In September 1966, the Boston Globe made a triumphant declaration: “Joyce Chen is about to become the Julia Child of Chinese cooking.” The Chinese-born Chen had already made a name for herself as the owner of the Joyce Chen Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and as the author of the Joyce Chen Cook Book (1962). But she was, as the Globe implied, on the precipice of national stardom: She was about to have her own cooking show.
Produced by the public station WGBH, Joyce Chen Cooks was the first nationally syndicated cooking program to feature a person of color as its host, according to the scholar Kathleen Collins’s 2009 book Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows. It began airing just three years after WGBH had taken a chance on Child herself with the premiere of The French Chef in 1963. Though a handful of chefs had tried televised cooking shows starting in the 1940s, it was Child, with her gaiety and charisma, who demonstrated the unique potential that the medium had to reach home cooks. Drawing a likeness between Child and Chen must have seemed logical: They had the same producer (a woman named Ruth Lockwood), the same set, even the same initials.
Chen’s show didn’t last long, ceasing production after 26 episodes in 1967 for reasons that remain unclear. Still, Chen left a rich imprint of her own. She would star in another television special and develop her own cookware line. Her television show’s mere existence arguably paved the way for future television cooking personalities like Martin Yan to bring Chinese cooking to wider American audiences starting in the 1980s. In spite of Chen’s unique impression on American tastes, the Child comparison stuck to her in both marketing and media: In 1970, ads in national papers called Chen “the Julia Child of the egg roll set.” In 1980, Cosmopolitan baptized her “the Julia Child of the Chinese world.” Her hometown paper, the Globe, couldn’t resist referring to her as “the Julia Child of Chinese cooking” when she died in 1994.
That parallel to Child in the Globe in 1966 is one of the earliest recorded instances of what would become a favorite rhetorical crutch of the American food media. Writers have fastened the title of “the Julia Child of” a certain country or region to countless women. The great Southern chef Edna Lewis was, in the estimation of the Washington Post in 2017, “the Julia Child of the South,” a label many tagged her with during her lifetime. Before the Italian-born cookbook author Marcella Hazan’s death in 2013, writers christened her Italian cooking’s equivalent of Julia Child; a handful of obituaries for Hazan repeated this claim. The Jamaican chef Norma Shirley was, depending on whom you asked, either “the Julia Child of Jamaica” or “the Julia Child of the Caribbean,” and the Times referred to Shirley as the former in December 2020, a decade after her death.
The term’s use in the paper of record as recently as last year shows it hasn’t disappeared from the cultural vernacular. This despite the fact that the Child comparison can do more to confuse than illuminate. Linking a woman to Child requires any responsible writer to then explain all the ways in which the two women are dissimilar, negating any power the analogy might initially possess. As for the woman on the other side of that juxtaposition, her brilliance is eclipsed by Child’s shadow.
Through her work as a restaurateur, Shirley arguably changed her fellow Jamaicans’ outlook on the island’s culinary traditions, just as Child advanced America’s perceptions of French cooking. But that’s where the resemblances — oblique ones at that — end. Shirley’s resume bears little similarity to Child’s: Shirley operated a string of restaurants under her own name in cities across her home country, and, though she appeared on such programs as the Discovery Channel’s Great Chefs of the World, she didn’t have a cooking show like The French Chef, nor did she ever author a cookbook.
There’s an asymmetry in using Child as a standard of measurement; calling Shirley the “Julia Child of Jamaica” suggests that she will always chase Child’s level of name recognition, even in death. Beyond the misogyny inherent in propping one woman atop another, there are questionable racial undertones here: Child was a white American who belonged to, to borrow her own words from her 2006 autobiography My Life in France, a “WASPy, upper-middle-class family”; Shirley was a Black woman from the Caribbean. There are economical ways to communicate Shirley’s stature — like, say, calling her an authority on Jamaican cooking — without shrinking her next to Child.
The “Julia Child of” phrase may have had its place in a bygone era of English-language food writing, in a time when its assumed audience belonged to the dominant culture (that is, white and middle- to upper-middle-class) and thus needed a familiar name like Child to process basic information, such as the fact that a woman’s work merited appreciation. But what may have once seemed like a form of flattery now reads more like a patronizing attempt to confer legitimacy upon female chefs, particularly those who belong to marginalized communities. The American food media has moved past the point where all its readers are as incurious as they may have been decades ago, and tracing the history of “the Julia Child of” suggests it needs to be retired for good.
The phrase “the Julia Child of” began harmlessly enough. By the late 1960s Child had cemented her reputation as a key figure of the food establishment. The late writer Nora Ephron’s seminal essay on the food establishment, originally published in New York magazine in 1968, painted a clear picture of how instrumental Child, along with figures like the culinary goliath James Beard and Times food editor Craig Claiborne, had become to the way Americans ate.
You don’t read “the James Beard of” or “the Craig Claiborne of” nearly as often as “the Julia Child of,” though; Beard and Claiborne, both men, were immune to the casual sexism of language that trapped Child and the women who followed her. Journalists assigned the “Julia Child of” term to anyone, especially women, who had a degree of expertise on a certain niche subject, and was perhaps destined for small-screen stardom. Marie LeDoux, a businesswoman who developed an educational toy for children to learn phonics, was reportedly in talks to head a show that “would feature her as the Julia Child of phonics,” per a Boston Globe piece in 1967. In 1969, the Los Angeles Times dubbed Thalassa Cruso, host of the PBS gardening show Making Things Grow, as “the Julia Child of the plant world,” Cosmopolitan “the Julia Child of plants”.
