Mastering the art of French cuisine”. Those in charge had no idea of the success of this book either. They thought it was too long, too complicated. And yet, it also became a phenomenal success. So this narrative against the odds continues to pull people in because what we’re fed most of the time on TV are perfect TV hosts and cookbooks have to be perfect coffee table books. And his work didn’t fit very well into either of those categories. And then the fact that she’s been there for so long too. She didn’t just put on a show and walk away. She was in the public eye for years.
GAZETTE: He is credited with introducing French cuisine to Americans, revolutionizing cookbook publishing, and popularizing television cooking shows. In what other ways has she been influential?
ALTERI: Julia comes to a time when many women aspired to be wonderful cooks, but daily cooking was a chore for them. I spoke to women who lived in Cambridge at the time Mastering came out. A group of professors’ wives and faculty wives, some of whom taught at Harvard, met at the Wursthaus every week for lunch and went through the book and decided on the recipes they were going to cook for their dinners that week.
These were people who had very busy lives and lots of other things to do, but they aspired to reach this level of cuisine. They wanted to do it and do it well. Thus, she inspired many people to want to cook better and strove to write her recipes in a way that Americans could understand. Julia insisted that it had to be step by step and that it had to work with American ingredients.
And then there were women who wanted to work in the restaurant business. She never had it herself, but they came to her – Lydia Shire, Jody Adams, Michela Larson – all the different chefs and restaurateurs who talked about her inspiration. Nina Simonds, for example, who writes books on Chinese cooking, went to see Julia Child to ask her how to go to another country and learn? Julia gave him lots of advice and recommendations. Nina went on to translate Chinese cookbooks into English and wrote many highly acclaimed books herself. Julia, famously, was so approachable that she answered her phone on Thanksgiving and talked to people who were having trouble with their turkeys. She just influenced people in so many different ways and was a role model for women in general beyond the kitchen.