How Julia Child Provided the Comfort a Pandemic-Wracked World Craved (Guest Column)

Julia Child
Sony Pictures Classics

A weeklong shoot in France in October 2019 for “Julia,” the documentary we directed about Julia Child, was the piece de resistance of our filming experience. On the sidewalks of Paris’ 7th arrondissement, where Julia and her husband Paul spent their early years together, cafes pulsed with voracious patrons. Inside the classrooms at Le Cordon Bleu, where she was once the lone woman in a professional grade course, baskets of croissants and pain au chocolat appeared with regularity as we conducted interviews. In the steamy kitchen of France’s oldest restaurant, the chef slid a sleek fish filet into a skillet of sizzling butter, re-creating the sole meuniere that rocked Julia’s world from the first time she tasted it.

Just six months later, with so much of the globe shut down and isolated by a horrifying pandemic, we found ourselves mentally returning again and again to those sumptuous French scenes, as if to a dream. By then, we were deep into the edit process and our vibrant production memories could blend with precious archival moments: the 201 episodes of “The French Chef,” Julia Child’s iconic PBS cooking show. Watching Julia truss a goose or dress a salad niçoise felt like a salve. And trying out modified versions of her dishes on our own acceding husbands spread the delicious sense of comfort. As the world outside our laptops and stovetops seemed ever more frightening and far away, we kept wanting to delve deeper into the World of Julia.

Turns out, we weren’t alone.

“Julia Child’s The French Chef is my Escape from Pandemic Stress,” proclaimed a headline from Vice reporter Jelisa Castrodale. Hordes of quarantining millennials began devoting themselves to replicating Julia’s Classic Roast Chicken. A TikTok-er with the nom de guerre Moody Foody garnered 10.9 million likes on a 58-second rendition of Julia’s boeuf bourguignon recipe, paired with classical piano and tagged “#Relaxing.”

Exactly why is Ms. Child – she of the vigorous whisking and the trilling voice – resonating so profoundly in the age of Covid? Part of it is nostalgia, of course, and the simple fact that cooking in a home kitchen for one’s own pod is one of the few epidemiologically correct joys available to us. But there’s something more, too. Seventeen years after her death, what Julia Child has come to symbolize just happens to overlap with so much we’re craving at this moment.

Lazy loaded image
“Julia” directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen

If Julia represents anything, it’s overcoming long odds. This was a woman, after all, who possessed none of the attributes that television executives sought for their female talent in the early 1960s. She wasn’t young, she wasn’t petite, she wasn’t demure, and she wasn’t classically beautiful. Julia broke through the television screen and grabbed the attention and devotion of viewers not in spite of these “deficits,” but because of them. Julia was real, and her audience could feel it.

The fact that she knew what she was doing in the kitchen was the brulee on the crème, showing male and female fans alike that a housewife could have expertise. By the time she was on television, Julia and two (French women) friends had authored the epic 726 page Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She made all that knowledge accessible. “If she can do it, I can do it,” nearly every woman we interviewed recalled thinking when they first watched her show.

As skilled as she was, Julia did not require or even aspire to perfection, a stance that doubtless reassured those just trying out her more complex recipes for the first time while in quarantine. In one of our favorite French Chef episodes, she attempts to flip a potato galette in its frying pan. But the galette, too loose, disperses – much of it onto the counter. “Well, that didn’t go very well,” Julia observes, deflated. But rather than declaring this adventure a Potato Fail, she brightens quickly, reshaping the concoction with the bits that flew out of the pan. “If you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?” she muses in a sing-song voice. Things go wrong. We move forward.

The past 18 months have been a time for savoring the small things, a mindset Julia championed throughout her career. Even as she reached the celebrity stratosphere, with cover shoots for People Magazine and appearances on The Tonight Show, what she valued most was the simple joy of fresh food, well prepared. That first bite of sole meuniere, which Julia was introduced to at La Couronne, the 14th century restaurant in the port city of Rouen, stayed with her all her life. “I never got over it,” Julia said wistfully a half century later. “That was what I’d been looking for all my life. One taste of that food and I never turned back.”

Part of what made that lunch so memorable was sharing it with her life partner, Paul. For Julia, creating and devouring a meal were acts of intense connection. The same is true for the proteges who carry forward her legacy today. Jose Andres, a winner of the Julia Child Award, now spends much of his time providing meals in disaster zones, recognizing that preparing food for those in need provides not just physical but also spiritual sustenance.

“When you cook you give your love” Julia’s friend Daniele Delpeuch, former chef to French President Francois Mitterand, explains in the film. “It’s more than to feed your body. It’s to have pleasure.” Exactly the kind of pleasure a pandemic-wracked world is hungry for.

We’ve always needed Julia. It’s just that now, we need her more than ever.

Julie Cohen and Betsy West are the directors of “Julia” (Sony Pictures Classics/Imagine Documentaries/CNN Films) which premieres this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival. Their previous film “RBG” was nominated for two Academy Awards and won an Emmy Award in 2019.