Julia Child Was a Champion for Reproductive Rights
Helen Rosner talks about the celebrity chef's feminist legacy
People who have never cooked a single recipe of Julia Child’s have still heard about that time she dropped and re-plated a chicken on live TV. That the dish was actually a potato pancake and only a few pieces fell onto the stovetop is representative of how mythic Child has become, a towering cultural icon in all senses of the word. Beyond the approachability of Child’s pragmatic advice for the fallen pancake (pick it up if no one else is in the kitchen), people love this anecdote because it’s so unscripted. We feel we’re seeing the “real” Julia Child.
The interviews in Julia Child: The Last Interview, collected for Melville House, offer the same pleasure. They span her career, starting in 1961 and ending with the titular final interview she gave in 2004, and allow us to see Child speaking passionately and spontaneously about topics from how to flute a mushroom to women’s reproductive rights. As Helen Rosner, the James Beard award-winning writer and current food correspondent for the New Yorker, writes in her wonderful introduction, “The six interviews in this volume together tell a richly dimensional story of how Julia McWilliams–a talky California girl, intelligent and outgoing and a gawky six-foot something–would grow to become Julia Child.”
I had the chance to sit down with Rosner at Caffe Reggio in the West Village and talk about the many sides of Julia Child, from her liberal politics and abhorrence of McCarthyism to why she always insisted on being called a teacher.
Carrie Mullins: I’m excited to talk about this book! I’ve worked in food writing for a long time and I’m a huge fan of Julia’s, but these interviews were new to me. Can you tell me a little about how the project came about?
Helen Rosner: The book is part of this really wonderful series that Melville House does called The Last Interview that has all kinds of incredible cultural figures like James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut. I know that they had already had Julia in the works, and an editor reached out to me and asked if I would write the introduction for it, which was really exciting. I mean it’s impossible to exist within the culinary world and not feel the presence of Julia Child and her legacy.
But I think that, like any titanic cultural figure, there is a sort of cachet to saying Julia’s overrated or not being into her. There appears to be a path to coolness to say she’s not as great as everyone says she is, or she doesn’t deserve the acclaim. I have never been one of those people. I think she was astonishingly influential. Her influence was in part a product of timing—the cultural trajectory of America in the 20th century—but her talent and her skill and her sweetness as a writer and a marketer and what we would now think of as a brand builder, was incredible. So to have the opportunity to take stock of her as a person and to put that in the context of these interviews which truly span her career—I think there is one of the first radio interviews that she gave when Mastering the Art had just been published all the way through to, as the title says, the very last interview she gave before her death—well, what a joy to be able to be part of that.
CM: What comes across in these interviews is how modern she was. Did you know much about her politics before reading them?
HR: Yes and no. I would not qualify myself as a Julia Child scholar, I’m a fan. I’m also someone whose entire profession exists on a trail that she blazed, so to not know about her would be like professional malpractice on my part. I knew that she was a very big supporter of Planned Parenthood.
CM: I didn’t know that before reading these interviews. How vocal was she about the cause?
HR: She was exceptionally vocal, especially for someone of her public stature. What was interesting, especially with her support for reproductive rights, was that she and her husband really wanted to have children and never could. It’s really important to acknowledge, though, that she also talked about things we now understand to be coded references to racism or ableism—she talks about crack mothers, or how wouldn’t you want to abort a fetus if you knew it was mentally handicapped—things we now understand are an abhorrent way to think about reproductive rights.
CM: So she was progressive, but to a point?
HR: Right, and that was very of the time, that was the message Planned Parenthood was talking about in the 70s and 80s too. She had a very white and privileged perspective but at the same time her support of it wasn’t limited to those aspects that we now understand to be problematic. She was a famous woman who had eclipsed her husband in notoriety and earning power. She knew the importance to a woman’s life of being free from unwanted pregnancy. She had a contentious relationship with the word feminism and at various points pushed back on defining herself as a feminist, which again feels very of that time, but if you look at her actions she clearly was what we’d understand today to be a feminist. And she talked a lot about women’s lib, it was a movement that she was incredibly comfortable with. She talked a lot about “us women” and what “we women” have to do.
I remember she was teaching a cooking class in Memphis, Tennessee, over the course of three or four days, and every day she was picketed outside the venue by protesters. She was really affected by it. She talks about it in an interview in the book, and she spoke about it really often afterwards. I think it was this sense of not only her discomfort and her frustration at the feeling that her beliefs and her actions were a subject of protest, but also just her horror at what she saw as an incredibly myopic, obsessive campaign to shut down anybody who was looking to aid reproductive freedom for women. She wound up writing about it in one of her columns in Parade magazine and readers started writing in like, keep your politics away from food. You know for the last three years, I think I get five emails a week from people being like, stick to food, you know? There is no path that any of us is walking now that Julia didn’t walk first.
