Julia Recap: The Feminine Urge to Debate at Galas


Julia Recap: The Feminine Urge to Debate at Galas

We have some celebrities in this episode, and not the gastronomic kind. Everything centers around a gala, which is very Bridgerton of them (“We must prepare for the ball!”). Julia is being honored at the WNET gala at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, which sounds extremely fancy. She and Avis and Paul stay at the same hotel (cute), but, oh no! Paul is sick. And he’s terrible at being sick. I’m talking in need of compresses, tea, and being positive he’s dying.

Julia has to go to lunch with editor Judith and the redoubtable Blanche Knopf, so she leaves Paul in the care of Avis, who swiftly abandons her planned lunch date. I’m convinced the writers added in this whole scene to play up the Lilith-slash-Niles nostalgia of it all. Bebe Neuwirth and David Hyde Pierce are very cute and clearly like working together. They really play up the “I am almost related to you but also annoyed by you” dynamic as Avis throws Paul’s wet compress on his chest and puts her feet up to read Elizabeth Appleton, by John O’Hara.

The lunch is … challenging. Blanche is unimpressed with Julia, no matter how much of her charm she lays on. Julia goes into ecstasies about the menu selection; Blanche complains about how hard it is to read. Judith talks about the gala and how Julia is the guest of honor; Blanche says that she’ll have to watch the show sometime and that there is something transient and ephemeral about television.

This is where I confess that I wrote down multiple entire monologues and exchanges in this episode; I loved them. Blanche talks about the importance of books, and I just [puts hand on heart.] I was a book blogger when people still did that, and most of my closest decade-plus internet friends are from book blogging. I’m 100 percent positive people who watch Julia also love books and were therefore also likely torn when Blanche talks about how books accumulate in the minds of the readers who invest in them and are a legacy to be proud of. Not that TV isn’t! But it was the 1960s, and that conversation didn’t seem to really be there.

This is one of several exchanges in the episode where Julia gets knocked down. Blanche Knopf does it, the chef at that very restaurant does it (he asks her, as a small favor, to “leave the real cooking to the men”), and Betty Friedan does it. But that one is for later. It’s painful to watch and of course in direct contrast to her being the guest of honor at the very fancy gala. No matter what heights Julia Child might rise to, there will always be people who scorn her work. The three here do it, and all for different reasons (snobbishness, sexism, and a particular view of feminism).

Back at the office, Judith tells Blanche that she was too tough on Julia. Blanche disagrees, saying Julia “gushes and flutters.” Blanche does admit, though, that she is taking her frustration out on the wrong person. She can tell Judith loves working with Julia and on the cookbook, but her legacy is Anne Frank, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus (Judith Jones edited English translations of all three). Blanche sees Judith as her editorial successor and an example to other women, and she would be squandering all of that if she did cookbooks. Judith walks out.

But what about Alice’s lunch! Now-titled producer Alice goes to lunch with a man. A man her mother wanted her to meet, sure, but nevertheless! She’s never done that before! His name is Isaac, and he is handsome. He’s also a lawyer. A lawyer who turned down an offer from a big firm in order to be a public defender. He loves The Twilight Zone. That was Alice’s TV inspiration job! They are both very into this whole thing. Despite Alice’s tight schedule, they stay until past closing, and the waitress kicks them out. Isaac asks to see her tonight, but she has the gala (damn you, gala!). He gives her his number and says he’ll be sitting very close to the phone. Isaac. All the points for you.

At the hotel, the doctor tells Paul he has a mild flu and is, in fact, not dying or stricken with some rare disease. Every time I get a cold, I act like a consumptive opera heroine, so I am on Paul’s side here. Unfortunately, the doctor refers to Avis as Paul’s wife, and when she corrects him, the doctor says to Paul, “Next time, you may want to take the ring off, you sonuvabitch.” Haha, but also, the horror of being judged!

