Bless This Mess: Sweeping the Kitchen With Julia Child

Not very many of us have the distinction of being portrayed onscreen by both Meryl Streep and Dan Aykroyd (although, for some, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time).

This fact alone speaks volumes about the impact of Julia Child, the cooking icon who worked her way into America’s kitchens in book form and into America’s living rooms on television. The lady was everywhere for decades.

As to these remarkably diverse portrayals and her opinions on them, Child was reportedly such a fan of Aykroyd’s Saturday Night Live spoof that she showed recordings of the sketch to visiting friends. Streep’s much more serious and accurate turn as Child in 2009’s Julie & Julia was a performance that, sadly, Julia Child did not live to see. She was reportedly unamused by Julie Powell’s blog and book that led to the film. However, Streep’s acclaimed interpretation of Child was informed by Julia’s own book My Life in France (written with grand-nephew Alex Prud’homme) and gave a dead-on impression of our subject, near-falsetto voice and all, never once seeming like she was poking even gentle fun at the lady.

As the next role based on a real-life person Streep took was that of Margaret Thatcher in 2011’s The Iron Lady, clearly Child is in serious company. (There has, to date, been no announcement concerning Aykroyd taking on the Thatcher role.)

By the time one could even make the observation about Aykroyd and Streep, Julia Child had gone beyond her non-culinary beginnings, beyond “upstart”, beyond “household name”, beyond “celebrity” and up into “legendary” status. By her own admission she didn’t start cooking until the age of 32. By the time of her passing, almost 60 years later, Julia Child had turned home cooks into gourmet chefs all over the world, became a bestselling author and a television sensation.

How did this happen, especially for to a tall young lady from Pasadena whose closest link to cooking, early on, was the fact that she loved, loved, loved to eat?

Well, love to eat, she did, to the point that she grew up to a height of 6’2” by the time the woman then known as Julia McWilliams, took a job as a typist with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. There, she met and married Paul Child, an artist and poet with a sensitive palate. Their love, and mutual love of food, led to their marriage which led them both to Paris where Paul was soon assigned by the US State Department.

And Paris changed everything. Until then, Julia Child was an aspiring and unsuccessful unpublished writer whose favorite hobby was eating. She was aimless up until this point, but her love for food led her to Le Cordon Bleu cooking school where she found her calling. Not many of us get to wait until we’re 32 years of age to find our purpose in life, but thankfully she did.

Her next big step was her own cooking school with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle called L’école des trois gourmandes (which might translate today as “The School of the Three Foodies”). Beck and Bourholle had invited Julia Child to collaborate with them on their idea for a French Cookbook for Americans. It was the charm of Childs that infused both the book and the informal school’s curriculum with success. Although it would take another decade before Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, it was this same charm that made Julia Child an unprecedented success from that point on.

Meryl Streep as Julia Child in
Julie & Julia (2009)

Up until this point the concept of French food was a tough cacahouète to crack, but Julia Child’s humor and forthright friendliness seemed to say “I’m one of you. I started late and I can do it, so you can too.”

When Child took to the local airwaves in Boston, this unique way made her show an immediate success that spread from WGBH to national PBS stations. More television shows and books followed to the point that Julia Child was more than a superstar but a name synonymous with fine food.

Over the years the criticisms came as often as the accolades. The inaccessibility of French cooking had benefitted some chefs who were less than pleased with the concept that anyone could cook. The way Child spoke in the high, spirited way she had, the health concerns of the higher fat recipes she taught and even the very accessible, good friend methods she employed were also fodder for criticism over the years. These things did little to tarnish her popularity or influence (although often familiarity tends to be an ingredient in the recipe for contempt).

On the other hand, her likability and familiar presence in the public eye also led to rumors and even urban legends. From the more extreme side, there is an oft-repeated rumor that before her license to grill, Child had a license to kill and that her OSS days were packed with espionage and intrigue. There is, of course, no evidence that she ever held a Walther PPK instead of a frying pan and took on James Bond villains instead of hungry audiences. It might make for a hilarious movie, though.

