Over these last several weeks, my priorities have gotten pretty simple. I really only have two: stay [mostly] sane, and eat enough food each day to keep me alive until the next day arrives. Easy, right? You’d think so, but it turns out I need help with both. Thankfully, television has swooped in with the answer. My hero, my head coach, my culinary therapist-in-chief, is the one and only Julia Child. I started watching her classic show The French Chef a couple of weeks ago, and I’m convinced she’s the beacon of awesomeness we all need right now. Why? I’ll tell you why.
- Julia Child is the least full of shit person I have ever seen on television—a true blessing during a time when our collective bullshit meter is just about TAPPED OUT. She tells it fully, unrepentantly as it is, on matters culinary and otherwise. And she’s not shy about her opinions, either. In an episode titled “Bringing In The New Year” (S2E4), she shows us a small rolling pin she bought at her favorite hardware store*, and then, proclaiming “This is a toy!”, she slams it into the garbage can—with force, guys. She goes on to explain that she wanted viewers at home to understand that small rolling pins are (and I’m slightly paraphrasing here, but I think she’d approve) totally worthless and should never be used by anyone, ever, for any purpose, let alone baking. This is my kind of woman. The fact that she has no discernable agenda other than stating facts and hyping your own ability to cook tasty French food makes her seem trustworthy and reliable, two qualities that are a major plus during a crisis.
*Side note, a hardware store that also sells cookware? It’s the most quaint thing I’ve heard all day. Julia mentions buying all sorts of things at hers, from the notorious trash pin to roasting pans, cutting boards, kitchen twine, and handy tools of every kind. Do you have one where you live? I don’t, and I’m incredibly jealous of you if you do.
- Speaking of hyping your own abilities, Mrs. Child is all about it. First of all, the way she approaches each dish with humor, gusto, and can-do spirit makes you feel like no meal is beyond your capability. She’s like some kind of old-timey camp counselor who convinces you you can build a whole canoe from an old crate and some rusty nails, just with the force of her height and the volume of her voice. Second, in every episode, she offers straightforward encouragement and step-by-step instructions in simple, regular-person language. When Julia first began teaching, her goal was to convince American home cooks that French cuisine wasn’t some mystical monolith, but a totally manageable conduit to simple joy. With the French Chef, she meets that aim over and over again, helping you believe in your own potential for greater self-sufficiency—a true comfort when the systems we rely on seem to be crumbling all around us. “Yes“, you’ll say to yourself, “I CAN truss this chicken*, and I can also survive this insane pandemic”. And you’ll be right.
*Find yourself someone who loves you as much as Julia Child loves trussing chickens.
- Finally, Julia Child makes mistakes, and she also makes a mess. In “The Potato Show” (S1E22), she accidentally flips a pan of potato mash onto a burner—a highly relatable fail. Throughout the series, she watches benignly as tools or ingredients roll off the counter, slosh out of pans or containers, spill, burst, break, or otherwise do things that modern TV producers would never, ever let you see. She jams dirty pots and platters into whatever space she can find, she wipes her hands on her apron, she wipes her face with her towel. In short, she acts like an actual home cook– as opposed to a slick, Instagram-ready infotainer. She demonstrates that regardless of your skill level, mishaps and do-overs are an integral (and surmountable) part of the process, not something to be ashamed or afraid of. There’s a timely life lesson in there somewhere.
After you get a few hours under your belt, the warts-and-all aesthetic of The French Chef might just have you questioning the whole model of television production as we know it (if you’re not already doing that). Why aren’t we allowed to see more TV personalities stumbling and picking themselves up? Especially with programming that’s supposed to help us learn, wouldn’t audiences benefit from (and welcome!) an honest look at the process? There’s a whole tangent I could go on about how the un-reality of contemporary TV has created a society that values the synthetic and the symbolic above all else, to our staggering detriment, but I’ll save it. For now I just want you to watch Julia Child and cook something super tasty. Bon appetit!
One last little note: you can find Madame Sheeld (as the French sometimes called her, according to her wonderful, warm autobiography, My Life In France—a highly recommended read) on both PBS streaming, and Amazon Prime; PBS has a nice handful of episodes, but Prime has the whole haul. I initially thought I’d skip the old black-and-white eps in favor of the later, full-color seasons, but it’s a testament to Julia’s charm and spirit that even the grainy monochrome episodes (which began airing way back in 1961) are inviting and appealing. Another great way in is the recent PBS show Dishing With Julia Child, which features famous contemporary chefs watching and commenting on some of their favorite episodes of The French Chef. Seeing food-world heavies like Eric Ripert, Marcus Samuelsson, and Martha Stewart geek out over Julia’s knife skills or hosting quirks is so much fun, and it’s a great way to get perspective on how TV has changed, and what an enormous influence Julia has had across the culinary spectrum.