The Inescapable Julia Child

A new HBO Max show about the cooking legend promises more of the same

Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child cooking.
Seacia Pavao/HBO Max
Alicia Kennedy
American Mythology

I wasn’t born a food writer, but I became one through Julia Child. Watching episodes of her cooking shows on repeat on PBS with my grandmother, I found comfort in Child’s expressive, high-pitched voice and clumsy foibles in the kitchen. I don’t know who I would be as a person or a writer if, at a very young age, I hadn’t watched this woman on television eating voraciously, without a shred of self-consciousness — and if I hadn’t, by extension, consumed my grandmother’s love through her own cooking. Those two experiences are inextricably linked for me, a tale as true as it is cliché.

Child left a deep mark on food culture in the United States, on scales both personal and much grander. The structure of cooking shows that she helped invent through her seminal The French Chef still persists today. She was 51 years old when the show debuted in 1963, and she continued to be a presence on television and beyond until late into her eighties — through more than a dozen shows and 16 cookbooks — proving that a woman didn’t have to become invisible as she aged.

Her role as a pivotal cultural figure has been documented, examined, and celebrated at length, over and over and over again. In recent years, especially, there has been a renewed interest in reviving Child for the screen. Meryl Streep defined the role in the 2009 film Julie & Julia. A documentary chronicling Child’s life came out last year. A competition show called The Julia Child Challenge, in which home cooks are tasked with completing culinary challenges inspired by Child, is currently airing on Food Network. On March 31, a new series titled, simply, Julia — starring Sarah Lancashire in the titular role, and recounting Child’s unlikely rise to public television stardom — premieres on HBO Max. The more that American gastronomy has changed in the nearly 60 years since The French Chef was first broadcast on WGBH in Boston, it seems, the more we are still treated to Child’s memory. Don’t forget to be grateful to Julia! the seemingly never-ending retellings of her story suggest.

I am as beholden to her as anyone who grew up on her instructives, but it has become clear to me that it is long past time to tell new stories about food in this country — what it is, who cooks it, and who gets to define it — and escape from under Child’s shadow. She is kept in the front and center of the narrative of how food and culture have advanced in the U.S., almost to the point of mythology. Female cooks who bear little resemblance to her have been routinely dubbed “the Julia Child of” their respective culinary specialties, as Mayukh Sen, author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, has written previously. To do so is to center a white, upper-middle-class perspective, translating entire cultures and cuisines into something palatable to that milieu.

The more that American gastronomy has changed, the more we are still treated to Child’s memory.

The new HBO series does little to complicate that prevailing myth in its eight episodes, although it does provide a darker edge to the life story than has been told before. (Other highlights include Bebe Neuwirth as the heavy-drinking friend and neighbor Avis DeVoto, as well as a delightful Isabella Rossellini as one of Child’s cookbook co-authors, Simone “Simca” Beck, asking Child over the phone why she has named her show The French Chef when she is neither French nor a chef). Child’s husband Paul, played by David Hyde Pierce, shows jealousy and resentment toward his wife’s success; Child cries after being informed that she has hit menopause, definitively marking the end of any dream of children for the couple. In the aftermath of the news from her doctor, she is depicted as endlessly ambitious, if not always as cheerful as she portrayed herself to be on set. There is fear of failure, stage fright, rejection, and even the embarrassing task of asking her wealthy, conservative father for money. There is clear exhaustion amid Child’s excitement at having become a household name.

Despite the moodier tinge in the series lending depth to a well-worn narrative, its persistent focus on how Child has changed the lives and cooking of many American housewives — usually white and well-off, and usually to the pleasure of their husbands — left me wanting more than a brief visit from The Femininine Mystique author Betty Friedan telling Child that she has set women back by putting them in the kitchen once again. The French Chef arrived on television at a time of great civil unrest, yet Julia barely suggests that there’s a world beyond beef bourguignon and baguettes. The most that Child engages with the social and cultural upheaval of the period is when she shows slight discomfort when brought to a gay bar with her friend James Beard, and then gets onstage with a drag queen dressed as her. Here, Beard is the one who is the life of the party — can we have a show about him, maybe?

