The hundredth anniversary of Julia Child’s birthday is being celebrated this August, especially on television where she was one of the most popular TV figures ever. But why did she become so popular?
By now you’re probably familiar with her books or, at least, you know that she wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and maybe you’ve seen the movie, Julie & Julia, with Meryl Streep as Julia. Julia Child’s early shows appeared back when television was in black and white, not color, and those were the days when shows were often not prerecorded — if Julia fumbled a pot or dropped a spoon, that’s what you saw. (And if you actually saw those black-and-white programs you’re one of the older readers of Critical Pages.)
Everyone has an answer to the question of why she became so popular. (And so do we.) Yes, she knew French cooking and wanted to teach others how to enjoy cooking and, yes, she had a sense of humor and, yes, certainly, she was authentic — a word that’s often used to describe her TV personality. But maybe the more obvious is being overlooked. Julia Child was a big, tall, plain-faced woman with a terribly screechy voice. It’s worth noting that the excellent “Saturday Night Live” parody of her show didn’t use a woman but featured Dan Aykroyd as Julia.
Viewers who found Julia Child found her not on the big popular networks but on PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. What they saw was a woman who wasn’t better looking than they were, a woman more awkward and more ungainly, a woman who had a voice they would have been ashamed of. But Julia Child didn’t seem to notice her own glaring deficits. On the contrary, she appeared happy and self assured. So people watched, maybe a bit interested in French cooking, certainly interested in how a person who had so little going for her could be so cheerful and so ready to share what she knew with them. This was a person they could listen to as an equal, or even feel a bit superior to, but maybe learn something from — maybe about French cooking, or maybe about how to be comfortable in your own skin.