The Bookshelf: Julia Child's The French Chef

Julia Child's The French Chef

Now that we inhabit a supersaturated food-media world of flawless camera-ready meals, secret ingredients, and down-to-the buzzer cooking, it's no surprise that the pioneers of the genre can be overshadowed by their flashier descendents. So when Dana Polan, professor of cinema studies at New York University, came by last week's Beard on Books to discuss his latest book, Julia Child's The French Chef, we asked him some questions about Child, her groundbreaking cooking show, and the evolution of the medium.   James Beard Foundation: You write that viewers of food television in the 1960s, which was a very volatile era, took comfort in the predictability of cooking shows. Today’s food shows are more suspenseful; we don’t know if the contestants on Chopped will actually finish the dish. What's the explanation for this change? Dana Polan: I think it's a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, there is some suspense on a show like Chopped, but even if some contestants don't finish the challenge, others will and there will always be a winner. There is closure and there is success, just as when Julia Child always managed to pull things off by the end of an episode, even if we worried along the way that she might not make it. Another part of the paradox is that each episode of The French Chef was filmed from beginning to end with no interruption and no retakes, while today's shows clearly involve lots of manipulation of time and even some downright cheating. (Those remaining ten minutes go awfully fast on Chopped!) Yet even though Child was being filmed in real time, she always managed to get the job done, while today's contestants do sometimes screw up (and their flubs aren't edited out). But I would venture to guess that it's still rare for a show with only one chef in the kitchen (say, Rachael Ray or Guy Fieri) to not have that chef pull it off by end of the episode. Contestant shows can have one contestant flub it because some other contestant won't, and will thereby still manage to bring the episode to closure. It's about losers, but it's also still about winners, just as Child always won her own races with time. JBF: While Julia Child followed specific French techniques, you mention that she understood that shortcuts are sometimes necessary. How do you think she would react to the shortcuts taken in today's food shows? DP: It's hard to say. On the one hand, she was often a very generous figure and a veritable mentor to those coming up in the culinary world after her. She might have been tolerant of the compromises that are in place now (Rachael Ray's dumbed-down meals, for example). On the other hand, she did believe in standards and values, so she might have been less patient if she thought those were being betrayed. She thought cooking always had to keep two ideals in mind: the enjoyment of the process and the enjoyment of the end result. If shortcuts cut out either of these, she would have been annoyed. Thus, it's okay to use labor-saving devices and labor-saving ingredients (store-bought broth, for example), but only if this doesn't take the fun out of cooking and doesn't take good taste out of the food. JBF: James Beard’s television show aired in a time before the medium of television had really taken off. Can you expand upon the differences between Beard’s show and Child’s show? DP: James Beard had several cooking shows that aired from 1946 to 1947. My discussion of this in the book actually condenses a longer chronicle of Beard's early television efforts that I published in the Summer 2010 issue of Gastronomica. The Beard shows survive as audio only in the Recorded Sound division of the Library of Congress. This was a period before a filmic record could be made of television shows, so we don't know in detail what the episodes looked like. But from the tapes (and from NBC transcripts, also at the Library of Congress), we can determine some of the things that happened during the tapings. First, Beard often had guests playing fictional characters, so his shows were not about the solitary cook alone in the kitchen. The shows often feigned fictional scenarios within which Beard cooked. In one episode, he’s supposed to be in a ski chalet during the winter and cooks breakfast for two friends who come in from the slopes. Second, Beard's shows had commercial sponsors; he does a lot of shtick in service of plugging the sponsors' productions. In one surviving audio, he tells a guest of a nightmare he had in which he forgot the names of all the wonderful Borden products, and he then proceeds to enumerate them; in another, Elsie the Cow's husband calls him to suggest a way to promote Borden products by juggling them and naming them one by one. At the same time, like Child later, Beard engaged in comic repartee (and bad puns!), but also showed a strong pedagogical side by giving the history of each ingredient and its cultural and culinary importance. He wasn't just teaching cooking but teaching food culture, and in this way he anticipated Child. JBF: Could Julia Child have been successful in the food television of today? Why or why not? DP: This is a great question, and a really hard one to answer. She was the first television cook to really make a dynamic personality important to the culinary demonstration, and in this way she prepared the path for later “infotainment” cooking television. On the other hand, there was a seriousness of purpose and a devotion to the culinary cause in her that isn't always apparent in all cooking television today. She tried to balance entertainment and education, and a lot of food television today tips the scales toward pure spectacle and pure show. Her shows already were much more showy than what came before, but they never were showy for their own sake. Additionally, it's clear that a lot of food television today is about younger personalities in whom dashing, sexy looks matter almost more than culinary skill; Julia Child was far from that profile. At the same time, the explosion of channels through cable, along with the other platforms like the web and downloadable apps, means that there's a huge need for culinary content to fill up so many outlets. Maybe Child wouldn't have been considered prime-time material today, but perhaps she could have found an important niche somewhere. And, in a way, that's sort of happening: the Food Network is filled with the new dynamic (and young and dashing) personalities, while its companion channel, the Cooking Channel, was running old episodes of The French Chef to fill up time.

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