“Julia” on HBO Max: fact versus fiction about Julia Child

Child herself has written more than a dozen cookbooks and an autobiography about her time in France, and several biographies, a volume of letters, hundreds of interviews and personal papers further shed light on her – not to mention the nearly four decades of her television appearances.

But to create the series, which focuses on the unlikely genesis and early pitfalls of Child’s first television show, The French Chef, which first aired on Boston Public TV in 1963, showrunner Chris Keyser and creator Daniel Goldfarb had to play it safe Take liberties with the recipe provided.

Although Child spent a lot of time in front of the camera, “her life was played out behind closed doors,” says Keyser.

One of the challenges involved, says Goldfarb, was making sure they didn’t use their creative license to stray too far. “We follow all the facts of the biography, as you know them from Wikipedia,” he says. “And as long as our reading between the lines doesn’t alter the course of the biography, we’re okay.”

Which meant adding a few splashes of this and that — warping timelines, creating a new character, or inventing interactions between people known to be in Child’s circle — while adding the emotional core of Child’s known life and to remain loyal to loved ones.

So what is real and what is made up?

Did Betty Friedan Attract Julia Child?

In the penultimate episode, Julia, played admirably by British actress Sarah Lancashire, meets feminist author Betty Friedan at a dinner in New York, and what begins with a sweet meeting – Julia pushes her chair against Friedan and then invites her to to join her table — soon sour. Friedan is one of the few characters not charmed by the rising television star, and she throws in a critique as sharp as Child’s kitchen knives. “I watched your program and it doesn’t help,” Friedan informs her. “You think you open doors for women, broaden their horizons. They may dream of France, but they are sitting in front of a hot stove.” Friedan Lambastes Child’s recipes for creating women’s working hours, cooking and washing up. “How can those women you’ve locked in the kitchen find time for anything else, let alone a career?” she demands.

Child is devastated, and Friedan’s harsh words are part of the reason she decides not to renew her show for a second season. (Of course, she eventually changes her mind, and the rest is literally history.)

Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, the same year that Child’s cooking show debuted, and their chance meeting in a hotel ballroom where literature and media mixed is conceivable, although not documented in prominent accounts of Child’s life is. And although Child is now celebrated in pop culture as a feminist heroine for her success in a male-dominated field and for her modern marriage, Child has never claimed such a title for herself.

But the imaginary encounter allows the authors to consider how Child’s brand of feminism might be reconciled with Friedan’s. Looking back over the last 50 years would prove that Child’s biggest influence wasn’t what Friedan feared, Keyser says, but it was hardly a foregone conclusion at the time. “The 1963 question of whether Julia Child is good for feminism or bad for it is an interesting conversation,” he says.

On the show, this dance between Child’s celebration of the creation of food and Friedan’s view that domestic responsibilities are a burden on women was summed up in the assurance her husband Paul (“Frasiers” David Hyde Pierce) offers his wife: “Maybe has they even right , in a way. For some people. But this show is not for her. This show is for us and the people who make it and the people who watch it.”

Did The French Chef have a black producer?

The character of Alice Naman, played by Brittany Bradford, is a young black producer assigned to the show and plays an important role in “Juliet’s” narrative. Naman sees potential in Child that her male colleagues at Boston public broadcaster WGBH don’t have, and shows bosses the record volume of fan mail that followed Child’s appearance on a writer’s show to promote her cookbook (Child surprised the presenter and charmed the audience by preparing an omelette on the air). And it is Naman who later secures The French Chef’s finances by secretly funneling them to other public broadcasters – an idea that seemed novel to her boss.

Naman appears to be based at least in part on Ruth Lockwood, the assistant producer at WGBH who became an integral part of Child’s team. (A clue to inspiration: in one scene, Naman’s mother lectures her by her full name, Alice Ruth Naman.) However, Lockwood was White.

In “Juliet,” Alice is given her own character arc, centered around navigating the Mad Men-era workplace and fending off her mother’s matchmaking attempts and requests to make time for her to-date consuming work schedule. She is attempting to learn to cook by following Child’s “mastering” cues. But another role is to help viewers see Child in a broader context. Certainly, the TV presenter encountered sexism, ageism and snobbery along her unlikely career path. She was mocked for her voice and her looks. But Child came from wealth and privilege, and many of her problems were settled with a check from Child’s own account or her father’s.

