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Pop Stuff: The Proper Binge

‘Julia’ is a celebration of something that has all too often been held in check; female hunger – for food, sex, love, power, fame and success

Soleil Nathwani Jul 26, 2022

Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child. Photo: HBO Max/Seacia Pavao

At a certain point every woman has a tussle with food.  

We come out of the womb gasping for air and wailing for milk and, if we’re lucky, as babies we’re fed on demand. In pre-school, parents (those who are fortunate enough not to be food poor, or food insecure) fuss over ensuring we’re getting sufficient greens and proteins for growing bodies and minds. In these early years, messaging is geared towards making sure children are meeting their height and weight goals. While this has changed to account for childhood-obesity epidemics – largely a result of nutrient-poor, calorie-dense processed foods, the marketing of which afflicts the poorest communities, generally – children are generally told to eat well and eat enough. At some point this messaging takes a dramatic turn, particularly for girls. From girlhood into adolescence and certainly by womanhood, the media has us aspiring to thinness. A subliminal spell is cast that says: don’t eat too much, when hunger strikes eat daintily, prettily, never messily, and above all, never be ravenous. This curbing of hunger that begins with food, then pervades other spheres, domestic and professional. Ambition, success, power and even sex when not proscribed for us, are prescribed to us in moderation.  

This taming of appetites was on my mind when I came upon HBO’s recently released show Julia, a lightly fictionalized re-imagining of the life of American television chef and cookbook author Julia Child, who, at a very minimum, gets credit for bringing French cuisine to the American, and possibly global, mainstream, with her debut cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking (524 recipes in foolproof detail, first published by Knopf in 1961, and co-authored by French Cordon Bleu-trained teachers Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle) and for pioneering the modern food show in 1963 with The French Chef. I consumed HBO’s Julia with delight and relish, regretting only the all-too-belated introduction to an American national treasure, whose name I had heard but whose presence I had never consciously felt. The show evokes appreciation of Child planting the seeds of adventure, hunger and sensual joy in both cooking and eating that preceded the likes of Anthony Bordain, Gordon Ramsay, Martha Stewart and Nigella Lawson, and foreshadowed shows from Iron Chef to personal favorite, The Great British Bake-Off. Above all, Julia is revolutionary for the way it presents Child herself – a woman as unapologetic about eating in life, as she was on screen.  

Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child and David Hyde Pierce as Paul Child. Photo: HBO Max/Seacia Pavao

Each of us has our own personal food history and I feel fortunate that mine has been relatively free of toxic messaging (and blessedly food secure). Simply put, I come from a family of people who love to eat. My father was brought up in a Gujrati household where meals were the central anchor and where my paternal grandmother’s kitchen was a sacred space in which all kinds of vegetarian food magic happened; from airy dhoklas, to crisp bhel, to tangy kadhi. My grandmother loved to eat even more than she loved to cook. Her ritual afternoon chai and namkeen was a marriage of delight and satiety that I have been chasing since I spied on her, swinging her crossed legs at the dining table, with my childlike quiet awe. My maternal grandfather, who never lost the ruddy cheeks borne of Himachal winters, was, in stark contrast, a quintessential northern carnivore, who believed in consuming the whole animal. Standing in my mother’s childhood kitchen, at times, I imagine I can smell my Nana’s bheja fry (brains) and paya (trotters). And my mum, who was schooled by British nuns at a boarding school in the Tamil Nadu hill station of Kodaikanal, conjures one of her favorite school memories as eating freshly baked rolls with newly churned butter while the aroma of South Indian coffee wafted by.   

It strikes me that I’m lucky to have a mother who I could, and still do, enjoy great meals with, who was conscious of being a relatively healthy eater, without giving up her love of food, or making me overly aware of my body. That said, when we talk about this, my mother tells me she has still not forgotten the pre-teen moment when an uncle called her chubby and she starved herself until she shed the pounds. And while I grew up with little shame around eating and what I recognize as the ‘benefits’ of a scrawny frame and a high metabolism, I’ve learned that past a certain age being in a female body, any female body, is a minefield of being made self-conscious around food. For as long as I can remember, precisely because I spent my teens and twenties on the skinny side of the equation, I consumed countless meals with a running commentary around how I could pack in the food, without packing in the pounds. The friends meant well, the boyfriends were always too pleased for my liking. Needless to say, when I reached for a second helping, which was pretty much consistently, I anticipated the coming refrain. 

