‘Julia’ Explained: Who Was Julia Child? How Did She Define Food’s Position In Popular Culture?


The documentary film “Julia” chronicles the life and persona of the enigmatic TV show cook, author, and personality named Julia Child. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West present all the major aspects of Julia’s life and trace her progression into the television industry and its subsequent redefining, with considerable prowess and simplistic storytelling. By the end, Julia Child’s figure as a loved and honored woman in American households is very well established. Overall, ‘Julia’ is a wonderful watch, recommendable to everyone, with visuals that are simply mouth-watering.

Who Was Julia Child And How Did She Burst Into The Scene Of US Television?

Around the time of 1962, US television already had shows of the information-entertainment genre being tried out unsuccessfully, and these shows were quite different from today’s understanding of the genre. With maybe a handful of exceptions, these shows would have male presenters talk about and discuss some part of science, some literary work, or other such matters very far from the common television-watching viewers. This suddenly had an unexpected turn when a certain woman in her 50s, named Julia Child, made an appearance on a book review show on Boston’s WGBH-TV. The producer-director of the channel fondly remembers when the woman, with a particularly distinct voice, called him up and requested a hot plate to be provided for that evening’s program, where she had been invited to talk about her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Despite it being a very unusual request at the time, the hot plate was indeed provided, and the woman, Julia Child, prepared a French omelet to, as she later said, lighten up the mood. Telecasting such a thing happening, which was quite a spectacle at the time, the TV channel recorded a big spike in viewership and calls from viewers, which then gave them the idea of trying out a cooking show. WGBH-TV soon shot three episodes of a series named “The French Chef” to test the market, with Julia Child cooking various French delicacies, and the show instantly became a terrific success when it first aired in 1963.

At that point in time, cooking in the United States, and any public image of it, was strictly limited to food that was convenient, fast, and easy to make. This mostly included microwavable food, pre-cooked packages that could be heated up in an oven to quickly prepare a meal, and consisted largely of canned and processed frozen ingredients. Television advertisements around this time also heavily pushed such a lifestyle because that was how the food habits of a common American household were. Therefore, when a woman was seen cooking up mouth-watering food dishes with fresh and commonly found ingredients that could be found on any supermarket store shelf, the country was almost hit by a gastronomic storm. Men and women all over the Boston area initially, and then the whole country, with Julia’s TV presence growing stronger, did not only develop a fine interest in tasting French cuisine but were also encouraged to take up cooking, even professionally by some. “The French Chef” had a very distinct characteristic that also helped it become relatable to its viewers instantly, and that was that the show was unedited and shot in long takes. This meant that Julia’s mistakes would never be cut out and edited from the final product of the show, but rather it would all be telecast in its entirety. Julia would gracefully either correct her mistakes or sometimes even give very quick improvisations about how a mistake could be utilized in some other way, like making a different dish. Along with giving her viewers tips on how to deal with such unwanted situations in the kitchen, she also instilled in thousands of people a lifelong belief that they too could easily cook no matter how many mistakes they make. Decades later, when new generations of professional chefs started becoming known personalities and even celebrities in the United States, many of them (if not all) had Julia Child’s name on their list of biggest inspirations. Professionals aside, thousands of ordinary American housewives became lifelong fans and admirers of the charming TV chef, who successfully added a brilliant change of flavor, quite literally, to their usual lives.

Julia Child’s brilliant success, which was unforeseen, to say the least, also quickly paved a new path for the infotainment genre of television which instantly came far closer to common people than high art or literature and intelligent science. The concept of a cooking program being made into a successful TV show, where a chef is seen preparing dishes with ingredients available locally, had become a staple of television almost all over the world by the time it became commonplace as a medium. A snippet from “The French Chef” is shown at the beginning of ‘Julia’ where the woman cooks roast chicken and then turns the dish around a certain way saying that she is doing it so that whenever the viewer thinks of roast chicken, they get that particular image of the dish in their mind. So many years later, such a visual concept is exactly how food products and restaurants advertise their dishes, with very similar presentations. ‘Julia’ puts it beyond any doubt that Julia Child defined the position of food in television entertainment, and also revolutionized food as a supremely important seat in popular culture as a whole. Her contribution in the field was in ways more than just one as she became the first prominent woman figure in American (and perhaps even the world) television amidst a time when females were mostly characterized as background figures, or some kind of extended props to sell things. Yet now here was Julia; where she was the center of her show, and this was instantly supported by viewers. Not only did she contribute to bringing women to the forefront, but also in doing a similar thing for professional chefs. Before her time, chefs and the act of cooking were largely avoided elements in the culinary practice, but with her growing figure as a personality, the act of cooking too became one that was brought to light and something that started being celebrated.

