Julia Child's the French Chef

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Julia Child’s TV show, The French Chef, was extraordinarily popular during its broadcast from 1963 until 1973. Child became a cultural icon in the 1960s, and, in the years since, she and her show have remained enduring influences on American cooking, American television, and American culture. In this concise book, Dana Polan considers what made Child’s program such a success. It was not the first televised cooking show, but it did define and popularize the genre. Polan examines the development of the show, its ...

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Julia Child’s TV show, The French Chef, was extraordinarily popular during its broadcast from 1963 until 1973. Child became a cultural icon in the 1960s, and, in the years since, she and her show have remained enduring influences on American cooking, American television, and American culture. In this concise book, Dana Polan considers what made Child’s program such a success. It was not the first televised cooking show, but it did define and popularize the genre. Polan examines the development of the show, its day-to-day production, and its critical and fan reception. He argues that The French Chef changed the conventions of television’s culinary culture by rendering personality indispensable. Child was energetic and enthusiastic, and her cooking lessons were never just about food preparation, although she was an effective and unpretentious instructor. They were also about social mobility, the discovery of foreign culture, and a personal enjoyment and fulfillment that promised to transcend domestic drudgery. Polan situates Julia Child and The French Chef in their historical and cultural moment, while never losing sight of Child’s unique personality and captivating on-air presence.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[A] history of early American television telescoped through the persona and history of Julia Child. . . . [F]ascinating. . . . Mr. Polan’s meticulous work in Julia Child’s The French Chef contributes much to the growing literature on American food history.” - Cynthia D. Bertelsen, New York Journal of Books

“[Polan’s] writing is consistently engaging, whether he's discussing chicken carcasses being made to dance along the counter or the technical implications of a dropped soufflé. He also brings a steady influx of humor and interesting tangents to his account. . . . Thoroughly researched and wonderfully illuminating, Polan's book will earn admiration in both readers interested in television and those interested in Julia Child.” - Andi Diehn, ForeWord

Julia Child’s The French Chef is a fabulous book filled with delicious nuggets about the television series that changed what Americans ate—and what Americans watched on television. The book is both entertaining and informative, and it is timely, for it has been nearly fifty years since the series first aired. Dana Polan is as bright, insightful, and companionable as was the television series. Bravo!”—Andrew F. Smith, Editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America

“In Julia Child’s The French Chef, Dana Polan offers a fascinating new perspective on Child and her on-air persona. He demonstrates the crucial interplay among the celebrity (Julia), handler (her husband, Paul), and producer (the public television station WGBH), and the way they all came together into such a magical whole. This investigation is an important contribution to our understanding of Child’s seminal role in shaping American attitudes toward food.”—Darra Goldstein, Editor in Chief, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture

“With a refreshing intellectual passion, Dana Polan offers a compelling glimpse into the industrial and cultural ethos of Julia Child and her television show, The French Chef. Polan carefully delineates a model for how to study the media through an individual program, and in so doing, provides a definitive reason for the need to study popular culture in a theoretically and methodologically rigorous way. Essential for those in food and food-related studies, this insightful and engaging book will also be a must-read for media studies scholars.”—Sarah Banet-Weiser, author of Kids Rule!: Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship

Cynthia D. Bertelsen
“[A] history of early American television telescoped through the persona and history of Julia Child. . . . [F]ascinating. . . . Mr. Polan’s meticulous work in Julia Child’s The French Chef contributes much to the growing literature on American food history.”
Andi Diehn
“[Polan’s] writing is consistently engaging, whether he's discussing chicken carcasses being made to dance along the counter or the technical implications of a dropped soufflé. He also brings a steady influx of humor and interesting tangents to his account. . . . Thoroughly researched and wonderfully illuminating, Polan's book will earn admiration in both readers interested in television and those interested in Julia Child.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822348726
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 7/31/2011
  • Series: Spin Offs Series
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Dana Polan is Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is the author of The Sopranos, also published by Duke University Press, and Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film.

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Read an Excerpt

Julia Child's The French Chef


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4872-6

Chapter One

The Difference She Made

An episode of a TV cooking show begins. The first few instants of the initial shot have a bare-bones simplicity and directness and even a whiff of the generic about them. In close-up, on a baking tray on a kitchen counter, we see a large metal pot bottom side up and arranged around it a circle of baked ladyfingers. The edge of someone's hand, a woman's hand with a wedding ring on one finger, is visible at the top of the image, and in a moment the camera, by pulling back from its close-up and shifting a bit to the side, will reframe the scene to bring the hand fully into view as it picks up one of the baked goods to show off to the spectator while the credits fade in over the image. This is the beginning of "Introducing Charlotte Malakoff," episode 65 of Julia Child's The French Chef.