As a young black woman, Alice’s position is much more strained. On the station, Alice’s authority is undermined and her work is recognized by her white male bosses. And in one scene, she and Avis DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth), Julia’s best friend and volunteer on set, go to the butcher’s to get ingredients, where the man behind the counter pops in to serve white customers. Avis, who is also white, stops him by name and then gives her shopping companion cheeky, convulsive advice: “It pays to be pushy,” she whispers staged. The look on Alice’s face says so much about the cruelty of racism, and even those who are unaware.

Keyser and Goldfarb say their research showed that there were young black employees at WGBH in the early 1960s. And the racism that Alice faced, they say, was part of the world they were trying to show. “For our purposes in 2022, as we talked about changes in the workplace and in society, we felt it would be beneficial to embody those ideas in this character,” says Keyser.

They made sure to give her a meaningful story (spoilers: she ends up connecting with one of the young men her mother sets her up with). “Racism is part of her life, but it’s not her story,” he says.

In the first episode of “Julia,” viewers who only know Child as a buttoned-up, grandmotherly character might have been surprised to hear her drop an F-bomb. Over a breakfast of freshly made omelettes with Paul, Child ponders what she might say on her first television appearance and wonders if she should tell the now legendary tale she has often told of being overwhelmed by a plate of Meunier sole in a restaurant in Rouen, France, to which he had taken her. “It was almost like you took my virginity twice,” she mused. “Once by fucking me and then by feeding me.”

Kid certainly wasn’t that salty in public. In fact, she reportedly disapproved of Julie Powell’s blue writing on her blog — which became the basis of Julie & Julia — in which she attempted to cook every recipe from Mastering in a year. “Throwing four-letter words around while cooking isn’t appealing to either me or Julia,” Child’s longtime editor Judith Jones once told Publisher’s Weekly.

In private, Child could be quite blunt. In her authorized biography of Child, writer Noël Riley quoted Fitch from Paul, who recalled her picking hot cannelloni out of a pot, and exclaimed, “Wow, those damn things are hot as a stiff C—!”

“In conversation, she could swear and speak openly about private matters until one of her attorneys blushed,” Fitch wrote. “She loved gossip, dirty talk and a good belly laugh.”

Did her show pioneer the food TV tropes we’re familiar with today?

Like many fictional representations of television, film, and theater, Julia plays out as a show within a show. Viewers can see both the final product and the messy bits that go into the making. And with “The French Chef” they bear witness to the beginnings of today’s ubiquitous food TV genre. The French Chef wasn’t the very first cooking show: it had a number of precedents, including I Love Cooking, starring James Beard, the first of its kind to appear on network TV in 1946. (Beard makes an appearance in “Julia,” where he sweetly congratulates her on her on-air success and laments that “America can’t love a fat old fairy like me.”)

But “Julia” shows viewers the rumored invention — around Paul and Julia’s kitchen table as the team cooked the show’s pilot — of some of today’s most iconic food show hallmarks. Jones, fresh from New York, says she got the idea on the train to give the show a three-act structure: prep, cook, then serve. And Alice contributes the trick that would allow Child to prepare a meal that would normally take three hours in the 28 minutes of airtime: They could swap pots and pans with food already cooked. Voila!

Obviously, the character of Alice was made up, so it didn’t exactly come across that way. And Goldfarb notes that Child actually taped three different pilot episodes, all of which were taped over (a fact that shows how few people guessed the show would ultimately be considered so groundbreaking), so it’s impossible to know for sure how they played out. But an even more important truth, he says, is that Child pioneered food TV as we know it.

“She created the template,” he says.

It involves something that food show viewers still expect half a century later: the pleasure of watching the host take a bite out of the dish he or she prepared during the show and serve it as a… deliciously proclaimed. Child’s set included a backdrop precisely for this purpose, which she settled into at the end of each episode to delve into – and there she recalled her famous closing line, which was actually ad libbed, just like in Julia: ” Good Appetite!”

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