What Was Julia’s Background, And How Was She Introduced To French Cooking?

Along with delving deep into Julia Child’s success and contributions, ‘Julia’ explores the woman’s past and traces her own inspirations in becoming who she was. Julia was born in California to a fairly conservative family with a profitable business. While growing up, she had no experience in cooking as all meals in her house were prepared by hired cooks. At the time of WWII, Julia signed up as a typist mostly out of patriotic sentiment to help her country in whatever way possible, and was soon hired by the Office of Strategic Services, the US intelligence agency that later formulated into the CIA. During her time with the agency, she was sent to Sri Lanka, called Ceylon at the time, and it was here that she first met another OSS member, Paul Child. Although Paul was attracted to Julia’s physical appearance, she had no such initial feelings, and the two started to be friends. Gradually, Julia grew an interest in Paul when they were then posted in China, particularly about how much the man knew about the world and how much interest he kept in knowing more. After the war ended, they returned to the USA and soon married, much to the bewilderment of Julia’s lifelong Republican father, as Paul was a liberal Democrat. Since the war was now over, the US government started sending people as diplomatic corps, and Paul was soon posted to Paris because he knew French very well. This was what opened up the big doors of not just French cuisine to Julia, but also introduced her to how close food was to life. In France, food was always considered a part of life and was even considered art, and this was easily felt by Julia during her time in Paris. After having realized how far she was from her old American life and perspective, Julia enrolled herself at The Cordon Bleu, the oldest culinary school in Paris. There she learned the artistry of cooking from top professional chefs. After some time, she met with a woman named Simone Beck, or Simca, as she was better known, and quickly befriended her. Together with Simone and her friend named, Louisette Bertholle, Julia started teaching cooking to other American women in France. Realizing that cookbooks lacked the necessary details at the time, they started writing their own book with properly detailed recipes, but the work was rejected by an American publishing house who claimed that it was too detailed and, therefore, difficult for the American masses. Finally, though, the book was accepted and published when Julia Child had returned to the US, and it did garner some attention. But, more importantly, this book titled “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” gave Julia the chance to appear on a book review show on WGBH-TV, and there was no looking back.

The documentary film also beautifully presents Julia’s personality, which was always very unassuming and down to earth, even at the height of her success. Chefs and TV presenters who had the experience of working with her bear witness to how easy and fun she was to work with. Julia also made use of her image as a public icon to show support for important issues such as women’s employment in the food business sector, planned parenthood, and sex education. Despite being quite against homosexuals in her early life, she corrected her prejudices and turned her view after the sad demise of her lawyer and friend, Bob Johnson, who was a gay man who died of AIDS. Julia hosted a grand AIDS benefit program, as she was already a very established TV personality by this time, and then became quite vocal about her support for the homosexual community. Her husband and love of her life, Paul, continued to support her throughout their lives, even giving up his own career and ambitions to support his wife. Paul also provided supreme love and support to her during and after her recovery from breast cancer. Julia Child remained unfalteringly dedicated to her profession and passion and kept working even when she was 87 years old.

When Julia Child passed away in 2004 at the age of 91, her name was already shining bright in the pages of popular culture. “Julia” presents an entertaining story of how this one singular woman shaped the present with regard to food appreciation and the part that it plays in modern human lives. The film’s editing and overall direction deserve praise, and overall, “Julia” is a truly great watch.

“Julia” is a 2022 Documentary film directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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