The shot, in black and white, offers a very limited depth of field that both renders the background soft and blurry and concentrates attention on those hands energetically going about their business. Except perhaps for the somewhat specialness of the food item being presented (Frenchified baked goods), this appears to be cooking pedagogy (and cooking television, in particular) at its most basic—pared down to its most fundamental state as the encounter of human intent, instruments (in this case, bare hands), and a foodstuff on which controlled and calculated demonstrations and transformations will be enacted and presented to an audience. It's a lot like what viewers already would have seen often if they watched daytime television in the 1950s and 1960s.

But almost from the first instant, a voice has kicked in—that notable voice, the voice of Julia Child. "Under this silver drum is Miss Charlotte Malakoff, who with the support of 'Lady Fingers,'" she declares bouncily and cheerfully, "is about to take part in an intriguing dessert drama today on The French Chef." From the start, then, we're not simply in a prosaic site of quotidian cookery. Quite the contrary: We are in a special place that is totally Julia Child's, a joyful, even wacky, world for which she sets the terms. This is a voice that commentators for years have strained to try to find words adequate to describe its special quality: Is it a breathless warble? Is it a lilting and lifting vibration? Is it shrill or sonorous? Is it composed of snorts and grunts or of eloquent enunciations? Is it vulgar or marked rather by upper-crust emphases that resonate with the speaker's social origin in the moneyed world of white-bread Pasadena, California? One is tempted to imagine that this voice is unique and inimitable except that hearing it seems to lead so many listeners to feel impelled, precisely, to imitate it. Maybe the fact that no one else has this voice makes so many people want to assay its imitation (the most famous being Dan Ackroyd's hilarious impersonation of Child on Saturday Night Live in 1978, which led a whole generation of television viewers who never had watched her shows to feel still that they knew Julia Child; of course, we now can add to the notable attempts at mimicry Meryl Streep's star turn as Child in the fractured biopic Julie and Julia, for which she was nominated for an Oscar).

In the opening scene of "Charlotte Malakoff," Child's voice qualifies the anonymous image of culinary activity and turns it into something special, something personified, something embodied. And along with that voice comes further embodiment as the camera pulls out of its initial close-up to reveal Child herself in all her larger-than-life presence of personality. A strapping, six-foot-two-inch bundle of vivacity and boundless energy and enthusiasm, Julia Child commands the scene, her posture a blend of confidence and control and a comical wavering as if she were both sure of the culinary mission before her but vulnerable to a catastrophic loss of control at any moment. This presence, this personality, along with the quite visible tensions she embodied between control and chaos, would make all the difference for American television in the 1960s—indeed, for American culture more broadly in that decade—and it's fully there on display in the first few seconds of Child's "Introducing Charlotte Malakoff."

In fact, any episode of The French Chef could serve as a reminder of why Julia Child became so key to the cultivation of modern American lifestyle and leisure culture in the latter part of the twentieth century. On the one hand, as I've learned, you only have to start showing a clip of her to students, colleagues, or friends, and the infectious laughter and enjoyment kick in. She stands for a quite particularly American embodiment of boisterous fun. On the other hand, many viewers clearly were getting something more than mere comedy by watching her: They were being offered lessons in a whole way of living and being and doing. And that too was her importance to her times.

Julia Child's pedagogy was of a generous, open sort. Against dogma, but also against mechanical and slavish obedience, Child didn't simply enumerate ingredients and recipe steps and then order her audience to follow her blindly. Instead, she took the time to clarify why things could—or in some cases, certainly should—be done as she was doing them (and why this or that variant would or wouldn't be as good). She made sure viewers knew the logic of her kitchen practices and could learn to judge them from within. Take, for instance, episode 45 of The French Chef, "Artichokes from Top to Bottom." Here, in just the first four minutes, one learns about the seasonality of artichokes, about the parts that make up the vegetable, about the best way to buy it (what to look for and what to avoid), about the different varieties of artichoke, and about the most typical way to cook them. In the remainder of the half-hour show, one also is taught the steps in cooking artichokes in non-standard ways, what not to do (for example, the water shouldn't be salted because this is bad for the vitamins contained in the artichoke and gives the vegetable a bad flavor), how to avoid discoloration (rub the artichoke with lemon), how to make artichoke dishes particularly attractive for when company is coming over (and even what plates to buy if one is doing such entertaining regularly), how to incorporate culinary etiquette into the presentation to invitees (for example, you will be "nice to your guests" if you remove the choke at the center of the vegetable before serving), how to make a sauce to fill an artichoke bottom and what main dishes it might accompany, and how to do all of this in the intimacy of the home yet with a professionalism that shows respect for food and for its preparation. There's constant humor along the way, but it is always linked to Child's assumption and acceptance of a fundamental instructional mission geared to careful and logical explanation.

