Reading and Writing the Social Swirls of The French Chef: Social Circulation and the Fan Mail of Julia Child
Author(s): Lindy E. Briggette
Lindy E. Briggette is a Professor of the Practice in English at Fairfield University in southern Connecticut. She currently teaches courses in Rhetoric and Composition and facilitates faculty development in Fairfield’s Writing Across the Curriculum program. She has presented at conferences such as Feminisms and Rhetorics, Rhetoric Society of America, and the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Briggette holds a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English/Composition from UMass-Boston, and an M.S. in Adult Education from the University of Southern Maine.
Abstract: This article uses social circulation to consider fan mail written to Julia Child during her time on public television’s The French Chef. Analyzing a selection of fan letters written between 1963 and 1967, I explore how Child’s performances circulated rhetorical opportunity into the homes of fans, thus motivating their own rhetorical action. By highlighting letters that include commentary on the fan letter genre as well as letters that illustrate writers’ material literacy practices, I argue that fans and fan letters contribute to the complex rhetorical ecology that shapes the social circulation of Julia Child.Tags: archival research, fan letters, genre, Julia Child, material culture of writing, social circulation
In a letter dated July 27, 1962, Mrs. Thomas Myles of Wayland, Massachusetts addressed producers at WGBH, Boston’s public television station:
Last night I so enjoyed your new program The French Chef and this morning I really did successfully make a French omelet and have spent a good part of the day telling my friends about the program. They are all eagerly awaiting the next programs and asking me to show them how to do the omelette.1 (Myles to “Gentlemen”)
Written just one day after the pilot episode of The French Chef aired, this letter reveals the speed at which the culinary lessons of the now-famous Julia Child traveled into viewers’ homes. Child’s educational cooking show ran on nationwide public television stations for nearly a decade from 1963 to 1973, but, as evidenced by the lines above, it only took the first pilot to spark in Mrs. Thomas Myles the desire to cook as well as both an excited conversation among friends and an exigency to write.
The series of events in this letter illustrate “social circulation,” a concept Royster and Kirsch outline as a lens through which to examine women’s rhetorical practices across space and time in order to acknowledge “the conditions, impacts, and consequences of those practices more generatively” (24). Using the concept of social circulation to more generatively close-read the lines above, for example, allows us to examine what Royster and Kirsch might call the “overlapping social circles” in which Child both operated and influenced others and which led to viewers’ “changed rhetorical practices” (23). Through the existence of the letter itself, we witness a concrete example of such changed rhetorical practices that might not have come to fruition had it not been for Child’s performance on The French Chef. Moreover, by placing the letter into its wider social and historical circumstances, we bear witness to the ways in which Child’s own rhetorical performances moved—and moved others—across space and time. This one letter from her archival collection thus demonstrates the immediacy with which Julia Child impacted viewers’ social and rhetorical practices.
The social swirls of Child’s fan mail, which includes what Branch calls a “meteoric rise to food superstardom” (165), quite literally began with letters like the one above. To promote her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child had been invited to speak on I’ve Been Reading, a weekly book-review program produced by WGBH, in February 1962. Preferring to not be formally interviewed during the show, Child instead planned to perform a cooking demonstration and arrived on set with a copper bowl, a whisk, an apron, and a dozen eggs (Fitch 277; Spitz 12). The story goes that Child was so busy giving tips on how to cook a French omelet that she forgot to mention the title of her cookbook. The omission didn’t matter; in the weeks that followed, twenty-seven viewers wrote in to WGBH, many pleading, “Get that tall, loud woman back on television. We want to see more cooking!” (Prud’homme 39).
In his study of The French Chef series, film scholar Dana Polan claims that this group of letters praising Child’s performance on I’ve Been Reading was the “mere tip of the iceberg” (185). Polan further offers, in fact, that throughout Child’s decade-long success on the series, fans came to appreciate her pedagogy because they felt a sense of intimacy in her narrative, they loved her hands-on instruction, and they admired her “directness, naturalness, lack of guise, and spontaneity” (190-191). He hypothesizes that fans “felt that Child was offering something fresh in the often formulaic landscape of American television” (191). Indeed, Polan is right about both the content and the impact of those letters written to Child: starting with her television appearances on I’ve Been Reading and the three pilot episodes of The French Chef, fan letters played a significant role in Child’s rise to stardom. However, what those letters also do, as Mrs. Thomas Myles’ letter does, is reveal Child’s position as an influence in her viewers’ rhetorical exigency to write in the first place. While certainly those early fan letters are part of what jump-started Child’s career, by examining more closely the rhetorical nature of the letters, we see an even more complex version of her influences on fans. Though many of Child’s fan letters reveal that she influenced viewers in their kitchens, almost all letters reveal—just by their very existence—an exigency and an agency to write that began with Child herself.
