We get our television programming from DirecTV, and our channel lineup doesn’t contain any of the standard movie channels (HBO, Cinemax, etc.), but it does have two channels wholly devoted to food – the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. The Food Network used to show primarily cooking shows, where people demonstrated how to actually make something. Nowadays, it’s slipped into more of a “lifestyles” channel, which means a little bit of cooking, and a bunch of advertising of local one-off restaurants. The Cooking Channel seems to be more the place to go if you actually want to learn how to cook. At least that’s the way it appears to me.
I’m sure some will argue that I have no idea what I’m talking about, which is probably true. But outside of Alton Brown and Jamie Oliver, there’s not a ton of cooking shows I really enjoy, so I’m basing my opinions on a rather small sample size. Anyways, arguing over channel content wasn’t the point of my typing. Both channels, regardless of what they show you, owe a world of thanks to Julia Child.
It was her culinary skills, her humor, and her bravery that gave rise to the popularity of cooking shows in the first place, and made “channels specializing in food” possible.
In case you didn’t know, one of the first cooking demonstration shows ever was Child’s The French Chef. It was filmed in black and white in a rather modest kitchen. And from my perspective, the editing floor was remarkably clean, because it doesn’t appear that anything was cut from the show. It resulted in what was truly a “reality” show, not the trash we pass off as reality today.
The French Chef, which was first broadcast on February 11, 1963, was full of real-life kitchen goof-ups. Julia would sometimes forget her place in the recipe she was demonstrating. She would sometimes mix ingredients in the wrong sequence. Pans and utensils would, on occasion, be so elusive as to be invisible. The end product would sometimes look a little strange and, on rare occasions, wound up being tossed in the trash.
And that’s what made the show so incredibly popular. Through all the real-life “drama” in Julia’s kitchen, viewers learned the basic (and the not-so-basic) techniques to cooking food once thought only achievable by a master chef. Of course, Julia herself was classically trained in the art of French cooking, but she worked hard to make difficult processes accessible to cooks of all levels. And we learned that even great chefs get it wrong sometimes, which made us more likely to give it a go ourselves.
Julia herself became a celebrity. Her lilting voice, that touch of comedian in her, and her adaptability to the changing conditions of the kitchen and a show that was filmed live without editing brought forth a charm that was addicting. She brandished a cleaver and a mallet, and she talked about “courage of your convictions” as she flipped half a potato pancake on to the stove. I don’t have a clue what she was like when the camera wasn’t rolling, but she was lovable when it was.
There have been hundred of cooks on television since, some of them really good. I think of Justin Wilson (the cajun cook that I always thought was hilarious). That guy Yan who did the show Yan Can Cook. Of course, Emeril Lagasse. The Galloping Gourmet and Mary Ann Esposito. The list goes on and on. Julia stands alone.
Recently, our local Public Television station dug into the archives and, for a few weeks at least, showed some of those original episodes. My wife and I watched them, fascinated by how much television cooking has changed. Yes, there are far fewer gaffes now. The stars of the shows don’t make very many mistakes because those are edited out. They don’t look off-set and they don’t drop their dishes. But they’re not The French Chef, either.
A while back, when I talked about the movie Die Hard, I said that movie sequels aren’t usually as good as the original. All those cooking shows we watch now?…they’re the sequels to Julia’s masterful original.