CM: One of the things I find so interesting about Julia is how long it took her to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Those people who minimize her, they’re ignoring so much work, the years of research that she did.
HR: Yeah, I think that she definitely thought of her work as teaching and she was really academically interested in the pedagogy. It wasn’t just, you know, “I love food.” She was interested in how to transmit information. How do you transmit in writing a physical action? She went into TV because it added a whole other sensory vector for this thing that she was communicating and really passionate about teaching. I think there is something really compelling about that pedagogical posture: I’m teaching you this because I was also a student, as opposed to, I have some divinely inspired complete knowledge that you will never have, which I think is the attitude a lot of people, especially today, have writing cookbooks. Not that they’re setting out to have this vicious narcissism, but there is always this sense that these skills and dishes and lifestyle are a fait accompli, either you live it or you don’t.
Julia spoke very directly to you, the person who was reading or watching, and said, here’s who you are and what you know and let me help to push that farther. That’s rare, to find a cookbook or show that teaches in the way that she teaches. I think that’s why people get so excited about Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, because that’s a teaching cookbook. It teaches in a conversational, passionate way where its primary concern isn’t showing off how intelligent Samin is, though of course that becomes abundantly clear. The goal of the cookbook is to make sure that you leave your experience measurably more confident and with a better vocabulary to do in the kitchen what you want to do.
CM: Julia’s attitude towards the home cook was, you don’t know how to do this and that’s fine. I don’t expect you know how to do this. She met people where they were.
HR: Right. She didn’t assume that a lack of knowledge was a moral failure. If you’re a woman in your kitchen and it’s 1963 and you’re like, I don’t know what I’m doing, then she shows up with this book and says, here are some tricks. Part of what took Mastering the Art so long was its size and its comprehensiveness. This idea, we’re going to explain every step along the way, basically never existed before. It was incredibly democratizing.
CM: Did you choose the interviews in the book or did Melville House?
HR: No, they had chosen them before I signed on to do the intro, but honestly I don’t think I could have picked a better selection. It’s so wonderful, you get such a cross section of who she is, both in terms of time and interest. There is so much of cooking Julia, of course, but I loved the oral history one too.
CM: Yes! With Jewell Fenzi interviewing the wives of the foreign service agents. (The Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, Foreign Spouse Series, 1991)
HR: It’s so incredible that there is this oral history project about the wives that served. What a wonderful remedy to the erasure of women from that period of our foreign policy history. It’s so evident from their conversation that she (Julia) was so deeply involved and deeply passionate and so furious about McCarthyism. She was so invested in the notion of a good United States of America and so wounded by the people and practices that steered it away from what she thought was the course of righteousness.
CM: The McCarthy episode was really fascinating—I mean her husband was brought to DC from Germany and accused of being gay and a communist.
HR: It’s unfortunate on a lot of levels. Another asterisk on her legacy is that she and Paul were casually homophobic. I mean they had a lot of friends who were gay, but they’d make glib comments. Her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, in his book The French Chef in America, speculated about the rumors because it would be irresponsible not to. Their comments were probably in part a response to the fact they were so often accused themselves because she was very tall and broad shouldered and very independent, and he was small and dandily dressed and an artist. It was really affecting to her.
CM: For fans of Julia, what do you think will be the most surprising or interesting thing they’ll learn from this particular group of interviews?
HR: I think when we talk about fans of Julia, there is a small group of people who are fans of the complete Julia; fans of her as a cultural and historical figure who was one of the great women of history. And then there are people who are fans of the more Pinterest-y type. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way, but I think there is a model from Julie and Julia the movie, this fantasy of making a seven course French dinner for your family. That model of Julia fandom I think is much wider, the people who see her as like a precursor to Ina Garten–who also for the record has extensive CIA connections, and it’s interesting how so many of our incredible goddesses of domesticity maybe had access to nuclear codes. For those people, I would love them to read this book.
You know in broad strokes her biography, everyone knows she worked for the precursor to the CIA, but it’s what happens with these cultural figures— they get flattened a bit into caricature. Within these interviews, there is so much depth and so much of who she is. It’s interesting to hear anyone in the context of an interview. When you write, you can think forever about what you’re saying, you can revise and revise until the sentences are perfect. When you’re filming a TV show in front of a camera, you have a script. But when you’re sitting next to someone with a recorder in front of you, it ends up being natural. You can’t hide the quirks in your language and you don’t get to go back and revise the sentence to make it prettier. It’s rare and wonderful to see Julia in these moments where she is disarmingly intimate and candid and it’s exactly who she really is. It’s not that far off from who she was on the page or in front of the TV camera, but it’s enough of a difference that you can see how her intelligence glitters around everything that she does, and you can see her frustrations, how she’s motivated sometimes by anger. It’s wonderful. She’s hugely famous, a legend, and it’s so wonderful to be like oh, she totally deserved that.