As what Nan Johnson might call “artifacts of popular and material culture” that reveal “sources of historical evidence” (17), Julia Child’s fan letters offer a unique window into the ways in which her performed rhetorical practices on The French Chef directly influenced the rhetorical practices of her viewers. And through the lens of social circulation, fan letters from across Child’s career make viewers’ very private, domestic behaviors such as cooking, watching television, and writing—an act critical to this study—more wholly visible to a public audience. Child helped to turn viewers’ rhetorical exigencies into rhetorical action therefore situating those fans in a more complex network of her legendary career. My research thus invites that rhetorical action into the narrative by casting a wider lens through which to consider Julia Child, “a goddess of the people” (Derven), and her influence on American culture. Using Royster and Kirsch’s concept of social circulation, I position both fans and fan letters as part of a wider network of social and rhetorical activity.
“A Lucky Thing”: The Rise of Julia Child
Culinary legend Julia Child has been characterized by many as larger than life, in body and personality, and is well known for revolutionizing French cooking in America, most notably with Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961, and on The French Chef, which ran on public television from 1963 to 1973 (Polan; Spitz; Shapiro; Fitch; Prud’homme). Child’s dabbling in French cuisine began in 1949 when she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu culinary school soon after moving to Paris with her husband, Paul. In 1951, Child met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, two Parisian women who were working on a cookbook for an American audience. Beck and Bertholle insisted on enlisting the help of their new American confidant, and after Child painstakingly tested the book’s recipes over and over until they were foolproof (My Life 253; Fitch 212), the three women published Mastering the Art of French Cooking in March 1961. After Child’s appearance on I’ve Been Reading, her status as a culinary celebrity exploded a few months later when the first three pilots of The French Chef debuted in July 1962. The show soon became a regular series, airing one new episode and its re-run each week, and within three years was broadcasting nationwide on 104 television stations. Fans across the nation were suddenly in awe of Julia Child—or just “Julia” as many of her fans expressed—and she became a household name almost overnight2 (Tomkins; Polan; Prud’homme).
Though Child often insisted that her rise to celebrity status began as “a lucky thing” (Hudgins 107) and “kind of a mistake” (“Larry King Live”), there were other historical and cultural factors at play. In the early 1960s, World War II had ended and Americans were enjoying somewhat of a travel boom. Travelers returned home from European countries “with their tastes broadened and sharpened” (Time staff). Americans’ increased travel was coupled by an influential addition to the White House kitchen staff: President John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie hired a French chef by the name of René Verdon in 1961 (Fitch 279). By the time WGBH aired The French Chef pilots, America’s interest in “Frenchness” was already on the rise, and the reputation of French food was blossoming (Ferguson n.p.). Moreover, as Darra Goldstein and Corky White emphasize in a special issue of Gastronomica in 2005, “By opening a nation to a new range of gastronomic possibilities, [Child] truly changed the way Americans thought about food” (iii). Coincidentally, that initial, widespread popularity was only the beginning; as Anne Willan contends, Julia Child “only had to appear on screen once to become an instant star” (Women n.p.).
By challenging long-held gendered assumptions that it was men who cooked professionally and women who cooked in the home, Child’s influence also trickled into that era’s feminist movement. She would not have characterized herself as a feminist, but others claimed her as the “embodiment of feminist achievement and independence” because she “opened cooking for women” (Usher in Fitch 388). She recognized fully the discrimination women often experienced upon entering culinary professions, telling TV Guide in 1970, “…it wasn’t until I began thinking about it that I realized my field is closed to women! It’s very unfair. It’s absolutely restricted” (in Fitch 387). Child furthermore taught from the firm belief that anyone who wanted to enjoy cooking ought to have the permission to do so claiming, “We never talk about women cooking. It is PEOPLE who like to cook, and we don’t care who they are—race, color, sex, animals, ANYBODY” (in Fitch 387). At the time of Child’s rise to celebrity status, cooking often carried the connotation of a domestic practice performed in the home and was therefore separated from the feminist agenda (Hallows 37). Child, however, promoted cooking not as the categorical “drudgery of housework,” but as an antidote—as “something fun and creative” (Hollows 41). In this way, Child acknowledged cooking as a gendered activity at the same time that she aimed to separate cooking from women’s domestic work (Hallows 41). At the height of her career, Child was a revolutionary for anyone whose interests were cooking for the sake of fun. She ultimately became a role model for cooking as one of the pleasures of the kitchen, and as Boston chef Amanda Lydon offers, “What Child did is deconstruct this French, classical, rule-based cooking tradition and make it accessible as a source of pleasure at home” (in C. Lydon n.p.).
While the kitchen has remained a problematic site of gendered and domestic work (Hallows; Avakian and Haber; Fleitz; Inness), with her vision for a series of “programs on French cooking addressed to an intelligent, reasonably sophisticated audience which likes good food and cooking” (Child in Prud’homme 40), Child created an opportunity to shift the perspective by unapologetically encouraging a sense of enjoyment. Viewers tuned in to The French Chef because in it, and in Child, they saw the promotion of a lifestyle that “centered on the kitchen as a site of taste, culture, and fun” (Polan 136).
