12/9 Author's Roundtable 2: Dana Polan, Julia Child's The French Chef
Guest Writer: Charles Byrne

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

[On Thursday, December 9, the Unit for Criticism held the second of its Fall 2010 Author’s Roundtables. Dana Polan discussed his forthcoming Duke UP book, Julia Child's The French Chef. In our previous post we published responses by James Hay, Larry Schehr and Jing Jing Chang.]

The difference she made
Written by Charles Byrne (Philosophy)

Dana Polan’s talk on Julia Child focused on “the difference that she made” (the title of first chapter of his forthcoming book). Hearing last Thursday’s discussion and reading the two chapters available to us for the roundtable, I realized that the “difference” was a pretty substantial one.

Polan smartly ties Child’s “difference” into an impressive array of the cultural viscera of the 1960s and 70s. The discussion on Thursday repeatedly returned in various ways to Child’s “liminal” status but the chapters investigate a number of complex issues relating to Child’s place in history including, for example, the evolution of cooking shows; the division between “low” and “high” cultural artifacts; the place of public broadcasting; and the connection to fans. Child was “a liminal or transitional figure between worlds and ways of life,” in several ways including the food she chose to cook and help popularize; the structure of her TV show, The French Chef; and her own stand-out personality.

Child’s choice of French cuisine was tied up with her own experiences in France. But she took it upon herself to introduce ordinary Americans to the fare because she saw that what appealed to her in France – old world care and passion directed toward food preparation – pushed back against the increasing mechanization, commercialization, and haste in food preparation in the States, tied as it was partly to changing women’s roles (culminating, perhaps, in Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book in 1960). French cuisine was also making inroads in American culture, but was generally signified by “imperious,” intimidating spectacles like the French restaurant: Polan referred us to the 1953 I Love Lucy episode “The French Revue,” where Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred are unable to read the menus.

Respondent Lawrence Schehr pointed out, too, that historically, there has been less sizable French emigration to the US, so French cuisine seems more mysterious. For someone from the American upper class like Child, a more mainstream ethnic cooking, such as Italian, might seem somewhat vulgar – working class, garlic-infused, pungent. French cuisine, on the other hand, “is about uplift.” Still, Child was also practical in her suggestions (e.g., she allowed the use of canned stock, but only as long as spices were added). “Child brings French into America,” Polan noted, “but also America into the cuisine.” And she encouraged her viewers to believe that the French code could be conquered, that “failure is built in, but eventually you’ll succeed”; “if I can do it, you can,” she constantly reminded her viewers. Seen from today’s lens, Child’s cusine packs a horrifying caloric load, with single recipes including whole sticks of butter, cream, eggs, cheese and meat; on the other hand, Child used “ whole,” fresh, natural ingredients where possible, which certainly qualify as current “healthy” impulses.

The French Chef was filmed during a period of significant change–1963 to 1973– in television. Child’s show transitioned from black-and-white to color in the late 1960s. While far from the first cooking show – there were “hundreds” of cooking shows before hers, Polan noted – Child’s show was a new and vital force on the scene, and not only because of her personality. In fact, it seems to me that it took some time for Child to warm into the “boisterous,” “joyous” role that Polan and many others embrace; her earliest episodes show a far more sober and constrained Julia Child. When she pitched the show to public television, Child wanted it to be shot from the first-person point of view. While this idea was rejected, there were at least occasional overhead shots in the show that are suggestive of the first-person. The show itself offered far more movement than was typical; Child herself moved a great deal, rather than standing rooted behind one counter. The show would end with her procession to the dining room with the finished dish, which was actually consumed, unlike other cooking shows of the time, which rarely displayed the pleasures of eating - not to mention tasting along the way, which Child did often, to the horror of some of her germ-obsessed viewers). Her show offered touches of drama and comedy, as well as education.

Perhaps most importantly, the show managed competing needs. As a cooking show, it
was necessarily utilitarian (Ernie Kovacs’s Deadline for Dinner, mentioned by Polan, is a possible exception to this rule), but Child made it entertaining and offered unpredictable touches such as dancing chickens. The show was shot live, but heavily planned, which resulted in an overall relative smoothness but also featured bungled camera cuts and cooking mistakes, such as her famous potato pancake mis-flip. The show is chronologically straightforward, but with limited “cheats” of cooked and finished recipes (offering a “glimpse of utopia” to viewers, as Polan puts it). Ultimately, The French Chef was both practical and entertaining, and while it operated under standard cooking show constraints, it was interesting enough to a figure like Lenny Lipton to be considered avant-garde (Polan referred us to David Bordwell’s conception of "sparse cinema"). Her show helped make the burgeoning PBS, Polan advised us, into that national broadcasting vehicle formed from numerous local National Educational Television (including our own WILL).