Or perhaps a show about Ruth Lockwood, the woman who helped get The French Chef on TV. In Julia, Child’s producer has effectively been erased from a history she helped create. Alice, a new character (played wonderfully by Brittany Bradford), fills Lockwood’s stead. A product of Boston’s Black bourgeoisie, she is saddled with the same problems of its white female characters: her mother wants her to get married, while she wants to focus on her career. When she says that she would have an easier time getting ahead if she were a “white man,” it feels forced, a phrase from the present retrofitted to an apparently utopian, anti-racist vision of 1963 — a time period that is still sexist, to be sure, but missing the friction of race that undoubtedly would have colored Alice’s treatment as a young, Black woman striving in a world of mostly white professionals. If Julia’s writers created the character of Alice to imbue the series with some sense of temporal reality and tension, there was no real sign of it. She, like every other woman on the show, simply longs to cook like Child and carve out her own piece of the career pie.

There are plenty of questions that, if actually asked, could give new relevance to the story of such a beloved figure, complicating and enriching the tale of Child’s influence. For example: Did the nation’s new interest in French cooking — depicted as mainstream and near-universal in every telling of the Child myth — do anything, materially speaking, for women looking to feed their families? To what kind of woman did she appeal? Did Child even care about the so-called empowerment she was supposed to have inspired in other women? (Historically, Child didn’t take kindly to other women whom she viewed as competition; she once disparaged French cookery teacher Madeleine Kamman, telling the Washington Post in 1970, “French women don’t know a damn thing about French cooking.” This very American belief that one can take another cuisine and do it better than those who grew up immersed in it is, perhaps, also a part of Child’s legacy.)

But Julia ultimately does not raise those questions, let alone answer them. Instead, it seems to want us all to remember a time when it was radical for a tall woman who was not movie-star beautiful — although still born into considerable privilege — to decide to eat and cook with abandon, write about it, and eventually do it all on television.

There is nothing dull about the life and rise of Child, but the myth surrounding her has become dull, even if shows like Julia would like to pretend otherwise. There’s a reason why the figures, history, and narratives that are continually re-enshrined as canon within the food world have not truly been challenged. If the story continues to be that Child’s rise to stardom was a revolution, then it follows that true progress has been made within society and the realm of food, in particular; after all, women of a diversity of backgrounds have now helmed cooking shows, which must indicate some headway toward a fairer and more just world.

But the perpetuation of this idea keeps us frozen in time, at a moment when deeper conversations about what and how we eat could have an effect on reality. Food has never been a more crucial topic, with far-reaching implications in climate change, labor, and the lives of people beyond the dominant Western imagination. And yet the stories that are told at the highest level of production and given the lion’s share of attention do little to move the needle on public awareness of critical issues. Instead, food — as it’s depicted on television screens, in the mainstream media, in culture at large — remains an escape, a bourgeois hobby. At its treacly-sweet best, it is portrayed as a way of bridging gaps between nations and political divides — liberal self-flattery masquerading as growth. At worst, it apparently carries no significance beyond how it tastes in one’s mouth, an object of consumption divorced of political, socioeconomic, and environmental entanglements.

Child’s rise, while perhaps once considered radical, should no longer be the yardstick against which progress is measured. Although she paved a path — and there is much to admire on how she overcame sexism and ageism in her time — there are many more stories to tell about how food has evolved in the U.S. and around the world, just as there is much to critique about the same kinds of people still occupying a Child-like stature in this very culture. There is no shortage of nuanced and varied food stories, like those told in Sen’s book Taste Makers or seen on Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, that will enable richer discussions and understanding of just how significant a role food plays in our lives beyond the dining room table. But if the development executives and media power players out there insist on continuing to rehash depictions of the formidable Child and her nearly 40-year reign as the cooking queen of national television, then perhaps they should take a cue from the evolution of American cuisine and finally add some spice.

Alicia Kennedy is a writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She writes a weekly newsletter about food culture, politics, and media.