The French Chef, we must then acknowledge, was, quite simply, based on good, effective pedagogy, even with all the larger-than-life, entertaining spectacle bound up in the dynamic figure of Julia Child. As Child's book editor, Judith Jones, notes, Child's teacherly talents centered on her clear and careful explanation of the logic behind technique (not just what to do but why to do it that way); on her reasoned analysis of ingredients (not just what they were but what each one contributed to the recipe and why they were recommended); on her clarification of what results to anticipate in each step of the culinary process and, importantly, on her willingness to pinpoint risky moments when a recipe might go wrong; and, most of all, on her honesty in showing that she could still make mistakes but then could offer suggestions about how either to avoid them the next time around or make do with them once they happened. Her TV show, for all its showmanship, also provided clear-cut instruction of a particularly compelling sort.

During her first years in France—where she had accompanied her husband, Paul, when he took up a post as a cultural attaché for the U.S. government in Paris, and where she decided to make it her life's mission to soak up as much practical training and lore about French cooking as possible—Julia Child had frequently encountered a dogmatism that held that the culinary accomplishments of this most reputed of national cuisines had to be brought about one way and one way only. She had even been warned that only men could aspire to the summits of haute cuisine, and that rankled her. Child knew she loved the food and felt passionately that she could, to cite the title of her first book, "master" it. To her mind, French cuisine had a perfection of taste that could be felt in an instant—namely, the precise and punctual moment of tasting where one experienced a supremacy of achievement and, literally, internalized it. Reliably, Julia Child's autobiography replays that recurrent trope of the American visitor to France who has a special meal that, in a veritable epiphany, is a life-transforming lesson in culinary purity and intensity of taste. At the same time, Child held emphatically to the idea that there might be any number of paths to such perfect taste moments, and there should be no hoity-toity dogma about the process. As we'll see later, one might even achieve genius in the kitchen with commercial products such as mass-manufactured broths or stocks as long as they were used (or doctored) in ways that made them French-like in taste. Indeed, in the specifically geographic context of America, her notion of "mastering the art of French cooking" frequently meant not cooking exactly as the French do but cooking in ways that would lead to results comparable to those of the French.

At the same time, it is worth noting that there could be a dogma of low cuisine along with the high, and this Child eschewed too—namely, the imposition of a compromised and compromising standardized American cookery promoted as a set of shortcuts and tricks one engaged in mechanically to get around the burdensome awareness that one's family had to be fed but that one really didn't like feeding them. In such terms, Peg Bracken's streamlined open-a-can-when-you-can approach to food preparation in the bestselling I Hate to Cook Book (1960) was no less dogmatic in its manner than the snootiest of French culinary academicians. For Bracken, anyone who needed to simply get the meals out—and for her, this meant most American housewives—should slavishly follow her instructions and not ask questions and not need to know the logic behind what she was doing. Like any good postwar science project, cooking became reduced to mechanical, engineered solutions to empirical problems in, in this case, the feeding of family. For example, if the fact that most months have thirty or thirty-one days meant that one needed to come up with that many dinners, then the reader should be given that exact number of step-by-step recipes to follow, one after the other, and should execute them without question or personal creativity. (Actually, Bracken provided only thirty such recipes, allowing that one could go out to a restaurant on the last day of months with thirty-one days; here, one was on one's own and had to order for oneself.) Insofar as not thinking for oneself was part of the conformist side of the 1950s into the 1960s, shortcut cooking of the Peg Bracken sort was easily a political expression of the times in encouraging an anti-intellectual obedience to authority in the service of domestic tranquility.