The Impact of Fans and Their Letters
To study the behavior of Julia Child’s fans is to envision the ways in which they, as members of an audience, operate as agents within a dynamic rhetorical situation; fans’ agency matters, in other words, and as Megan McIntyre might offer, it has always mattered (25). In 1992 when media scholar Henry Jenkins challenged fans’ perceived “subordinated position within the cultural hierarchy,” fans were finally assigned agency as active consumers who transform “watching television into a rich and complex participatory culture” (Poachers 23). Jenkins, in fact, positioned fans’ always already participation in larger cultural communities as contributing to “the construction and circulation of textual meanings” (Poachers 16-24). In highly nuanced ways, fans themselves ultimately produce culture by actively transforming personal reaction into social interaction. In turn, spectatorship becomes participation in that “consumption naturally sparks production” and “reading generates writing” (Jenkins, Fans 41). This interactive and reciprocal nature of fan behavior blurs the lines of consumption and production, illustrating a “dynamic duality” of reading and writing “whereby writers create readers and readers create writers” (Ede and Lunsford 169). And as a particular kind of fan activity that captures precise, contextual, and first-hand reactions, i.e., that moment of dynamic duality, fan letters provide an opportunity to witness a site of reception that at the same time displays evidence of production. Closely examining the social nature of fan letters, then, puts feminist rhetorical researchers in an exceptional position to be able to witness how ideas resonate, are expressed, and circulate (Royster and Kirsch 101).
Though reception scholars readily admit the difficulty in studying audiences empirically because of the inability to know for certain how their reactions play out (Toye 88; Kjeldsen 4), fans’ personal letters to those whom they admire or criticize offer a window for studying how consumers of media enter and participate in moments of interactivity (Simmons 455). Whether fans write to communicate with radio broadcasters (Simmons), with literary authors (Bates; Blair), with renowned artists (Grasso), or with the producers of Star Trek (Geraghty), the fan letter, as a particularly personal and contextual written performance (Henkin 118), exists as part of a wider network of socio-rhetorical activity. As Geraghty argues in his book characterizing “the epistolary of Star Trek” (11), the fan letter is a social practice that occurs within a community—a community networked with texts, participants, activities, and artifacts (Barton and Hall in Geraghty 11)—all of which contribute to how the community itself operates. That is to say, fan letters carry agency within the network of how communities and cultures are made and remade. In much the same way that fans’ letters to WGBH contributed to the success of Julia Child, for example, fan letters saved the cancellation of Star Trek, “the granddaddy” of media, not once but twice (Bacon-Smith 4). There is no doubt that fan letters and their writers have the power to impact broad cultural change (Reagin and Rubenstein para. 2.6) and it would be no exaggeration to say that they can change the course of history just as they did for Julia Child.
By composing and mailing letters back to Julia Child in response to her performances on The French Chef, viewers became “fans” in that they entered into that “rich and complex participatory culture” (Jenkins, Poachers 23). And by entering into that participatory culture, fans’ activity further constructed and circulated textual meaning. Child’s fans, in other words, made meaning from their viewing experiences—meaning which they then made clear in letters that were circulated back to Child. Within Child’s fan letters exist narratives that began in viewers’ homes, were translated into sentences and paragraphs, and traveled through space and time and into the hands of producers of The French Chef as well as Julia Child herself.3
Reading Julia Child’s Fan Mail Through Social Circulation
When The French Chef began its weekly run on WGBH in early 1963, producers soon discovered that “each installment of the show brought in a mass of fan mail” (Polan 185). Child and The French Chef production team felt it necessary to respond to nearly all letters, first because viewers had been encouraged to “write in for copies of recipes” but also because so many of the letters contained questions addressed directly to Child (Polan 185). Basic recipe requests were easy for the production team to answer but when viewers wrote in with specific questions about ingredients, about perfecting a culinary method, or about careers as chefs or restaurateurs, Child made an attempt to personally respond (Polan 186). Viewers’ questions and admiration continued to pour in at WGBH as well as other stations that had picked up the show, and eventually the number of letters Child received surpassed the number of personal responses she was able to write herself.4 As Dana Polan aptly speculates, Child “brought out something in viewers they felt they had to respond to” (190).
Encouraged by feminist historiographers Pat Bizzell and Nan Johnson who call for researchers to employ new methods and carve new pathways in their pursuit of the history of rhetoric,5 I offer fan letters from Child’s time on The French Chef as evidence of the expansive network within which she actively set, shaped, deployed—and greatly predisposed—”rhetorical trends and practices” (Royster and Kirsch 24) across a range of audience members. Specifically, the rhetorical lens of social circulation invites the feminist perspective of recognizing that “the social swirls within and across rhetorical arenas matter” (Royster and Kirsch 23-24). As social swirls that circulated into homes as exigencies and circulated out of homes as storied, rhetorical texts, fan mail written in response to Child’s performances matters a great deal. Until now, Child’s fan letters have existed as “remnants” of rhetorical activity that only lingered in the shadows (Sinor and Goggin in Royster and Kirsch 63)—they lingered first behind the scenes of her success and they linger now deep within her massive archival collection, rarely touched by scholars. They are indeed valuable pieces of ephemera, each of which helps us acknowledge and construct the even-more-widespread and complex network of Child’s rhetorical enterprise.