In New York, where I live now, the skinny capital of the world, it is a worn cliché that men tend to eat till they are sated and women survive on a side salad. While men face their fair share of weight-shaming, it goes without saying that the ‘dad bod’ is looked upon rather more affectionately than its female counterpart. Now that age and metabolism have caught up with me, I’m rarely reminded of how my body and appetite seem wildly inconsistent, but eating is still a spectator sport. Just last week, I was at a birthday party, spooning a vanilla sponge with the most decadent chocolate frosting into my mouth – you know, the stuff of childhood pre-party insomnia – when the man next to me leaned over and said, in a tone of what I’ll politely call mock awe, “Wow you’re really eating that cake.” Um, as opposed to? This was followed minutes later with a perfectly coifed, superbly trim waiter bending down to ask me, again mid-spoon, if I was done. My eyes might have trailed the plate he whisked away. For the record I’m not done; what I really want is seconds.  

So, I ask myself, what would Julia Child do? Julia, a woman who was known for saying, amongst other decadent truisms, “Life itself, is the proper binge.” Julia would pooh-pooh the skinny brigade and the gastronomy skeptics. Certainly, according to Daniel Goldfarb (of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel fame), who re-imagined Julia with a predominantly female writers’ room, and with the acting prowess of British actor Sarah Lancashire in the titular role (known for Coronation Street and Happy Valley, and for a time the UK’s highest-paid actress), Julia would scoff. With a mouthful of coq au vin, or buttery lobster, or tarte tatin, she would school the offenders in her high-pitched yodel on what they were missing out on. That is, if she bothered to spin her attention away from her plate at all.  

Julia and Paul Child in an image taken in their bathtub for their annual Valentine postcard. Photo: Paul Child/Radcliffe Institute

Season one of the show (which will be back for a second season) tracks a period in Child’s life following the 1961 publication of her cookbook. This prior period has been duly immortalized in Nora Ephron’s 2009 film Julie and Julia, with Meryl Street in an Oscar-nominated turn as the famed chef. The HBO show picks up with Julia trying to find her legacy, purpose and a next act, which leads her to start the TV show that would become a public television fixture for the next decade. Julia covers the creation of the first season of The French Chef by structuring each episode loosely around a particular French Chef recipe episode. Beginning with the Omelette and ending with Chocolate Soufflé, we are dished up everything from Petit Fours to Beef Bourguignon in the mix.  

It is significant that even outside of the actual cooking – Julia first making the omelette that sparks her television career on a talk show where she is being interviewed, Julia’s husband Paul Child (a brilliantly cast David Hyde Pierce of Frasier fame) and her sharp-as-a-tack book editor Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott) recipe testing baguette after baguette in the Childs’ Massachusetts kitchen, and Julia tearing apart a chicken before flambéing it on live television – the show is replete with scenes of people, for the most part women, eating.  

Everything of consequence transpires over meals that are consumed with a sparkling disregard for women’s waistlines and an unabashed celebration of their appetites. When Julia first meets with her editor, Judith, it is at the Union Oyster House in Cambridge, where they talk wearing bibs, scooping up oysters and sucking the meat out of lobster claws that drip with butter. In another scene, Julia and her close friend Avis Devoto (a wonderfully acerbic Bebe Neuwirth) conspire to convince Paul of the rationale for a television show, as they slurp double scoops of ice cream in the park. Almost an entire episode is devoted to Julia eating her evening through San Francisco with famed chef and dear friend James Beard (Christian Clemenson). And, later in the series, when Julia has lunch in New York with her publisher, the revered Blanche Knopf (a formidable Judith Light) and Judith, at the landmark restaurant Lutèce, she makes our mouths water as she describes, “Oh my goodness, foie gras, with dark chocolate sauce, in a bitter orange marmalade’ and posits – is it hot in here or is it just me?”.  

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The truth is, in spite of women playing a crucial role as nurturers, feeders and cooks in society, we are rarely seen eating in the media. There are a few exceptions. Some of the most creative films ever made have food and women at their core. Who can forget Juliette Binoche in Chocolat, the three daughters central to Ang Lee’s Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette, Olivia Colman playing a different queen in The Favourite, Zhao Shu-zhen as the matriarch in The Farewell or Tilda Swinton swooning over food in I Am Love? Still, for the most part, these independent films reach smaller audiences than the mass media of magazine and television, and the women in them are eating to fulfill a larger narrative of sensuality, emotional need or familial bonds. One notable outlier is, unsurprisingly, Meryl Streep’s Julia.  