Respondent James Hay usefully pressed our standard conception of a benign PBS, pointing out that, while largely motivated to offer more substantive, educational fare to counter the increasing commercialization of the 1950s and 60s and the perceived dumbing-down of TV, this pushback against TV as “vast wasteland” was also strongly tied to upper-class white concerns about a degraded, vulgar culture. Did PBS valorize upper-class white elites who disdained TV? Child certainly has to be seen as part of a movement with mixed motivations, conscious or not. Hay also suggests that, despite Child’s own repugnance toward commercials or brand placement, the educational television movement of which she was part has been commodified into the explosion of today’s so-called lifestyle channels (Food Network, HGTV, etc). Child’s pasted-over product labels have morphed into Martha Stewart Omnimedia and Rachael Ray Nutrish pet food.

Polan doesn’t disagree, although he insisted that Child remains a mediating figure among all of these concerns. Unlike Rachael Ray, who can wear a cashmere sweater while cooking, Child’s show involved you in the whole process of cooking by including spills and missteps. It is also hard not to notice the seemingly inevitable sexualization of some of the most popular female cooking stars of today: Rachael Ray poses for FHM,“in short-shorts with an exposed midriff, licking chocolate off a big wooden spoon”; Nigella Lawson prepares herself for a late-night date with her “Caramel Croissant Pudding,” which she takes to bed. Child serves as someone more clearly mediating traditionally masculine and feminine roles, since her height and forcefulness are often read as masculine. Her history also shows a well-educated woman who served in espionage duties during WWII, married later than average, had no children, and enjoyed socializing and drinking. She “got men in the kitchen,” as one audience member pointed out, which was a great delight to her, not only because she trained with men in Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (despite the school’s initial resistance), but also because she was often dismissive of “housewifery” and what she saw as female flightiness in the kitchen.

For someone like Betty Friedan, The French Chef might have been seen as part of the old order, but for Child, it was an “opening up” for women who were willing to devote themselves to the task in a committed fashion. According to Polan, Child teaches us that cooking, often seen as a routine, trivial, but necessary task, can become one of life’s important projects. What makes a woman, or man, cannot be reduced to the simple fact that one is in a kitchen; it has to do with how one approaches life. This idea was one attempted moral of the project, and ensuing film, Julie and Julia.

At the beginning of his book, Polan notes that Child’s voice is hard to pin down: “Is it a breathless warble? is it a lilting and lifting vibration?. . . 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?” French but also American, Child was “big, boisterous, strapping, visceral, messy,” midwestern even. Her American melting-pot-background might explain her complicated political status. The French Chef spanned some rather politically fertile years, but “you could see her show without seeing anything about the 60s,” Polan remarked.

Child remains a liminal figure. Is bringing upper-crust cooking to so-called ordinary Americans a radical act or an act encouraging upper-class striving? Is she merely the embodiment of the elite, or is she helping to make the elite accessible? Commenting from the audience, Lauren Goodlad suggested that having “no way to disentangle” the many, often contradictory sides of Julia is part of the very reason “why there’s such affection and nostalgia for her.” Polan calls Child a mediator, someone who “held together tensions.” Until or unless Jetsonian food pills and astronaut ice cream overtake us, cooking and eating will always be with us, and Child offers a view to finding meaning in them. This is something we have control of in a life seemingly filled with events and institutions beyond our control; hence, the difference that she made.

Polan references Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point near the end of his book, drawing a sparkling analogy between the film’s infamous explosive ending and one of Child’s explosive cooking moments involving a mixer and copious amounts of sugar. There is a way of seeing, with benign intent, Child’s influence (and Polan’s work, in turn), as that moment in the film played in reverse, where all of the detritus of American consumer culture contract back into the singularity of that explosion.


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Sammy Preston said...

I have seen some of its episode and was fun imitating some of the food there. Great show from the past.