These letters that so many fans wrote to Child furthermore disrupt the public/private divide of where literacy occurs and how it travels. While the letters demonstrate writing in more intimate environments such as kitchens and living rooms, social circulation instead envisions the work of Child and her fans in interactive social spaces (Royster and Kirsch 24); as such, Child’s fan letters allow us to witness an influence that goes beyond the history typically represented through popular media or the less accessible spaces of her archival materials. The rhetorical activity of Child’s fans reveals a networked, socially inhabited space that allows us to broaden what counts as rhetorical performance (Johnson 15) and to more closely consider what complex relationships exist among rhetors, their tools, their texts, and their exigencies. Child’s letters additionally contextualize her viewers’ relationships with food in ways that reveal first-hand stories from more voices surrounding particular “food-related practices” (Goldthwaite 7). As Avakian and Haber would contend, women’s long association with food holds “untold stories” that “illuminate both women’s history and the history of food” (6). By pausing to look beyond what we know as “the Julia Child revolution” (McFeeley in Avakian and Haber 14), we can construct a network of fans who, through their storied interactions with Child herself, further inform a more inclusive historiography.
The letters that make up the dataset for this study come from the Papers of Julia Child: 1925-1993, one of Child’s four archival collections housed at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library for the History of Women in America, which is part of the Ratcliffe Institute of Advanced Study in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The research I offer in this essay relies specifically on fan letters written in response to Child’s performances on The French Chef between July 1962 and July 1967. From a larger collection of Child’s fan mail that I reviewed,6 thirty-one letters include direct reference to the genre of the fan letter itself or to a literacy practice such as taking notes while watching The French Chef,7 two patterns which I explore through social circulation in the sections below.
“I’ve never written a fan letter before in my life”: Fan Letters and The Genre Function
Many letters written to Julia Child take on a curiously distinct discourse: of the thirty-one letters in this study, twenty-three include a meta-attention to the genre of the fan letter itself. A few writers simply acknowledge their letter as a fan letter; however, fifteen writers disclose that they have never written a fan letter or written to a television show, five writers offer some version of “This is not a fan letter,” and one set of writers, a couple from Madison, Wisconsin, call their note a “love letter.” These patterns may seem like peculiar ones but as fan mail scholars often point out, fans rather commonly offer commentary on the genre in which they write. Grasso found that fans writing to Georgia O’Keefe asserted a particular “reflective” position, often stating specific reasons for writing their fan letter in the first place (33). Bates similarly found that Willa Cather’s fans often employed a discourse that included declaring themselves as fans in the opening lines (para. 1.6). And fans of author Sinclair Lewis, according to Amy Blair’s analysis, portrayed a metacommentary whereby fans specifically attempted to reclassify their letters as “somehow different from a perceived typical fan letter” (145). This metacommentary on the genre of the fan letter within the fan letter likewise emerges as a common discourse across the fan mail of Julia Child.
With my aim to place fan mail into the widespread social nature of Julia Child’s influence on her fans, it is here that I make a different analytical move—a move related to the concept of genre itself—that helps to intentionally illustrate social circulation. As what Carolyn Miller might call everyday genres (155), fan letters play a key role in an ongoing social flux of rhetorical situations because they are themselves meant to be social. Analyzing the genre function of Child’s fan letters positions Child and her fans in a network of social interactions. We can then consider Child and her texts as well as her fans and their texts within what Royster and Kirsch call a “more fully textured” space (24), the “texture” of which might include what the fan letter itself makes possible. As Bawarshi offers, “…the genres we have available to us are integral to the ways we construct, respond to, and make sense of recurring situations” (42). For Child’s fans, then, exigencies came to life precisely because the fan letter was an interactive, textual option for communication. Namely, the genre itself helped to facilitate fans’ entry into the social ecology of the rhetorical situation. Furthermore, while Child’s own performances represented a particular disruption of the public/private divide by bringing home cooking into view via public television, Child’s fans, through their letters, performed a similar disruption. A desire or exigence to write “provides an occasion, and thus a form”—a form which manifests as the appropriate genre—“for making public our private versions of things” (Miller 158). Fans’ initially private exigencies, in other words, thus become wholly possible—and wholly visible—through the act of composing a fan letter. Through the lens of social circulation, Julia Child’s performances on The French Chef cultivated the grounds for viewers’ growing exigencies, while the fan letter itself, with its social function as a means to make contact and circulate conversation, enabled those viewers to act on the desire to interact with Child.
