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Fact vs. Fiction: 3 Epic Meals From ‘Julia’

Food stylist Christine Tobin goes behind the scenes on the Max series, now that the final episode of Season 2 has aired.
December 21, 2023
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Photo by Seacia Pavao/Max

By the time we meet Julia Child in the fictional Max show, , her time in Paris, one of the most consequential periods in her life, has already passed. Her groundbreaking cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, has just been accepted for publication, and Julia, fully embodied by actress Sarah Lancashire, is off to Cambridge, Mass. with Paul Child (David Hyde Pierce). The show’s producers skip ahead to this moment so we can get to the meaty part: the launch of The French Chef on Boston public television, which brought French cooking, cooking shows—and of course, Julia—to the American masses.

The French Chef is when Julia’s star really begins to rise over 1960s America, altering not just her life, but the trajectory of everyone in her orbit. Unlike a biopic such as Julie and Julia, which doesn’t have the time to go deep on minor players, Julia has the luxury of eight hours per season to shine a light on a multitude of people and events that make her story so relevant.

But how much of it is true? In the excellent companion podcast, , executive producer and creator Daniel Goldfarb recounts reading every Julia Child biography and interview, and watching every French Chef episode to help create this believable world. “Everything we do on the show could have happened,” he explains.

That research helps the actors bring the show to life in an authentic way, says Todd Schulkin, the consulting producer of the series and the executive director of the Julia Child Foundation, which is planning a . “But then you end up…with this kind of tight rope that you're walking between ‘accuracy’ for something that can never be accurate, because it's actually an invention.”

The food in the series, all styled under the direction of Christine Tobin, an artist turned food stylist who lives in Boston, is also filled with plausible inventions.

From the cooking lessons of Season 1 to the major feasts in Season 2, which just ended, Christine ensured that the food we saw on screen was either true to what Julia was cooking at the time, or what she would have been likely experimenting with in the kitchen. (And every recipe Sarah Lancashire’s Julia prepared came from the real Julia’s cookbooks—with a few tiny modifications.) Curious as to where she took some liberties, I asked Christine to provide the real backstory on three of Season 2’s most memorable meals. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
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Photo by Sebastein Gonon/Max

Season 2, Episode 1: “Loup en Croûte”

Season 2 takes us to Provence, the home of Julia’s cookbook collaborator, Simone Beck, or Simca for short, played by Isabella Rossellini. Together they dine outside at a restaurant that is meant to be Paul Bocuse’s first restaurant (though he had no outdoor dining), and try a dish that he became famous for, Loup en Croûte. This whole sea bass, baked in a pastry shell and shaped to look like a fish, is theatrically plated tableside with a simple tomato sauce. The dish represents a changing of the guard in French cooking, from haute to nouvelle cuisine, and the two women’s reactions to it could not be more different. Julia’s embrace of the new, and Simca’s utter disdain for it, sets the tone for all of the characters’ transformative story arcs in the season.

Julia is so taken with the dish—which appears in a later cookbook, Julia & Company—she tries to prepare it at Simca’s home, and again at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris where she trained. In all, Christine Tobin estimates she made about 30 versions of this Bocuse classic for the show, in three different locations. “They were going away like door prizes at the end of the day to crew members!” she said. Traditionally made in puff pastry, some versions of his recipe also specify brioche, which Christine chose for its durability—especially while filming during a heat wave in the south of France.

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Photo by Seacia Pavao/Max

Season 2, Episode 2: “Fried Chicken”

Simca and Julia are still stewing in their opposing attitudes towards cooking in Episode 2. Warring over what recipes should make it into volume two of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, they each decide to make a set number of dishes for a dinner party, and let their guests, including James Beard (Christian Clemenson), decide what’s worth keeping. In reality, there is no record of a showdown, but their love-hate relationship was real, James Beard was a houseguest—and he had a great recipe for fried chicken, which he makes in the episode.

