How an American Became ‘The French Chef’

By Juliet Tempest

There can be no better description of Julia Child than “meticulous.” Indeed, Amy Vidor and Caroline Barta describe her thus in their delightful post this month. They review the history of Child’s success in circulating French cuisine in the U.S. As they discuss, Child held the highest respect for the integrity of a recipe, which enabled her cookbooks to become the first authoritative American “translations” of French food. Yet her enthusiasm for these recipes eclipsed even her exacting nature in developing them, allowing her to connect with her audience and thereby introduce French cuisine into American homes—through the sense of “hospitality” to which Vidor and Barta refer.

Child, Paul. “Julia Child on WGBH.” Credit: Biography of Julia Child, PBS, 15 June 2005.

Child removed the cultural and political implications of French food, as Ashley Armes has argued (133). Here I add that the theory of cognitive dissonance explains the mechanism by which she accomplished this. Psychologist Elliot Aronson describes dissonance as mental discomfort associated with hypocritical cognitions or actions (107). People tend to rationalize such hypocrisies away, either through avoidance or re-description of beliefs. To cook French food, Americans of Child’s day would experience dissonance on two levels: due first to an ambivalent political relationship with France, and second to a cultural inferiority complex. Julia Child mitigated both sources of dissonance through her accessible persona; the audience could identify effortlessly with Child because of her humanizing imperfections and comprehension of the American psyche.

The Omelette Show from The French Chef.

Granted, Child did not succeed on personality alone. She possessed ample qualifications to teach French cuisine, as Vidor and Barta point out. After publishing the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child gained rapid visibility as the star of the television program The French Chef (Pillsbury 135).

Child wanted to teach authentically French cuisine to the authentic American (Ferguson 5). Her comprehensive instructions therefore reflected while elucidating the complexity of French food. With the advent of microwaveable meals, one might have expected Child’s economizing competitors to capture the American audience. Many of them tried to propagate French cooking through shortcuts, like canned foods; these trendy hacks highlighted their Americanization of French food, however (Armes 122). It would have been a dissonance-creating admission of inadequacy should Americans prepare anything less than genuine French food. Child’s approach did not require such damage to Americans’ positive self-concept.

Around that time, a 1969 New York Times Magazine article implied that France still overshadowed America in culinary achievement (Armes 120). Like a younger sibling, the U.S. has long aspired to live up to France’s example while cultivating an individualized identity—a dynamic present since perhaps American emancipation from the British Empire, made possible by the intervention of the French. Despite this historical affinity for France, the moment when Child managed to popularize its cuisine hardly seemed ripe. Charles de Gaulle’s nationalist tendencies fed tense relations with the U.S. over the decade he served as president from 1959. Based on the unflattering media coverage that ensued, France appeared to lose its prominence in every arena, save the culinary (Armes 91, 101, 109-110, 120).

This separation of cuisine from other aspects of French culture is largely attributable to Child. Her predecessors had employed French cooking as “a tool for cultural education” (Armes 118). Loathe to submit to pedantic lecturing, let alone about emulating a country critical of them, Americans would not take up French cooking and associated cognitive dissonance within this framework. They needed Child to re-cast adoption of other food cultures, French specifically, as an American enterprise, one whose political implications featured national strength. Child celebrated how Americans “‘borrow from cuisines from all over the world. We take what we like from another culture and add it to our own’” (Algert 155). France then was not condescending to teach the U.S. to cook, just as de Gaulle was governance; rather, the U.S. exhibited agency in electing to learn.

Beyond this ideological shift, Child herself made French cooking all the more approachable. A slightly disheveled eccentric who preferred not to rehearse and (consequently perhaps) dropped food on air, Child demonstrated implicitly that the least coordinated among us could still master the art (Armes 129; “Profile”). She reduced any cognitive dissonance around assuming a challenge beyond one’s abilities for anyone previously too intimidated to attempt French cuisine. Indeed, psychologists Roger Marshall, et al. argue that the more unrealistic a spokesperson’s image, the more dissonance will be created through customers’ identification with the product represented (566). That everyone could imagine Child in his own kitchen reinforced the connection to her and the food she prepared.

Child’s accessibility might not have eliminated all potential cognitive dissonance. The theory nonetheless contains the mechanism by which she could still become an American culinary icon. Viewers who watched The French Chef yet whose negative perceptions of France persisted required some way of reconciling this apparent hypocrisy; they might instead re-evaluate their beliefs about Child more positively to justify their viewership. Thus for uncertain cooks and Franco-skeptics alike, Julia made learning to cook French food worthwhile.


References

Algert, Susan. “Julia Child at 91 Comments on American Culinary Culture.” Nutrition Today. 39.4 (2004): 154-156. WilsonWeb. Web. 6 Apr. 2010.

Armes, Ashley R. “Image of Nation, Image of Culture: France and French Cooking in the American Press 1918-1969.” MA Thesis. Texas Tech University, 2006.

Aronson, Elliot. “Dissonance, Hypocrisy, and the Self-Concept.” Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social psychology (1999): 103-126. PsycBooks. Web. 24 Apr. 2010.

Child, Julia and Alex Prud’homme. My Life in France. New York: Knopf, 2006.

Child, Julia, Louise Bertholle, and Simone Beck. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Vol. 1. New York: Knopf, 2001.

Ferguson, Kennan. “Mastering the Art of the Sensible: Julia Child, Nationalist.” Theory and Event 12.2 (2009).

Marshall, Roger, et al. “Endorsement Theory: How Consumers Relate to Celebrity Models.” Journal of Advertising Research 48.4 (Dec. 2008): 564-572. EBSCOhost. Web. 24 Apr. 2010.

Pillsbury, Richard. No Foreign Food: The American Diet In Time and Place (Geographies of the Imagination). Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. Print.

“Profile: Julia Child, who brought the art of French cooking to the United States, has died at age 91.” All Things Considered. Host Michele Block. Natl. Public Radio, 13 Aug. 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 Apr. 2010.

Juliet M. Tempest is an aspiring anthropologist of Chinese foodways who holds a B.A. in Economics, Finance, and Translation & Intercultural Communication from Princeton University. Her research has focused on the effects of culture on trade and finance, in China specifically, though (simultaneously and) subsequently evolved into scholarship of food studies. She formally completed certificates in Cuisine & Patisserie de Base at L’Ecole du Cordon Bleu in Paris, an internship at the organic Buena Vista Farm in New South Wales, and a seminar on “Reading Historic Cookbooks” at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute in Boston. She has recorded and translated cooking class recipes through interviews with a classically trained Yunnanese chef and served as a Mandarin interpreter for disbursing farmers market vouchers to low-income individuals in DC.


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