Harvey Korman as a four armed alien
version of Julia Child in
The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

On the bizarre, but almost believable side is the near omnipresent urban legend that expanded on Child’s happy catchlines “In the kitchen, nobody can see you.” and “Who’s to know?” The dubious legend suggests that Ms Julia dropped an entire raw turkey on the floor during an episode’s taping, dusted the bird off, returned it to the pan and assured her audience “Remember, you’re alone in the kitchen.”

Variations on the rumor have kept it going for years, stretching its credibility as often as the food item itself varied in the telling. Whether it was indicated to be a salmon, a chicken, a lamb a roast or a duck, the vaguely stomach-turning rumor is as unrelenting as it is hard to believe. However, this rumor still managed to show up in such respected publications as The Washington Post (where the item was identified as a lamb) and such news shows as NPR’s Morning Edition (where it was a chicken).

In truth, this never happened. The closest reality came to the tall tale was Child’s flipping of a potato pancake out of the pan and onto… her pristinely clean counter, not the floor. While she did scoop the pancake back into the pan with a casual “You are alone in the kitchen and nobody can see you.” this was hardly the poultry health risk that makes the stuff of legend.

As a testament to Child’s likability, even this more realistic rumor did little to downgrade the lady’s reputation. If anything, the repeated story was used as an example that nobody is perfect and that even the first lady of the kitchen could make mistakes. After all, she was still one of us, wasn’t she?

On the flip side, Julia Child’s legacy goes beyond her sweet friendliness on television and her kind instruction in her books into a darker area. Child’s down to Earth style of celebrity and the concept that everyone can cook led to a great many other cooking shows popping up over the years to the point that they became an industry all their own and the “celebrity chef” is now a TV trope, much more than a destination dining experience.

Over the decades we have gone from The French Chef, Julia Child & Company, Dinner with Julia and Julia Child & More Company to Kitchen Nightmares, Hell’s Kitchen, Bitchin’ Kitchen and Kitchen Confidential, often starring hosts that would less likely invite you into their homes and declare that “everyone should enjoy food and have fun” than berate you in a midi-series of bleeps and then step on your throat.

The TV trend of the cooking show owes an enormous debt to its first major genre celebrity in Julia Child. We have grown, over the decades, beyond a show or two taking up about an hour a week on a station or two to entire major television channels like “The Food Network” and “The Cooking Channel” to choose from. However, Julia Child’s natural invitation into domesticity was also a direct influence on the Reality Television boom.

For years, Child worked on studio sets with kitchens built into them, but starting with the mid-1990s series In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs, Julia’s studio set was her own home. Paul Child designed and had built a deluxe forward-facing kitchen with both state-of-the-art cooking technology and Julia’s favorite old appliances (such as her famous “squeaking door” oven) as well as professional lighting and three strategically positioned cameras for all angles. From that point forward, viewers were not simply inviting Julia Child into their homes, Julia Child was inviting them into her own.

Dan Aykroyd as Julia Child on
Saturday Night Live

She has been spoofed in everything from the aforementioned Saturday Night Live skit to Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire film to even a remarkably strange portion of the already surreal The Star Wars Holiday Special, as represented by a four-armed(!) Harvey Korman. However, she has been paid tribute to even more often, from Julie & Julia to the 1989 musical Bon Appétit! to just about every cooking-based show since her first one debuted.

In truth, her biggest influence and tribute may be the very things her invisible fingerprints are on, but her name is not. Although her legacy does have a bit of a dark side (through no fault of her own, aside from her very popularity and accessibility), the influence of Julia Child turned American cooking around for the better, inviting us all to be gourmets and impacting pop culture to an unquestionable degree.

These impacts keep coming, eight years after her 2004 death. And this year, Julia Child turns 100! The Centennial of Julia Child comes during a time of great and obvious impact from our first lady of the kitchen. Just look at the full schedules of the multiple 24-hour cooking channels out there. Looks like we’ll have to wait until movers in pop culture cut out the middle man and Meryl Streep wins her next Oscar for actually playing Dan Aykroyd. Bon Appétit!!!

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