Television history has been equally spare when it comes to women eating. Despite Monica (Courteney Cox) being a chef in Friends, it is Joey (Matt LeBlanc) who is constantly thinking about his next meal, while Monica seems still plagued by the ‘fat Monica’ moniker she garnered as a chubby teen. Sex and the City might be a notable exception, although it can be argued that mimosas and svelte outfits feature far more than French toast. More recently though, shows like Killing Eve have made a point of showcasing women’s appetites. Killing Eve’s assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is seen wolfing spork-fulls of shepherd’s pie, chowing endless noodles of pasta and licking cake batter off a spatula, while her nemesis, agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) eats fast food, binges from her stash of Korean snacks and frequently drops sauce on her clothes. Viola Davis as law professor Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder is another example of a female protagonist normalizing eating as healing. Even the ubiquitous food shows that Child herself spawned are no longer populated solely by the likes of Jamie Oliver and David Chang. With newer faces like chef Samin Nosrat (of Netlix’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) and well-loved Bake-Off finalist Nadiya Hussain, who has since signed multiple shows, food shows, too, appear to be edging towards a more even gender balance of chefs. 

Julia Child on set. Photo: Courtesy of Paul Child /PBS

Despite these advances, Julia is still a welcome aberration in a sea of media images that do little to promote healthy appetites for and attitudes to food for women, something that is borne out by the statistics. In the US, as in an increasing number of countries, the average person’s television consumption clocks in at well over three hours a day. Oft-cited studies, including one led by Harvard’s Anne Becker, have shown the strong correlation between television exposure and eating disorders amongst girls. In fact, it is not even necessary for a young girl to watch television, it is enough that her peers do. When societies prize thinness and don’t reflect the basic act of eating, the effects are quickly felt at the individual level. It only takes flipping through channels, screens or the pages of a fashion magazine, even with current trends towards body positivity, to see that the ideal woman is smaller than the women we see around us and that billions of marketing dollars go towards looking and staying slim. 

Gone Girl star Rosamund Pike, who inhabited the film’s central character Amy Dunne, best nailed the dilemma women face in her infamous ‘cool girl’ monologue, stating, “I ate cold pizza and remained a size two.” In Gillian Flynn’s book, from which the film is adapted, she tells it with more punch: “[Cool girl] jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang-bang while somehow maintaining a size two.” Amy Dunne encapsulates the struggle inherent in people questioning why women only eat salad, while the world around them has unfair expectations of their size. Tellingly, when Dunne escapes the marriage in which she feels stifled by expectations of perfection – an extension of her parents’ expectations (they once recast her in a children’s book series as Amazing Amy) – the first thing she does is scarf down a burger and fries. Amy eats because she is done containing herself to fit people’s expectations.  

Julia brings the idea of inhabiting space as a woman into much healthier focus. In actuality, Julia Child was 6’2’’; a tall, substantial woman who had no intention of shrinking herself, either literally or metaphorically, in terms of the space she wanted to take up in the world. The show presents Julia as ambitious about her career even though, at 50 years old, 1960s convention would have labeled her ‘past her prime.’ She feels, quite rightly, that she deserves to be seen and heard. Despite disinterest and push back from producer Russ Morash (Fran Kranz), who views cooking as too frivolous for the lofty ambitions of public television, Julia insists, with the help of young, ambitious, female producer Alice Naman (played to great effect by Brittany Bradford), on funding the pilot and the show’s food budget to get it made, because she believes in the power and reach of what she is doing and, shocker, because she knows she can shine in front of the camera.  

Watching the show led me to revisit original episodes of The French Chef, which are testament that a woman does not have to be petite and dainty to play to the camera. She can, like Child, be mesmerizing while statuesque, commanding, boisterous and flinging food around a kitchen. In an act that hardly seems novel now, but was a much-needed departure at the time, Julia ends each show by sampling the food she has cooked. Just as Julia Child made Americans stop to watch her eat, so too Julia expands on the outsized effect of her legacy by allowing us to revel in women eating.  

The stereotypes around female appetites that the show chips away at extend well beyond food, highlighting Julia’s drive and the relationship with her husband Paul. Their partnership, which is documented in Child’s memoir My Life in France and in the pair’s correspondence, is brought to effervescent life in the show.  