Here I am, about to take us all to the gala when I’ve forgotten about Russ’s own New York adventure. Russ meets a documentarian he’s interested in working with. The documentarian is a Black woman, and he tells her that he wants to go to the South to cover segregation and civil rights. She tells him Boston is as segregated as Birmingham, and if he wants to tell a story, he can go outside, turn his camera on, and tell the story of the Deep North — point for the documentarian. Russ is rightfully embarrassed and thanks her. She asks what he’s working on right now, and when he somewhat ashamedly mentions The French Chef, she loses her shit and says she’s made every recipe and loves Julia Child. Take that, Russ! (I really do like Russ now.)

When Julia was initially writing her speech for the gala, Paul said the sticking point was that Julia compared cooking to architecture, but cooking is ephemeral, while Versailles endures. After her encounters with Blanche and the restaurant chef, Julia revises the speech. At the event, she walks up to the podium, is funny and charming as usual, and begins by equating food to a passport. Culture and histories are locked inside the flavors of each cuisine, and it can bring you endless horizons. This is so much more apt! So many people in this episode speak of the ephemeral versus the enduring, but travel stays with us despite its ephemerality. Food is ephemeral, but my wife still talks about a salad she ate five years ago, and we jointly reminisce about freezing in the New York cold during a snowstorm and finding an Italian restaurant where I had my favorite spaghetti of all time.

Julia emphasizes that she does not cook for chefs; she cooks for other cooks, who are mostly women and housewives, and they go on this journey together. Everyone gives her a standing ovation; great job, Julia, what a happy ending.

Except, who should be at the gala but Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book, the groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique, has just been published. Betty is seated at the table next to Julia’s, and when everyone leaves for various party reasons (drinks, bathroom, etc.), they strike up a conversation. Betty tells her that women are trapped by the assumptions of the feminine mystique (like the book title!) and are asked to find fulfillment in housework, marriage, and child-rearing as opposed to what men are allowed to do. Julia asks if it has to be an either-or, which is a good question, and Betty pivots to say Julia is not a good example.

When Julia questions whether she means not a good example of her argument or not a good example to others, Betty wants to shut down the conversation and not have it there. Which is a point for Betty! She knows she’s going to be harsh, and she wants to stop. But Julia is me early in my marriage and is determined to talk it through with no break. Turn back, Julia! (She can’t hear me.) Betty tells Julia that she thinks she’s opening doors for women and expanding their horizons, but the fact is that they’re trapped in front of a hot stove, cooking a meal that takes days to prepare, not half an hour, and hours to clean up. Julia’s show, Betty claims, has raised the bar on what it means to be a good wife. How can women have time for anything else, including a career?

It doesn’t have to be an either-or. You can have a job and also enjoy cooking for your family — though, of course, in Julia’s time, it was a lot harder for women to pursue careers. In addition, the people who typically receive acclaim for their cooking are men, while the vast majority of those assuming the time-consuming burden of cooking are women. Or, as my wife said about Julia’s situation, “She’s getting shit for culinary achievements in a world where celebrity chefs are all men.”

Julia, in other words, cannot win. She co-authors a successful cookbook and literary snobs look down on her. She stars in a television hit and men think she should leave the cooking to them, while the soon-to-be second wave leader tells her that her work is trapping women at home where the men want them to be. This is a moment when, I believe, you do whatever the hell you want because there will always be someone who doesn’t like it.

She leaves the ballroom teary-eyed (ahhh!!) and goes to sit by herself in the lobby when a man comes up to her. At first, you’re like, Go away, sir! But she tells him he can sit down, and he says how much he enjoyed her speech. When Julia says that not everyone agrees with him, he says, “Well, I liked you. I liked you just the way you are,” and I shouted! I shouted in my own home because that man is a 1963 Mr. Rogers, and is it too much for the show to do this? Yes. It’s a saccharine move, but I don’t care because it’s 2022, and everything is shit, and we all just need Mr. Rogers to sit next to us on a couch while we cry.

Julia asks him to sit with her for another moment, and we fade out on all the viewers’ tear-streaked faces.