On Monday, Feb. 26, 1962, shortly after 9:30 p.m., Julia Child stepped in front of the cameras at WGBH’s temporary Boston studios (the public-TV station’s permanent Cambridge facilities had burned down four months prior).
“I thought it would be nice if we made an omelet,” Child said directly into the camera.
It was, as one biographer later noted, as if she’d said, “I thought it’d be nice to create nuclear fission.”
Child’s appearance on WGBH’s I’ve Been Reading that evening 54 years ago was to promote a cookbook she had co-authored called Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her appearance ended up doing wonders for wine in America as well.
The book did not really need that much help. Released in late 1961, it had already sold around 10,000 copies and been rapturously reviewed in outlets nationwide—no small feat for first-time authors peddling a book that, at 732 pages, was thicker than the Boston phone directory.
Child and her co-authors, Simone Beck and Louisette Berthold, had done the media rounds, including an appearance on NBC’s Today Show. But it was Child’s solo appearance in February 1962 on WGBH that really belongs to the ages.
I’ve Been Reading host P. Albert Duhamel, an urbane Boston College English professor, quickly ceded the spotlight to his guest, who proceeded to cook that omelet perfectly on air, Duhamel’s own skepticism about the endeavor giving way to visible delight.
WGBH received a then-whopping 27 letters from viewers praising Child’s appearance. Russell Morash, a young producer on I’ve Been Reading, saw potential in Child’s breezy, yet earnest approach to French cuisine and cooking—topics, to say the least, not on the minds and plates of most Americans.
Homogeneity and fast food was in, nuance and freshly cooked meals were out. Swanson had introduced TV dinners in 1954, and the first McDonald’s franchises opened around the same time.
Working with Child, Morash devised what became The French Chef, a public-television juggernaut that turned its host, a 49-year-old Cambridge resident who thought she and her husband were in the midst of a long retirement, into a legend. Five years after that initial appearance, Child was on the cover of Time magazine—and on some 100 stations nationwide, often in primetime.
While Child’s show, and later books, had profound effects on Americans’ relationship to French food, they also affected wine in America in deeply felt ways.
As much as Prohibition damaged the American winemaking industry, its impact on the beverage’s perception was more insidious. What had once been a routine accoutrement for food for millions of Americans became an exotic indulgence, something contraband and unwholesome. Even after Repeal in 1933, wine ended up, in the words of historian Thomas Pinney, in that “bastard category of things legally allowed but morally reprehensible.”
Child’s approach to wine on-air helped change that dramatically. Simply put, she drank in front of the cameras. It was an era early in the medium when people simply did not do that on TV—if a host or a performer simply had to drink, then colored water was usually substituted. Child sometimes did that due to The French Chef’s budget constraints, but more often than not, it was the real deal.
Child sipped white wine at the end of an early episode on soufflés, and drank reds during other meal preparations. She, too, often obscured with her hands the labels of the wines she imbibed. That was because of The French Chef’s no-endorsements policy, but it also ended up rendering the bottles no more exotic than the next cracked eggshell.
Her approach to wine appeared as nonchalant as Child’s approach to cooking French dishes, a nonchalance that seemed to endear her all the more to viewers. The approach helped revive the popularity of wine with meals in the U.S., which, in turn, helped immensely to revive the popularity of European varietals here. Until the late 1960s, most Americans drank fortified hooch or nondescript concoctions from cheaper grapes (think Gallo’s treacly Pink Chablis).
Within a generation, America would be firmly ensconced among the world’s top wine producers stylistically and home to perhaps the most vibrant wine culture. You know that culture. We live it: wine with food, food with wine, wine as food. A lot of it started with Julia Child at WGBH.