Though Child’s fans were certainly not the first to declare themselves as first-time fan letter writers, in the lines below patterns of self-disclosure allow us to witness her influence on fans’ entry into participatory culture as well as the rhetorical choices involved in doing so. Responding to the pilot episodes in 1962, Eleanor Poor Jones writes from Haverhill, MA: “I have never written a “fan” letter before this [but] I have sometimes thought of it” (Jones to Child). Audrey Stein from East Orange, NJ writes in August 1965: “I have never before written a fan letter but I just had to write to tell you how much I enjoy watching The French Chef” (Stein to Child). Writing from Burlingame, CA in September 1965, Mrs. James Finch writes: “This is the first time I have written about any television program – but this letter is a must” (Finch to Child). Rita Steele from Seattle writes in May 1966: “I’ve never written a fan letter in my life, but I cannot resist writing you…[what] you do in a half hour is a miracle” (Steele to Child). And Mrs. B. B. Phelps from Sherman Oaks, CA, also in May 1966, writes: “I’ve never written a “fan letter” before in my life, but I couldn’t resist writing to congratulate you [on] your Emmy award” (Phelps to Child). These lines reveal fans’ disclosure that they had never written within the genre, and the presence of the conjunction “but” points to Child’s performances as the exigence for rhetorical opportunity. As the socio-rhetorical function of a genre shapes our communicative goals, including why we have those goals and what purpose they serve (Bawarshi 23), the rhetorical function of the genre of “fan letter” enabled these fans—these writers—to write with the purpose of expressing admiration for the show or to extend congratulatory wishes.
Child’s fan letters illustrate a prime example of social circulation as a complex network of rhetorical actions which move and are shaped across space and time (Royster and Kirsch 98), and evidence therein suggests that Child’s own rhetorical activity is what often harnessed the occasion for these viewers to engage in the act of composing. One letter in particular reveals an especially rich example of the social and circulatory function of Child’s fan letters. In a letter to Child dated December 15, 1964, Catherine E. McKenna of Manhasset, NY writes:
My family has been laughing at me ever since I saw your television program for the first time this past Fall. I announced that I was going to write my first fan letter, and each week I have repeated it, only to be greeted by incredulous jeers. From this you may gather that I am not the type to write letters to strangers. However, I put myself in your place and decided that I would love to hear from an appreciative viewer if I were you. (McKenna to Child)
Here, the idea or intention behind writing a fan letter becomes what Bawarshi might call an “interpretive frame” where the function of a genre influences how discourse is read and understood (27). After thinking about and announcing her intention to write, the idea of the fan letter influenced how this fan interpreted her experience of watching The French Chef. Moreover, Catherine E. McKenna, first-time fan letter writer, understands how the fan letter itself is supposed to work on others; genre awareness allows her to envision the reception of her letter, and she rationalizes that Child might “love to hear from an appreciative viewer…” The genre of fan letter, in this instance, becomes endowed with a particular social meaning (Bawarshi 44)—meaning that causes the writer a bit of dissonance at the same time that it enables her to follow the course from exigence to invention to mediated personal communication with Julia Child.
We can likewise use the genre function to explore the context surrounding the fact that Catherine E. McKenna faced “incredulous jeers” upon expressing a desire to compose her fan letter. Her family’s jeers represent an entirely different perspective on the genre, and that perspective is not uncommon. With such lines as “Not given to writing fan letters…” (King to Child) or “Not a writer of fan letters…” (Davis to Child), Child’s fan mail also reveals a pattern of fan-letter denial. Two examples below offer further context:
I am not really a writer of fan letters; as a matter of fact, I think this might be my first, but I have been meaning for a long time to express my (and my husband’s) appreciation for your excellent and entertaining programs on “The French Chef.” (Robbins to Child)
I am not a fan letter writer by nature, but I feel compelled to let you know how very much our whole family enjoys your program – “The French Chef” on educational television. Neither am I much of a cook – but some of your simpler recipes have become Fuller favorites… (Fuller to Child)
These confessions are completely at odds with the genre’s function. The content of the letters classify them as fan letters, but the writers quite literally open by categorizing themselves as perhaps not the type to write. The letters suggest that writers were willing to engage in fan behavior—writing to a celebrity they admire—but perhaps didn’t want to be seen as “fanatical” or being out of touch with reality (Jenkins, Poachers 16-17). What this peculiar discourse helps us understand, nonetheless, is that though writers hint at the fan letter as something they wouldn’t normally pursue, their social action tells a different story. Miller helps us recognize, for example, that fans’ desire to fulfill their social motives through rhetorical action “invited” the use of fan letter discourse (162). It seems Child’s performances were somehow influential enough that these fans were willing to engage in this particular set of genre conventions despite their adverse notions of what it might mean to write a “fan letter.” Widening the perspective further, if we consider precisely what comes after the opening lines cited above—Robbins’ letter continues, “Several of my friends and I have become such devoted listeners that Tuesday evenings at 7 P.M. take on the character of very important meetings,” and Fuller’s letter continues, “My husband, who is fortunately for me, our real “chef” simply refuses to miss your program”—we witness the social circles that further populate Child’s social circulation. In other words, even letters composed by self-proclaimed non-fan-letter-writers reveal circulation beyond those writers as individuals; we also see the friends, families, and spouses who were likewise impacted by the ways in which Child functioned as a rhetorical agent.
