The hot TV series of the moment, Mad Men, is set in 1963, the same year that Julia Child debuted on public television with The French Chef. Coincidentally, Child is a hot pop culture icon again (not that she ever really went cold), thanks to the book and film Julie & Julia. Would she have any affinity for Mad Men’s impeccably dressed but emotionally hollow protagonist Don Draper?
While waiting for another Mad Men episode, I started in on a “best of” DVD collection of The French Chef, which opens with perhaps her most famous episode, “The Potato Show.” This is the one in which she tries to flip a large potato pancake, which breaks apart on the way down and ends up half outside the pan. “You can pick it up when you’re alone in the kitchen,” she says to the camera as she grabs the errant pieces and puts them back in the pan. “Who is going to see?”
The moment was so ripe for the making of urban legends -- Child’s actual words would be attached to fanciful tales of her dropping, say, an entire chicken on the floor and then blithely putting in on a serving plate -- that her real advice concerning the mishap was forgotten.
“When something like this happens,” she told her viewers after her flip was a flop, “you haven’t lost anything. You can always turn it into something else.” In this case, Child threw some cheese on the failed pancake and said, “We’ll pretend that this was supposed to be a baked potato dish.”
This spirit of reinvention, and the rejection of a fixed identity, would seem to be in sync with self-made man Don Draper. And there are similarities between the fine-cooking game and the advertising biz, given that both emphasize artifice and eye-catching presentation.
Of course, Julia Child became famous for her genuineness, or the lack of artifice in her own appearance and manner even as she showed us how to accomplish culinary slights of hand. Her own hands, by the way, were covered with age spots even at the very beginning of The French Chef's run, and they probably would disqualify her from appearing on today's Food Network.
The French Chef, with its gangly host, cluttered countertops, and squeaky oven door, is pretty much the antithesis of Mad Men and its meticulous set design. And Child's obvious tendency to speak before she's completely thought something through would probably be seen by Draper as a weakness that could be exploited -- an attitude, in turn, that would probably disgust Child. (In "The Potato Show," Child ad-libs that spuds are "queer in their chemical construction," an inadvertent reminder of her apparent homophobia.)
In the end, I suspect that Don Draper would feel more at home with perfectionist Martha Stewart, but I'd love to see his reaction to one of the fastest-rising TV stars of the 1960s. Maybe Peggy can explain Child's appeal to him.