I have always marveled at the cooking show that featured Julia Child. Even though I can’t cook very well, it intrigued me how she brought the kitchen into your living room, with a joyful account of how to make a particular dish.
I always imagined that Child was from France, because her long running cooking series was called “The French Chef,” but she was actually born in Pasedena, California. Her larger-than-life persona as a trailblazer in the genre of television cooking shows is on full display in “Julia,” a film that is screening October 24 during the 57th Chicago International Film Festival.
“Julia” brings to life the legendary cookbook author and television superstar who changed the way Americans think about food, television, and even about women. Using never-before-seen archival footage, personal photos, first-person narratives, and cutting-edge, mouth-watering food cinematography, the film traces Julia Child’s 12-year struggle to create and publish the revolutionary Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), which has sold more than 2.5 million copies to date, and her rapid ascent to become the country’s most unlikely television star. It’s the empowering story of a woman who found her purpose—and her fame—at 50 and took America along on the whole delicious journey. From the Academy Award-nominated directors of RBG. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
What caught my ear immediately, as “Julia” began, as I watched a screener at home as part of my coverage of the film fest for the Crusader, was the familiar singing of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” Child was standing behind a few full-sized chickens and sharing that chickens could be broiled, roasted, stewed, fried, etc. Immediately, I was hooked.
With a cast of renowned chefs from all over the globe, including Marcus Samuelsson, José Andrés, Rachel Ray, Ina Garten, Gordon Ramsay and others, and talk show hosts such as Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Dick Cavett, and industry folks and friends, the audience is ushered into a lip-smacking world of fine dining, Julia Child style.
The documentary shares Child’s early family life, her attending Smith College on the east coast, and her job with the Office of Strategic Services in 1942, as well as her enrollment in Cordon Bleu in Paris. She became a top-secret researcher in the unit, which was a precursor to the CIA. She was not an agent but worked with the researchers.
She later met Paul Child, who came from a family that was into cooking and the arts, and she was smitten. After marrying Paul, the couple moved to France in 1948, after he accepted a job with the United States Foreign Service. She had her first French meal, which consisted of sole meunière (a fancy filet of sole) and not only was she in love with Paul, but her love of French food was borne. She said, “One taste of that food and I never turned back.”
While Julia had found her calling, her father didn’t appreciate her marriage to Paul; he wanted her to marry a professional. When he visited the couple in France, Julia said that her father thought that Paul was only concerned with cooking, art and wine. Her father continued to complain about the food and culture of the country.
She learned much about cooking in France. “The more I got into it, the more I appreciated it as a true art form,” Julia said. Afterward, she collaborated on the first of many cookbooks, finally ending up back in the Boston area.
In 1963, her Boston-based public television program came at a time when Americans were fascinated with frozen TV dinners. “We were ripe for a change, and there I was,” Julia said. The show ran for about 10 years on WGBH.
While Julia made the cooking look easy, as she wanted women to be able to cook with ingredients that you would find at the local supermarket, she did have a bit of a challenging time in a profession that was male centered. But she always persevered, and she was a media darling. Her theatrics while teaching folks to cook is well known, as she demystified French cuisine, such as bouef bourguignon, and brought it into American kitchens. Other shows included “Julia Child & Company,” “Julia Child & More Company” and “Dinner at Julia’s.”
In the late 80s, Julia launched a 22-part series with Jacques Pépin. She died at the age of 91 in 2004 in Montecito, California. If you miss the film fest, look for “Julia” coming soon to Chicago theatres on November 19 to learn more about a great chef who taught the world to cook and who could be considered the “great-grandmother of Instagram food photography,” by paving the way for food and pop culture.
And just as the documentary opens with Hendrix, it closes with a catchy “food” tune, Nat King Cole’s 1945 “Frim Fram Sauce.” Enjoy this vintage performance by Cole. Nat King Cole – Frim Fram Sauce – Bing video.
“Julia” is directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, runs 95 minutes, and is featured in the Biopic, Documentary and Women Centered slates of the film fest that is ending on October 24.
Take a look at the trailer: Julia – Cinema Chicago (chicagofilmfestival.com).
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago (lulu.com) or email: [email protected].