Fiona Glascott as Judith Jones and David Hyde Pierce as Paul Child. Photo: HBO Max/Seacia Pavao

Julia and Paul met whilst they were working for the US government in Sri Lanka in 1944, during World War II. Their marriage is at the heart of a wonderful 2021 documentary, also titled Julia, in what appears to be recently renewed interest not just in Child (last year the Food Network also launched competition show The Julia Child Challenge) but in trailblazing women. I recommend the documentary if you find yourself, like me, going down a Julia-sized rabbit hole. Julia had a relatively comfortable and cosseted upbringing in Pasadena, California, and had seen little of the world before being posted abroad and meeting Paul. After they married, the state department posted Paul to Paris, to promote American Arts, a period that led to Julia’s stint at French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu. For the first part of their marriage, Paul, a decade older than Julia, played elder statesman, while she imbibed his world. It was Paul, who had always relished fine-dining, who introduced Julia to French cuisine. However, in the second half of their marriage, when they return to the US, which is when we meet them on screen in Julia, Paul, now forced into semi-retirement, is content to let Julia have the spotlight and to help her career flourish, even as his own experiences challenges.  

It is as such in Julia’s 1960s kitchen that we encounter a thoroughly modern marriage. Paul designs the counter tops in their Massachusetts kitchen, used for the cooking show, to accommodate for Julia’s height, creating nooks and crannies so that every pot and pan can fit. He is often found at Julia’s feet while filming, handing things to her, or on set holding up signs for her. And when Julia is busy cooking, Paul makes himself useful chopping vegetables, cleaning up and pouring the wine. We learn that the recipes that feature on The French Chef are dishes that they have first eaten and recipe-tested together. If Julia Child is hungry with ambition, her husband Paul is, more often than not, willing to provide the fuel. Paul Child exalts his wife, without wanting to shrink her persona or her dress size. As his career as an artist and photographer hums contentedly in the background of her significantly larger one in the foreground, it is to Julia who Paul most often turns his camera. He vaunts Julia both as a star and as his ideal muse. 

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Julia presses even further in flaunting its heroine’s appetites by foregrounding Child’s hankerings that reach past kitchen and boardroom, into the bedroom. In celebration of this, Julia is rife with sex puns galore. At one point, whilst filming the coq-au-vin recipe, Lancashire as Julia quips cheekily and with impeccable delivery, which would risk sounding hammy in a lessor actor’s hands, that it is “the best coq I ever put in my mouth.” Although the opening episode sees Julia’s doctor assure her that hot flashes and complaints of not ‘feeling frisky’ are down to nothing more than menopause, we spend considerable time over the rest of the series with Paul and Julia in the bedroom. The show’s message is that aging and hormones need not be an issue we tiptoe around. In a television landscape, where it is unusual to witness women over a certain age be sexually active, let alone actively sexy, this depiction of Julia Child is positively radical. She is an older woman with a figure that is neither incongruously shapely, nor dubiously waifish, yet completely at ease with her body and her desires.  

Julia’s 1960s kitchen is also where, for this viewer at least, Child performs her greatest coup, in reclaiming a space that has been the seat of women’s purgatory, as much as their power. Women have either willingly taken on the mantle of nourishers, been weighed down by it, or some combination of the two, but Julia’s kitchen is undoubtedly a place of dominance and influence. Male producers and television personalities around Child view cooking as neither a serious topic, nor serious television. Child has other ideas and wastes no time in springing to action. She glides into WGBH’s offices (the channel that first aired her show), galette in hand, to argue her case in the fashion of a true saleswoman, insisting that food is a form of cultural travel – even if she must risk testing sweetmeats on the skittish American palette – and she puts her money quite literally where her mouth is to fund her show. Child deftly disassembles the notion of the kitchen as a place of confinement that hinders women from the workplace, and reimagines it as a center for creativity, commerce and above all, control. Needless to say, Child’s bets paid off; The French Chef went on to win multiple awards, including a couple of glitzy Emmys and a prestige-laden Peabody. 