The Material Culture of The French Chef
A second pattern emerging from fan mail sent to Julia Child during her time on The French Chef is related to the material literacy practices present in fans’ reception of Child’s television show. Here social circulation acts as a lens for witnessing how the materialities of cooking, eating, and learning, themselves inspired by Child’s characteristic pedagogy, then translate into particular literacy practices. Of the thirty-one letters studied, seventeen writers capture the ways in which certain literacy tools—tools such as pens, pencils, paper, and Child’s cookbook—facilitate their viewing of The French Chef. In the various examples below, the tools that fans mention in their letters play active roles in what Cydney Alexis calls “the material culture of writing,” a concept that acknowledges “the inner-workings of writers’ object-populated writing environments, or writing habitats” (84 emphasis in original). Alexis’ habitats of writing include the objects that “populate” the spaces where writing occurs (84), and those objects in writing environments are not just acted upon by writers; they are acted with by writers who position these literacy tools as equal actors (Brandt and Clinton 348; Barnett and Boyle 1). Moreover, including literacy tools in the network of rhetorical production stemming from Child’s own performances pushes beyond a more traditional way of studying a rhetor; invoking Sarah Hallenback, this perspective considers the rhetorical effects generated through “dispersed networks of women and men as well as material arrangements of space, time, and objects” (17). Assigning rhetorical agency to tools utilized by Child’s fans helps to answer the call by Royster and Kirsch to consider patterns of social circulation within rhetorical performances, including the specific communities and environmental conditions where the performances take place (104-105). For example, in lines such as this from Beth Satt written in April 1965, “We so enjoy your delightful T.V. lessons and learn good ideas and take notes” (Satt to Child emphasis added), we witness certain environmental conditions at the scene of literacy. By evidencing simultaneous acts of consumption and production, Child’s fan letters suggest what fans’ environmental conditions were like in the home and they reveal details about the different ways fans engaged with The French Chef.
Three letters in particular reveal a relationship that links the agency of specific literacy tools to a type of preparedness; each fan below associates the use of their tools with being “ready” to watch The French Chef:
Lawrence Schumann of Boston, MA opens his 1963 letter with: “Your delightful, “French Chef”, program at times causes me to have indigestion, simply because, if I get home late, I rush through dinner in order to be in a comfortable chair, with pad and pencil, ready for your eight o’clock program” (Schumann to R. Lockwood emphasis added).
Gretha Daniels of Cypress, NY opens her 1964 letter with: “I want to thank you for the many delightful hours you are giving us with French cooking […] and comes (sic) Wednesday, I am sitting with paper and pencil ready in front of our TV” (Daniels to Child emphasis added).
First-time fan-letter writer Jeanne Diamond of Portland, OR admits in 1965: “… I now look forward to your program every Monday evening with my book open and pencil ready” (Diamond to Child emphasis added).
The objects that populate fans’ viewing spaces—the comfortable chair, the pad and pencil, the paper, and the book—each take on an agency that enables fans to perform a type of literacy. Alexis posits that how one envisions what is possible “is likely tied to the goods one uses to perform and enact possibilities” (87), and here tools such as paper and pencils make possible viewers’ own performances as active producers of literacy. They too become part of Child’s network of “ever broadening circles of interaction” (Royster and Kirsch 101) because the tools themselves facilitate that interaction. Fan scholars might argue, too, that these tools specifically enable viewers to actively become fans. As Benjamin Woo offers in “A Pragmatics of Things: Materiality and Constraint in Fan Practices,” by surrounding themselves with particular material items or objects, fans “produce themselves as particular kinds of agents, as people who do certain kinds of things” (para. 1.4). In the excerpts above, everyday objects used in particular ways are what carry viewers into active participation and therefore into Child’s socially circulating network. Tools like the ones mentioned by fans are “active agents” that, through the notion of rhetorical ontology, “occasion and hold sway” in situations and ecologies (Barnett and Boyle 2-3). Namely, the tools themselves carry rhetorical agency that influences fans’ entry into the participatory culture of The French Chef, and in turn, they further populate the complex social and rhetorical ecology surrounding Julia Child.
The above excerpt from fan Jeanne Diamond’s letter captures another nuanced example of material literacy practices. She mentions looking forward to Monday evenings when she watches with not only “pencil ready” but also “book open.” The book in this case is Child’s cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And in the next line of Diamond’s letter, she offers: “It is so helpful to actually see how you prepare the recipe from the book” (Diamond to Child). Here, presence of Child’s cookbook, what Fleitz might categorize as a “significant cultural text” (2), allows this viewer to better interpret the televised lessons. Thus Mastering becomes a tool that allows fans to engage in a literacy practice in an even more textured way. The cookbook, in other words, takes on a type of agency within the network of literacy practices present in the social circulation of Julia Child; it becomes an instrument which makes certain acts of literacy—ways of learning and ways of writing—even more possible. As fans often cultivate methods for manipulating objects for particular purposes (Woo para. 2.10), fan Jeanne Diamond manipulates her use of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, perhaps first in the domestic space of the kitchen as cookbooks are usually intended, but also to better understand Child’s culinary pedagogy, which happens to play out visually on The French Chef.
