Even though Food Network is experiencing some lower ratings, you could say we live in a golden age of food broadcasting, where a daily task has been elevated to a glamorous spectacle. Can you imagine an entire network, or even an entire show, devoted to some other reasonably manual task, like, say, cleaning a bathroom? Food television created a new cult of personality around TV hosts, destroyed a few professional careers, and lifted the lives of certain home cooks into gastronomical icons. I have a number of favorites.
In all of my home cooking dorkery, it’s only natural that I’d cross paths with Julia Child, the fairy (albeit very tall fairy) godmother of all cooking shows and the personality responsible for bridging haute cuisine with home cooking. Every food host, even that bleached hair guy, owe something to Julia. She never endorsed anything, which Tony Bourdain really admires. Long before Paula Deen became the butt of bad butter jokes, Julia was laying on the fat. Her Francophilia and strong opinions (watch this video) ripple pretty strongly in Ina Garten, host of Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa.
In fact, I’d go as far to say that Ina Garten is the closest thing Food Network has to Julia Child, at least as far as content goes. Their programs explain traditionally austere French cuisine in terms a layperson could understand, if the layperson wasn’t drooling over the television’s lascivious depiction of roasted chicken or Boeuf Bourguignon.
Ina and Julia have more in common than cooking. Before they became gourmets, both had pretty stable careers working for the government. In 1974, Brooklyn native Garten started working in the Office of Management and Budget for Gerald Ford. She wrote the nuclear energy budget for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1976, not long after a nationwide energy crisis. She was very good at her job, and while her head was in it, her heart wasn’t. Garten has said her time at the White House was “intellectually exciting and stimulating but it wasn’t me at all.” Garten left in 1978 to start a gourmet store in the Hamptons, in a time before Goop or artisan stores were saturating our cultural consciousness. The store, which closed in 2004, led Garten into the hands of Food Network, which offered her a show. She’s since lost count of how many books she’s released and turned her own personal life in the Hamptons into television. It may just be the classiest reality show on now.
Ina read Child pretty voraciously while whipping up dinner parties in the D.C. area, years after The French Chef premiered in 1962 and far removed from Julia Child’s stint in government intelligence. At 6’2″ (the same height as yours truly), Child was too tall to be a soldier but found work in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). She worked in research as a typist. Her day-to-day work involved typing hundreds of names onto white cards. She developed shark repellent. As if she couldn’t get cooler, she traveled to Ceylon and worked there from 1944 to 1945, where she met Paul Child, another officer who was just as cool as her. An entire book (which I’ve got to read) discusses the Childs in Ceylon, as Paul (a painter) took Julia through the jungle and talked about food. They went to France together to work for the U.S. Information Agency. Julia delved into French cuisine, taking classes at Le Cordon Bleu. She published her first book in 1961, donned an apron and elaborate kitchen tools (imagine James Bond with a culinary torch), and stayed in television for the next forty years.
I already knew Julia Child was cool, but her cred went way up when her OSS involvement got declassified.
Kind of makes me wonder who else is a government worker. The food TV junkie in me wants to know if Alton Brown is a cloning researcher, or if Ted Allen moonlights as a government assassin. Think about it.