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 is still inspiring home cooks and fascinating TV showrunners and filmmakers.
Most recent is the HBO Max drama series, “Julia,” about her life and beginnings in public TV, a cooking competition, “The Julia Child Challenge” on Discovery Plus, and the 2021 documentary, “Julia,” that debuted last fall.
The Gazette spoke with culinary expert Marylène Altieri, curator of books and printed materials at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, which holds the collection of Child’s papers, photographs, audio and video recordings, and private cookbook library. 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?
ALTIERI: A couple of things are at play. One is just the improbability of her success. Today’s standards of television expectations of how women should look while they’re cooking — the low-cut tight tops, the beautifully arranged hair and makeup — is still a reflection of what was expected of women on television then. There had been women cooking on television already, 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 that somehow, against all odds, succeeds with the public.
And then behind that, there was also the success of her books, particularly “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The people in charge had no idea how successful that book was going to be either. They thought it was too long, too complicated. And yet, it became phenomenally successful, too. So, this against-all-odds narrative continues to appeal to people because what we’re fed most of the time on television is perfect-looking television hosts and the cookbooks have to be perfect coffee table books. And her work didn’t fit into either of those categories very neatly. And then, the fact that she was around for such a long time too. She didn’t just do one show and go away. She was in the public eye for years.
GAZETTE: She’s credited with introducing French cooking to Americans, with revolutionizing cookbook publishing, and popularizing TV cooking shows. In what other ways was she influential?
ALTIERI: Julia comes up at a time when a lot of women aspired to be wonderful cooks, but everyday cooking was drudgery to them. I’ve talked to women who lived in Cambridge at the time that “Mastering” came out. A group of faculty wives and faculty women, some were teaching at Harvard, met at the Wursthaus every week for lunch and went through the book and decided what recipes they were going to cook for their dinners that week.
These were people who had very busy lives and plenty else to do, but they aspired to reach that level of cooking. They wanted to do it and do it well. So, she did inspire a lot of people to want to cook better and went to great efforts 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 restaurants. She never had, herself, but they came to her — Lydia Shire, Jody Adams, Michela Larson — all the different chefs and restaurateurs who have spoken about how inspirational she was. Nina Simonds, for example, who writes books on Chinese cookery, went to Julia Child to ask her how do you go to another country and learn? Julia gave her a lot of advice and recommendations. Nina went on to translate Chinese cookbooks into English and wrote many highly regarded works herself. Julia, famously, was so accessible that she would answer her telephone on Thanksgiving Day and talk to people who were having trouble with their turkey. She just influenced people in so many different ways and was a model for women in general beyond cooking.