Other stories in fans’ letters reveal the role that Mastering plays in their reception of The French Chef. In April 1966 John Fanelli of New York, NY declared:
I saw your program for the first time last week, and enjoyed it tremendously. All my friends’ advance reports were confirmed. Your presence, technique and pedagogy are to be commended…. As an owner of your French cookbook, I know that your taste and knowledge will inspire many viewers. (Fanelli to Child)
And Mrs. B.B. Phelps, first-time fan letter writer referenced above, raved in May 1966:
Your Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a treasure. I served “Veal Prince Orloff” to two dinner parties recently and my guests are still talking about it. […] A million thanks for giving me such incentive and inspiration – as I tell my friends just to watch you chop an onion is a real treat. (Phelps to Child)
For both fans, prior knowledge of the book, as well as prior use, influenced their interpretation and reception of Child’s The French Chef. To say it another way, Child’s cookbook mediated how these viewers watched—how they saw, interpreted, understood, and responded to—what Child did and said on her show. As a culinary tool, Mastering presumably aided readers in their kitchens (or other places where foodstuff was handled: the butcher, the market, the dining room); as a literacy tool, however, Child’s cookbook became an object through which viewers interpreted and understood her television pedagogy. And, as fan scholar Woo might clarify, as an object of fanhood itself, the book revealed what viewers could be capable of (para. 4.1): everyday home-cooks had the capacity to not only gain an agency (or even pleasure) in their own kitchens, but by using the cookbook to further understand The French Chef, they evolved into more active consumers of various media. They readied themselves, they took notes, they gathered their tools and their texts—and going by the very existence of the letters themselves—they then wrote fan letters to Julia Child in order to express their stories.
The expansion of social circulation as “social swirls” that circulate within rhetorical arenas (Royster and Kirsch 24) is further demonstrated within a letter sent to Child in December 1964. The letter itself illustrates not only the movement of rhetoric across space and time but also the role that Mastering played in the writer’s particular rhetorical choices. On letterhead of the Christina Community Center of Old Swedes, Inc., located in Wilmington, Delaware, Executive Director Charles I. Davis, Jr. writes:
Dear Miss Child:
Has it occurred to you that however your television showing is planned to stimulate, it could be a marvelous vicarious experience for any number of people?
I eagerly await it. It is entertaining, gets to the listener, the spoken content is marvelous, avoids what so many cookbooks do, squeeze all the juices out of the food, is also a program very much for the eye. Not a writer of fan letters, your program demands it.
Good holidays to you.
[A handwritten note follows the closing signature…] The day I planned to write this a copy of your beautiful book came for Christmas from dear friends in West Newton – AND they didn’t know my interest!!! (Davis to Child underline in original)
By acknowledging Child’s “television showing” as potentially reaching more people than the show had originally intended, this writer expresses his own stimulating viewing experience while simultaneously assuming an always already network of diverse fans. With the first line, he places Child right at the center of a complicated social web, presumably fostered by rhetorical moves performed on The French Chef. Moreover, though it’s clear from the commentary therein that Charles I. Davis, Jr.’s initial exigency pertained to the particular qualities he mentions in the second paragraph, it is in fact a material item—Child’s cookbook—that contributes to the rhetorical moves facilitated by the excitedly handwritten postscript at the end. Not just any gift would be relevant to mention in the postscript. As an active rhetorical agent itself, the cookbook takes on a very particular agency, or what Cydney Alexis might call a special power. Alexis reminds us that objects’ existence in the human conception are “a reflection of all of our tacit and latent experiences of them, which might explain the special power that gathers around them” (88 emphasis added). In this case, the special power surrounding the gift mentioned in the postscript reflects the meaning this viewer had attached to Child, to The French Chef, and—going by his excitedly handwritten account of receiving the gift—the meaning he might have already assigned to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as an object in itself.
