In our sexist and heteronormative history, there is a line that says behind every good man is a woman. She might be tending to the children, or managing the weekly piles of washing, or perhaps in her “rightful place” in the kitchen. The story of Julia Child reads a little differently, but also in some sense the same. And why wouldn’t she want to be in the kitchen? The kitchen has wine. And food. And most importantly, love.
Child often said that love was the most important ingredient in preparing and serving food, but throughout her colourful life she described another ingredient with the same amount of affection: butter. If Julia’s opening scenes of her large hands slathering food in butter don’t get your attention, perhaps the dancing “chicken sisters” will.
Behind the scenes in the life of Julia was her man, Paul. An intellect, an artist, and her greatest admirer. And as this newly released documentary film that describes the deliciously decadent story of her life shows, it was Julia’s choice to be in the kitchen; it’s what she felt she was born to do, and the devoted Paul chose to follow two steps behind. She discovered her greatest love later in life; a life lived through family pressures and heartache and loss, but also filled with adventure.
Julia Child was also born to educate, and to share her deep love of food with the world. Her journey started in the culinary heart of the south of France, Provence, and culminated on television screens across America, then the world.
The documentary – directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the same team behind the Oscar-nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG – explores all the relationships that affected Child’s life, in a chronological sequence, supported by lines from letters exchanged with her husband, family and friends. This is not a love story, but a love letter of sorts, including interviews and commentary from some of her nearest and dearest, plus those who knew her through various vocations.
It uses historic imagery and photographs, film reels and snippets of her television history to unpack the complex woman’s past and her deep understanding of the elements of food and good cookery. Child has one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time – and for good reason, too. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is widely regarded as the most essential book for home cooks.
The other essential ingredient to Child’s life was passion. She supported causes and charities, and was a staunch advocate for those less advantaged or affected by issues outside their control. She supported the homeless and then started the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts.
Child also made mistakes, both on the cooking stage and off camera, yet was applauded for correcting them without refrain. Her support of those affected by the AIDS crisis followed a casually biased comment at an event where she dismissively referred to “The Gays” – an entrenched conservative upbringing was to blame and this quip was forgiven when she became an advocate for people with HIV/AIDS, and for many other social justice causes considered controversial at the time.
Julia shows that despite her stature and celebrity, Child was human. There is so much more to her life than food, but it was always central to her being. And we of the culinary persuasion should be thankful for her existence and for her passion. For bringing food out of the freezer and into the forefront of our lives. She is the original TV Cook, the original modern-day woman, and the person who helped shape my love of food into the perfect Beef Bourguignon.
And if you’re anything like me, you should leave this film feeling warm, a little more informed, and certainly craving butter.
Julia opens in cinemas nationally on November 4.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.