“Because Julie was sort of turned on with this nouvelle cuisine, I thought to give her dishes that fleshed out those ideas,” says Christine, who then gave Simca dishes that showcased “her rustic approach to the slow cooking of French cuisine.” Only a couple of the recipes prepared in the episode—such as zucchini stuffed with almonds and cheese and a roast saddle of lamb—appear in the second volume of their famous cookbook. But knowing that Julia would have been in constant, recipe-testing mode, Christine thought through the evolution of all her dishes. The peppers that the fictional Julia makes here, for example, are stuffed with goat cheese—a nod to the Feta Stuffed Peppers that eventually appear in Julia’s 1985 cookbook, A Way to Cook. (Christine worked from her dad’s copy, signed by Julia.)

“We all know that she was someone who's constantly going out into the universe, being inspired and recipe developing at home…So I took it as, well, she could be also trying the stuffed peppers.”
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Photo by Seacia Pavao/Max

Season 2, Episode 7: “Shrimp & Grits”

In this penultimate episode, Julia and her producers head to the White House in 1964 to film a dinner with Lyndon B. Johnson and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, which the show’s team was able to replicate using actual (fast forward 15 minutes in, you can see Julia Child in the White House kitchen, interviewing White House Chef Henri Haller just as she does in the episode). This kitchen scene took two weeks of planning. The show’s crew had to turn the pink-tiled kitchen of a convention center in Boston into the gleaming white, industrial White House kitchen, and Christine had to envision all the elements of the massive meal, including desserts not on the state dinner menu. She assigned 15 different actors a task in the food prep, “so it looks natural to the camera in that performance, that that's what they would be doing.” In reality, this dinner took place in 1967, and Julia was seated with Paul. In the show, the writers chose a different fate for Julia and her fictional producer Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford). The two learn they’re not allowed at the dinner, so Zephyr Wright (Deidrie Henry), the personal chef to LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson, serves the starving women shrimp and grits in private. Though this was a wholly fabricated dinner, Christine researched the area that the Black chef and activist hailed from—Marshall, Texas, near the Louisiana border—to find a regionally accurate version of this dish that would have been in Zephyr's repertoire. Zephyr wielded real power in the White House, which the episode speaks to. She shared her personal experiences of living under Jim Crow laws with LBJ, and he in turn to help sway Washington elites and Congressional members to support the Civil Rights Act. “I did what I could,” the fictional Zephyr tells Alice in one of the show’s most memorable scenes, “and I got lucky. Food gave me a voice, just like with you and Julia.”

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Written by: Nicole Davis

Contributing Editor, Food52

3 Comments

luvcookbooks December 22, 2023
Fascinating article! Thanks and I will watch the show!!
 
Andrew F. December 22, 2023
I am continually annoyed with how the press keeps referring to this show as fictional, not because it isn't a fair account but because its fictional nature is such a disservice to history. No shade to the great actor Britanny Bradford or the desire for the writers to address issues of inequality or civil rights but this creation from whole cloth does more to rehabilitate Child's image as well as that of the industry at the time. She is a composite of 3 middle-aged white women. GBH was not as ground-breaking on the front of equality as this show would have you believe. It's similar to their treatment of James Beard, portraying him as this sad sack that Julia pities. In actuality, though Beard was closeted he was also quite successful not nearly as pitiable. And Child, from loving him, thought his homosexuality was repugnant and far from going to drag shows to support he friend, she thought "F**gots had taken over" San Francisco (John Birdsall's research //johnbirdsall.substack.com/p/pinkwashing-julia-child). I have no issue with creating moments in biographies when they support or enhance important parts of the subject's nature but this show doesn't do that. It creates situations that rehabilitate aspects of Child that the writers wish were true. That is unfair to history and ultimately to Child herself. And creating an event like the fictional FBI raid that Julia thwarted? Another ridiculous attempt.
 
Deborah J. January 3, 2024
I agree with you completely. I have been somewhat appalled at what they have added into this series that had nothing to do with Julia's life and experiences (as you pointed out). I was very fortunate to have met her when I was a teen when she visited my family's restaurant (in a Northwest Chicago suburb) when she visited Chicago. I was absolutely enchanted/mesmerized with this amazing woman with such a captivating voice!
 
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