Watching Julia reshape the seat of domesticity resonated with me all the more because of my own journey with cooking. The kitchen became a place of renewed focus for many of us during the pandemic, highlighting a host of things from women’s role as carers, to the plight of restaurant workers, to food insecurity, but not least new legions of people baking bread, soaking beans, stewing jams and working miracles with family recipes. Despite coming from a family of women capable of culinary feats, the kitchen always felt fraught to me. More so, because the idea that women bear sole responsibility for cooking and feeding people remains a dominant, if shifting, notion in India. My grandmothers were tasked with maintaining the domestic sphere and feeding their families, whether they wanted to or not, and my mother performed this role, alongside teaching, because cooking was foisted on the women of her generation, even as careers became more prevalent. As the pandemic bore out all too well, women perform unpaid labor in the home and continue to suffer unequal pay in the office. Cooking has always been a huge part of this disequilibrium and as such, shaped my own lopsided relationship with it. 

Bebe Neuwirth as Avis Devoto and Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child. Photo: HBO Max/Seacia Pavao

Because it felt impossible to disentangle cooking from diminished careers and reduced financial independence, I always envisioned the kitchen as something I had to keep at bay, much as I enjoyed food. During the pandemic, forced to shed these anxieties, I was able to boil cooking down to its creative and therapeutic essence and found my tiny New York kitchen jammed with utensils and spawning spice racks. The joy of eating became that much more of a luxury, as I learned to put ingredients together myself. Most of all, the things I cooked afforded me travel at a time when travel was largely lost to us. I traveled to childhood evenings through my mother’s lasagna, to school lunches topped with rhubarb crumble and Victoria sponge, to Mumbai monsoons in the flaky crust of a samosa skin, to once-shared birthdays in the richness of a biryani platter, and to the various places my friends had grown up in with generously imparted recipes that spanned the globe. I learned how to make silky Haitian pain patate from grated sweet potatoes and boil arboria rice into a range of luscious risottos. In the end, the pounds I amassed were well worth the cooking phobias that I shed.  

While Julia knows cooking is a sensuous pleasure and the show embraces and elevates it as such, neither the show, nor the woman, are oblivious to the contradictions inherent in the kitchen. The show addresses this ideological wrangle in a scene that, while possibly fabricated, nonetheless provides (pardon the pun) food for thought. In a later episode, Julia encounters leading feminist and contemporaneous author Betty Friedan (Tracee Ann Chimo), who graduated from Smith college just shy of a decade after Child herself. Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, is often credited with sparking the second wave of American feminism. Julia has stepped off a stage, having just received an award for her work, when she encounters Friedan. As they begin to talk about Friedan’s book, the latter makes it plain that she feels Child’s show is contributing to ‘the feminine mystique’ – the false idea that women are meant to find fulfilment in housework, marriage and child-rearing. “You’ve nicely raised the bar in what it means to be a good wife to professional levels… and how can these women who you have locked in the kitchen possibly find time for anything, let alone a career?” Friedan asks Child. 

While Child may not have been a self-avowed feminist, she went on to speak passionately for many of its causes, including as a vocal advocate for Planned Parenthood (which worked to ensure reproductive freedoms for American women). The conversation with Friedan and its central question of a woman’s “place” rattle Child, though ultimately not enough to convince her that exalting cooking and enjoying food will be the thing that keeps a generation of women chained to the counter top.  

The show, in its first season, could be accused of tidying over this issue and numerous others, in the service of delivering its own comfort meal, in television-sized chunks. The intersecting racism and sexism that would doubtless have impeded Julia’s producer Alice Naman (who is black in the show, but based on an amalgamation of long-suffering, female producers of the time, including Julia’s actual producer Ruth Lockwood, who was white) is given relatively short shrift, as is the notion that for Child, as a woman of a certain education and class, it would have been that much easier to walk into certain rooms or find a space on television at all. The ongoing American civil rights movement barely smolders in a few hasty scenes where Morash contends with a producer’s role in casting appropriate light on the charged politics of the time. My guess, or my hope, is that the hefty issues that have merely been teased in this first season, will be fleshed out as the show progresses.  

As a single season of television, though, the show deserves credit for doing something entirely new in bringing all of Child’s abundant and untamed passions into mouth-watering focus and something else less radical, but equally noteworthy – bringing her energy to women like me, who might know her, if at all, through the static font of recipe pages and little else. Julia is a celebration of something that has all too often been held in check; female hunger – for food, for sex, for love, for power, for fame and for success. As a society, we’re still grappling with how we encounter the unchecked female appetite, let alone standing poised to nourish it. Julia, in this incarnation, brings us a step closer. So, I’ll leave you with this tasty morsel of advice, from Child herself: “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” 

Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani