Published On: Tue, Nov 21st, 2023

‘Lessons in Chemistry’ and ‘Julia’: Where rebels rule the kitchen

‘Lessons in Chemistry’ and ‘Julia’: Where rebels rule the kitchen
‘Lessons in Chemistry’ and ‘Julia’: Where rebels rule the kitchen

“Julia,” the HBO Max show about real-life pioneering cooking-show host Julia Child, and Apple TV’s “Lessons in Chemistry,” which tells the story of a fictionalized female chemist who finds an unlikely career in a similar on-camera role, in many ways seem like a perfect pair.

The protagonists are both trailblazers, and not just in the world of early food television, but in life, too — each one unafraid, and constitutionally unable, to conform to society’s ideas of what a woman should be and how she should act. In “Lessons in Chemistry,” which concludes this week, Elizabeth Zott (played by Brie Larson) is a brilliant lab assistant far more governed by the cold world of fact and logic than social niceties. In “Julia,” which returned for Season 2 on Friday, Child is tall, loud, boisterous, demanding and sometimes foul-mouthed — all qualities hardly prized in women of her day.

Their timelines align: “Lessons in Chemistry” begins in the early 1950s, and by the time Zott makes her television debut, it’s around the same time Child’s show piloted in the early ’60s. The mid-century aesthetics are similar, with the women in cinched-waist dresses and smart suits, hair curled under just so. The cars are hulking and chrome-trimmed; the music is jazzy-perky.

Both spend a good deal of time devoted to exploring the era’s sexism, particularly played out, writ small, at local television stations. The bigwig of the California affiliate where Zott’s show was taped described what he was looking for in a host: “a sexy wife, loving mother that every man wants to see when he comes home.” And at Child’s WGBH in Boston, the men joked that the success of Child and her show “The French Chef” as well as the addition of a woman director signaled that their era was over. “The winds of change smell like Chanel No. 5,” one executive smirked. Paul Child, played by David Hyde Pierce, could have described the premise of both shows in his compliment to his wife: “You’re a wonderful woman succeeding in a mediocre-man’s world.”

But beyond the shows’ similarities in era and theme, the difference between the protagonists (one based on a real person, one entirely fictional) is stark: The way each woman approaches cooking represents a thread still evident in today’s modern food media.

Child was, of course, famously a sensualist. “Julia” keeps reminding the viewer of the ways in which sex and food are intertwined in her love affair with French cuisine — and in her still-spicy-after-all-these-years marriage to diplomat and artist Paul. The opening shot of the second season shows Child, played with kooky confidence by Sarah Lancashire, smelling a fresh peach at a Provençal open-air market, her enjoyment bordering on orgasmic. Later, when she samples a loup en croute (sea bass encased in puff pastry) prepared by chef Paul Bocuse, she goes into another rapture. “I feel like a virgin all over again,” she swoons.

Zott, on the other hand, treats cooking as science, a practice that can be broken down into chemical reactions and controlled to maximum efficiency and effect. She seems to derive satisfaction from cooking — a job done competently and achieving the desired result — rather than pleasure. On her TV show, Zott rebuts the idea that a cook should find joy in the kitchen. “Cooking is not fun, it is vital work,” she crisply informs her producer.

Child’s kitchen is warm and homey, strewn with bowls of produce and flowers and lined with copper pots. Zott converts hers to a sleek, stainless-steel-walled chemistry lab. Child’s handwritten notes are sauce-stained, and when she develops recipes, including that fish of Bocuse’s, her process is based on instinct and experience. Zott keeps meticulous notebooks chronicling her experiments, including, as she explains in one improbable love scene, 78 attempts at lasagna that eventually led her to the addition of sodium citrate to keep the cheese from separating when heated.

Those twin approaches still play out in the modern food-media landscape, which often seems bifurcated. Child’s virtual progeny include fellow sybarites such as Nigella Lawson, whose suggestive double entendres and unabashed enjoyment of her own cooking inspire headlines such as “Nigella Lawson’s 10 Sauciest Moments” and “Sex and the Kitchen.” Like Child, Ina Garten sees food as a love language. And Alison Roman’s cooking always centers her own pleasures.

On the other side of the divide are the cookbook authors and TV personalities who explain how to cook by mastering the science of food. Think of Alton Brown’s high-school-chemistry-teacher act or J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s epic quests to perfect scrambled eggs or chicken wings. The latter camp is more male-dominated, though there are notable exceptions such as Shirley Corriher, the self-styled “culinary sleuth” and author of the seminal “Cookwise” (she was also a regular guest on Brown’s show), and Rose Levy Beranbaum, whose “Cake Bible” is steeped in food science.

Of course, it’s not as if most home cooks themselves fall in one category or the other — you’ll find books from both sides on the same kitchen shelves. And then there are the rare on-screen personalities with a foot in both worlds, such as Samin Nosrat. In her Netflix show “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” based on her book of the same name, she explores the scientific principles of how each of those factors affects flavor — and expresses Julia-esque ecstasy over a bite of parmesan.

The common ground for Child and Zott, though, was the way they both sought to elevate the home cooking of American women, something that in their time was mostly unvalued by men — and not unrelatedly, often dreaded by their wives. Even in that, though, they came at it from different perspectives.

Child’s mission was to make delicious, elegant food accessible to housewives, dispensing confidence-boosting assurance that they could, in fact, produce meals they could (and should) savor. Although Zott didn’t aim to make preparing dinner fun, she insisted that their efforts were meaningful and that attention to the project at hand was ennobling.

“In my experience, people do not appreciate the work and sacrifice that goes into being a mother, a wife, a woman,” she said in the introduction of her first show. “Well, I am not one of those people. At the end of our time here together, we will have done something worth doing. We will have created something that will not go unnoticed. We will have made supper, and it will matter.”

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