In contrast, Julia Child's pedagogical procedure was steeped in a desire to explain and to gain her readers' and viewers' deep-felt assent rather than simply and dogmatically to order them around. Given the state of much American cuisine at the beginning of the 1960s—a canned, processed, artificially sweetened, and gummy cuisine—Julia Child's very insistence on eating tasty food with a sensual enjoyment combined with intellective understanding might itself have been an opening up of everyday American life. In her enthusiasm and her commitment, she stood out.

To be sure, some other culinary propagandists had been calling for an uplift of food in America through the mediation of hearty homespun cuisine and European distinctiveness in taste. On the one hand, new concerns for social status increasingly were impelling some American cooks toward a gastronomy that would be open to foreign influences (French by the beginning of the 1960s, Asian by the end) and thereby to new tastes both subtle and uniquely striking that would make one's fare take on aura and distinction. On the other hand, a recurrent desire to both document and celebrate American regionalist cuisine had found new proponents in the postwar period in figures such as James Beard and Clementine Paddleford, who extolled how local culinary fare could itself be a source of aura and distinction, enlivening mainstream food with accents of authenticity, vibrancy and depth of taste, social festiveness, and so on and substituting for mass-market standardization.

Paddleford, for instance, roamed the United States on journalistic assignment from 1948 to 1960 to sample the richness of American culinary byways and then to collect the relevant recipes in a joyous celebration of regionalism, the masterly and monumental How America Eats. Across the nation, she found a diversity of tastes, derived both from local context and, significantly, from America's productive indigenization of all the cultures (for example, immigrant cultures) that had fed into its mongrel identity as a melting-pot nation. In a way, American cuisine, for Paddleford, was inextricably and eminently a foreign cuisine, and this gave it unique opportunities for gustatory excellence, but without dandified pretension. In the words of her biographers, "Her work focused on history and tradition and sought to undermine ideas that most people had about American cooking—that it had no authenticity, that it consisted of meals made entirely from packaged foods, that it was unexciting and uninviting—by bringing to life the people and the joy behind good home-cooked food." There could be a vibrant, resonant American food for every taste, and the possibilities and promise went well beyond homogenized fare rendered bland by top-down standardization. To take just one example, the very last recipe in How America Eats is for chile rellenos (admittedly, with two of the seven ingredients from cans); it offers then a final assertion of Paddleford's willingness throughout her big book to tell Americans about aspects of their cuisine that all might not have known about but that were no less worthy components of their national culture. In addition, it is striking to see how often Paddleford's anecdotal accounts of her adventures with the diversity of American foods have to do with her encounters with it at social occasions. To be sure, her depiction of a gastronomically rich postwar America is often about basic home cooking, but it is also as much about parties and get-togethers and the desire to please others. This, again, is key to a postwar context in which meals increasingly are becoming outer-directed and all about status in the eyes of the world at large. It is then all about making American cooks aware of food preparations, many derived from foreign sources, that will add diversity and distinction to meals presented to invitees as they enter from that world into the home, and thereby open up domestic space to larger social influences and pressures. It is perhaps revealing, for instance, that Paddleford, like other food writers of the 1950s and 1960s such as Julia Child or James Beard or Craig Claiborne, speaks of an admiration for French cuisine, but that when she offers a recipe for cassoulet, it is one that comes from Cincinnati, Ohio. Even in the depths of her celebration of American heartiness, Paddleford seems of a piece with Julia Child and others who also mediate the foreign and the indigenously American in middlebrow fashion.

One difference between Julia Child and the other propagandists for a new, joyous potential for diversity in American cuisine was, of course, that Child made the break to television, the key postwar medium for instruction and for large-scale presentation of self and was thereby able to bring her gustatory message to the masses. James Beard, as we'll see in chapter 2, had no more than a short-lived local career in early television cooking. Paddleford's chosen medium was the newspaper article (and its collation into book form), where her lyric evocations of American landscape and her rich anecdotes could run wild, and, in any case, she had had a throat operation that would have made teaching through television impossible. The French-trained Dione Lucas did, as we'll see, have several TV series that attempted with great imperiousness to bring distinction through European cuisine to Middle Americans, but her demeanor was too stiff to mediate the rigors of instruction with a diverting air of entertainment. She never really took off as a television performer. Perhaps the vivacious and utterly captivating M. F. K. Fisher could have used her (by all accounts) striking presence and personality to captivate a broad public, but her commitment was to the literary word—to sensuous evocations of the glories of food, both local and foreign, through a honed mode of writing that made her one of America's great literary stylists (and not just in the realm of food). These were not TV personalities. Julia Child eminently was.