A Celebrity Circulates
Almost six decades have passed since Child published Mastering the Art of French Cooking8 and appeared for the first time on public television. In that time, news outlets across the country have reviewed Child’s numerous books and television shows, biographers and relatives have narrativized her life, and scholars have theorized her cultivation of audience (Branch), her influence on Americans’ opinions of France (Ferguson), and the impact of The French Chef on American television (Polan). Even Gastronomica: The Journal of Food Studies dedicated an entire issue to Child in 2005 in order to deepen an “understanding of her place in American culture” (Goldstein and White iii). And some writers do address Child’s impact on fans: Dana Polan emphasized her ability to deliver lessons in a whole new way of life (3); great-nephew, Alex Prud’homme, called it a “special sauce” that fans so admired (42); and chef and Manhattan cookbook store owner Nach Waxman suitably claimed, “she gave us pleasure in the act of rendering miracles with our pots and pans and knives and flames” (94). This multi-voiced, multi-layered historical contextualization led me to this study on the ways in which Julia Child’s television performances influenced the rhetorical and material literacy practices of her viewers. It is, however, critical for us to acknowledge that those viewers’ voices not only sit within the network of the social circulation of Julia Child, but with their twenty-seven letters in response to her demonstration on I’ve Been Reading, fans helped her establish that network in the first place. Undoubtedly, Child made viewers of culture into participatory agents of culture, and their textual contributions shaped the course of history. In Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food, Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson in fact credits Child’s “readers-turned-spectators” with making her into a legendary figure in the food world (106). As my findings similarly attest, those readers-turned-spectators-turned-writers penned their way into the complex rhetorical network that makes up the social circulation of Child. Through this lens, fans’ rhetorical literacy practices earn a spot in our rhetorical histories, and through my research in particular, fans themselves become part of the story, and the history, that surrounds Julia Child’s entire career.
Finally, while the letters discussed here reveal how Child’s television performances influenced the rhetorical activities of her fans throughout the 1960s, her ever-broadening influence on rhetorical discourse (along with an undying popularity) continues to circulate. The Julia Child Foundation’s podcast, Inside Julia’s Kitchen, offers interviews and profiles of food celebrities from across the globe and has recorded more than one-hundred episodes. In April 2020, PBS debuted Dishing with Julia in which contemporary celebrities “dish” about the impact Child’s legacy in The French Chef continues to carry. CNN, in conjunction with Sony Pictures and Child’s most noted biographers, is producing a documentary called “Julia,” which is meant to highlight how she “changed the way Americans think about” food, television, and women (“Sony Pictures Classics”). And even media giant HBO is contributing to the current “Julia Child” moment. An original HBO Max series will soon capture Child’s “trailblazing career” (Aubrey in Otterson) by highlighting her work on The French Chef during a time when public television, feminism, and “America’s cultural growth” were all on the rise (Pomranz).9 It has been nearly sixty years since those twenty-seven letters first came into Boston’s WGBH, yet Julia Child unquestionably continues to actively influence the discourse within American media and culture. As Patrick Healy, writing for Gastronomica in 2005, aptly offers, “In the end, Julia left us without fanfare or even a funeral, but she left an incredible legacy” (120). Child’s status continues to grow and spread, even today; however, that legacy acts as a reminder of what those fans started back in 1962. And surely new generations of fans will follow her well into the 2020s.
- French spelling. -return to text
- Writing for Gastronomica, Anne Willan (founder of the French culinary school, La Varenne), even claimed that Child “made history before it was written” (“Scrapbook” 81). -return to text
- And consequently, those letters landed into the hands of archivists and researchers at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. -return to text
- Polan does not state when the production team began streamlining responses to Child’s fan mail; however, he notes that once the amount became too much for Child to manage on her own, other staff members at WGBH, including producer Ruth Lockwood, helped out (189). On occasion, if Child felt that a staff member’s original response lacked appropriate specificity, she followed up with her own reply (Polan 190). -return to text
- See Pat Bizzell’s “Feminist Methods in the History of Research: What Difference Do They Make?” (5), and Nan Johnson’s, “Key Concept Statement: History” (15). -return to text
- Between December 2016 and December 2017, I curated and coded a dataset of over 2,000 artifacts from Child’s archives for my dissertation research; artifacts included teaching menus, correspondence, television production scripts, manuscript revisions, and other ephemera. Research for this article in particular stemmed from my review of 144 total fan letters. -return to text
- With the vast amount of total fan mail in Child’s archives, there are likely letters that fit into the categories I’m naming that I have not reviewed. Child’s fan mail spans two archival collections: the Papers of Julia Child includes all fan mail sent to Child between 1962 and 1992, and the Additional Papers of Julia Child: 1890-2004 includes fan letters sent to Child between 1972 and 2002. With forty years of fan mail present in Child’s archival collections, the dataset that I curated for this current project represents only a small number of her total letters. -return to text
- Lauren Salkeld, Director of Outreach at The Julia Child Foundation, reported in an email to me that as of January 2020, Mastering the Art of French Cooking had sold 2.5 million copies. -return to text
- In January 2021, Raina Falcon, Vice President of Publicity at HBO Max/Warner Media, provided me with the same logline for “Julia” that Pomranz cites in his article on Variety.com. The logline reads: “The series is inspired by Julia Child’s extraordinary life and her show The French Chef, which essentially invented food television. Through Julia and her singular can-do spirit, it explores an evolving time in American history – the emergence of a new social institution called public television, feminism and the women’s movement, the nature of celebrity, and America’s cultural growth.” At the time of this publication, an official announcement about the show’s premiere had not been released. -return to text
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