But writers deployed the term just as often for women in the food world. A 1968 Newsday dispatch from Prague called the cooking television host Juliana Fialová “the Julia Child of Czechoslovakia,” as if Fialová was the representative of an entire nation. Others had a narrower scope of influence. That same year, the Pittsburgh Press called the South African-born chef Poppy Cannon “the Julia Child of convenience food cookery,” despite the fact that Cannon herself had a cooking television segment on NBC in the 1950s, years before Child even filmed an episode of her show.
As Child’s profile continued to rise through television and more cookbooks in the 1970s, journalists continued to, bafflingly, compare her predecessors to her, as if they were somehow her subordinates. In 1970, The Christian Science Monitor called the British food writer Elizabeth David — whose first cookbook, A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), appeared over a decade before Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking — “the Julia Child of her own country.” But it was around the 1980s when the term really took off. In 1980, Newsweek called the dessert and baking writer Maida Heatter “the Julia Child of desserts.” A year later, the Washington Post noted how Frances Moore Lappé, author of the groundbreaking 1971 plant-based book Diet for a Small Planet, had a nickname as “the Julia Child of the soybean circuit” (a term she reportedly used self-effacingly).
By the 1990s, journalists were routinely grafting “the Julia Child of” onto any woman indiscriminately, the implication being that said woman’s body of work couldn’t speak for itself. The Baltimore Sun called the British-born author Diana Kennedy “the Julia Child of Mexican cooking” in 1990. To the New York Times in 1996, Alice Waters was the “Julia Child of Berkeley.” The Wall Street Journal called the actress and food writer Madhur Jaffrey “the Julia Child of Indian cooking” in 1998.
From today’s remove, such comparisons may seem silly to American cooks familiar with women like Kennedy, Waters, and Jaffrey, who can stand on their own. But the trend is also harmful, positioning these women as inherently less than Child, never her equal. By the ’90s, after all, Child had solidified her status as an American icon, and Child herself may have been the first to admit that she possessed racial and material privileges that made her ascent to fame smoother than it could’ve been for others.
But take the example of Jaffrey, whose work has long commanded reverence within the Indian diaspora. People who belong to that very community wouldn’t need that paternalistic Child comparison to understand Jaffrey’s worth. Defining Jaffrey in such terms, then, presumes a certain kind of privileged reader — white, middle- to upper-middle-class, much like Child herself — whom the American food media has spoken to for so long. Some might call this gesture pragmatic, offering a familiar reference that comforts such an audience, and certainly doesn’t challenge them. But it feels utterly cynical, too, presupposing that American food writing’s typical reader belongs to the dominant culture, and that women like Jaffrey will need to seek validity in their eyes to mean anything at all.
Thankfully, the imprecision of such analogy has permeated the food media’s consciousness in recent years. In a 2019 tribute to the Taiwanese author and television chef Fu Pei-mei, the writer (and former Eater SF editor) Luke Tsai noticed how often the American food media reduced her to the “Julia Child of Chinese cooking” after the New York Times referred to her as such in 1971. In Taiwan, Tsai wrote, that dynamic gets inverted, with Child considered the Fu Pei-mei of America.
In the magazine Cherry Bombe earlier this year, the writer Abena Anim-Somuah offered a sharp skewering of the “Julia Child of” saying’s application to the aforementioned Edna Lewis. “While this phrase is used to make Ms. Lewis more relatable, it’s a lazy comparison rooted in the racism and misogyny that continue to plague the culinary world today,” Anim-Somuah observed. As Anim-Somuah pointed out, discrimination is so deeply embedded in the American food media that it’s even apparent on the level of language. It’s high time that circumstances change.
The calls to put the “Julia Child of” appellation to rest feel welcome, and may indicate a broader shift in food storytelling. In recent years, the American food media has become more aware of its tendency to indulge in hero worship. Writing in the Times last year, the restaurant critic Tejal Rao critiqued the myth of the lone genius in American restaurants, arguing that American food journalism’s gaze is so often focused on a person in power that those beneath them become invisible. Restaurants, after all, are products of collective labor; rigorous journalism should reflect that.
Perhaps a similar framework can apply to this fatiguing Child designation. Child’s greatness is not a matter of dispute, but she wasn’t the sole trailblazer who expanded American tastes through her cooking. Language should honor this nuance as it evolves. Moving forward, perhaps the American food media could hold its readers to a higher standard rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator, which is precisely what happens when it measures women against a towering figure like Child. There’s room for many women in the popular imagination.
The legacy of women like Joyce Chen, Norma Shirley, Edna Lewis, or Marcella Hazan no longer needs an asterisk in the form of a qualification. Child deserves continued celebration. So do the many talents who’ve worked tirelessly to make Americans more thoughtful cooks and eaters throughout history — and did so on their own terms.
Mayukh Sen is the author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America.
Nhung Lê is a freelance illustrator based in Sydney.