Excerpted from Julia Child's The French Chef by DANA POLAN Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 The Difference She Made....................1
2 Television Cookery B.C. (Before Child)....................41
3 French Cuisine, American Style....................78
4 The Beginnings of The French Chef....................114
5 Prepping The French Chef....................137
6 The Success of The French Chef....................185
7 New Beginnings and the Ending to The French Chef....................214
8 Kitchen Drama....................231
further readings on TV cooking shows....................285
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 26, 2011

    The American-ness of The French Chef

    In Julia Child's The French Chef, Professor Dana Polan begins in traditional scholarly style (this is a university press publication, after all) by launching a long introduction that outlines the book. Once he's completed that requirement, the rest of the book is a two-course treat. First, Polan takes a look at the the social influences of the time leading up to The French Chef. What were the movies, the trends, the pastimes that made people receptive to the idea of learning to cook French food at home? The second part examines the influence that The French Chef had on America. Much of the first part is a social history of the early days of television in America, with an emphasis on locally produced cooking shows. You might have thought that The French Chef was one of the first cooking shows on TV, but Polan describes a history that predates The French Chef by a couple of decades. It's an offbeat history, including surprises such as a blind chef aided on air by her 10-year-old son and a young Ernie Kovacs as emergency substitute host on a local cooking show. In the second part, Polan dissects The French Chef in detail, from its concept to the several variations over the years. Polan includes minutiae such as correspondence between the Childs and the producers at WGBH, the grocery receipts Julia Child submitted for reimbursement, and flyers inviting viewers to attend tapings of the show. The details are pretty interesting, I must admit, but so are the more general observations that Polan makes, such as that Julia Child wasn't just a cooking show host, she was a TV host, on a par with Captain Kangaroo, Jack LaLanne, and Vampira. And although she wasn't assuming an alter-ego, she was playing a role of sorts, as she even acknowledged when she referred to "the performance of me." Polan notes that for all her emphasis on preparing French food, Julia Child embodied American-ness. She was large and energetic and confident. She seemed friendly and unaffected. Despite not fitting any of the usual TV stereotypes, she became incredibly popular. Do-it-yourself and How-to are as American as apple pie, even if you are showing your audience how to make tarte tatin. Julia Child was also about hard work. She and husband Paul teamed up to create what became an industry, what would later be called a brand, and the brand was Julia Child. Starting with the bestseller Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she jumped at the chance to host her own cooking show and promoted it enthusiastically. She wrote magazine articles and newspaper columns and in 1972 she promoted an early version of the video cassette player. The French Chef was the first PBS program to feature captioning for the hearing-impaired. Julia Child's The French Chef is big, exuberant, down-to-earth, a lot of fun, extrememly informative, and pays serious attention to detail and research. I think Julia Child would have approved.

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  • Posted April 18, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    The history and influence of "The French Chef"

    Julia Child was a larger than life personality who revolutionized the way people viewed cooking shows, and the preparation and enjoyment of food. Yes, there were cooking shows before "The French Chef," but Dana Polan shows us in his book how Ms. Child's mannerisms and character combined with her love of French cooking to produce one of the most memorable cooking shows in television history. The show ran from 1963 - 1973, first in black and white then transitioning to color, leaving her mark on generations of viewers. The popularity of the show proved that a chef with a sense of humor, the opportunity to make and fix mistakes on the air, the love of bringing food to life, and the love of inviting people into her kitchen would be a huge success. Her invitation to cook and dine brought a "friendness" to the kitchen, which had many times been a place of drudgery. Dana Polan has done a tremendous amount of research to show just how revolutionary "The French Chef" was. the pictures and cartoons he has added bring flavor to the pages. One of the interesting points he makes is that Julia Child wanted the viewer to be more like a participant, desiring that camera angles were over her shoulder, not just front view of hands. While that didn't happen, she would romp around the kitchen making the camera and viewer follow along. Come, join him on this wonderful adventure into the history and learn more about the influence of "Julia Child's The French Chef."

    This is a truly wonderful book. It was fun to relive my childhood memories of the show and to see how it ties into cooking shows before and after it. Julia Child tried to make French cooking look fun and normal for everyone, and this book brought all of those memories back. This book has encouraged me to look for her show wherever I can find it. It is a great book for individuals to read, but I also recommend it to groups especially if you can watch a show and discuss the book together. I received an advance copy through Net Galley and thank them for it!

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