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Julia Child’s ‘The French Chef’ Is My Escape From Pandemic Stress

I asked psychologists why it can be so therapeutic to watch Child make mayonnaise and flip eggs in her classic cooking show.

by Jelisa Castrodale
Mar 24 2020, 9:33pm

Almost every newspaper in the rack had a cover photo of Boris Johnson, accompanied by the most upsetting sentence fragment that could be pulled from the speech the UK Prime Minister had given the night before. The Daily Mail went with "MANY LOVED ONES WILL DIE," while The Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Daily Express all opted for variations on "MANY FAMILIES WILL LOSE LOVED ONES."

All of those headlines (with the possible exception of the Daily Star's, which wondered whether a former pro soccer player would end up on I'm a Celebrity next season) were there to emphasize the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak, while simultaneously putting any number of terrifying scenarios in our heads... and they succeeded with that.

Phrases like "MANY LOVED ONES WILL DIE" were on my mind when I boarded the plane back to the U.S.; they were in my head when I crouched in the economy class lavatory, trying to talk myself out of a mid-flight panic attack; and they've been my constant companion ever since.

Despite the fact that there were no restrictions on travel from the United Kingdom to the United States at the time—that would happen several days after I landed—my nurse practitioner sister advised me to self-quarantine anyway. So that's what I've done for the past one million 11 days. The last face-to-face conversation I had was when a flight attendant asked if he could collect all the Cadbury Creme Egg foil that had accumulated on my tray table. (How about you cope in your way and I'll cope in mine, yeah?). I'll be honest: I am not Doing OK, and I also know that I'm not alone or unique in that.

I've tried doing any number of things to manage the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty that so many of us are feeling. My first attempt at Handling It All was to start re-watching Peep Show, my favorite British comedy ever, but that just made it worse: apparently, the only thing more upsetting than having zero social or sexual interactions is watching someone have horribly awkward social or sexual interactions. I tried developing my own language, but abandoned that when I realized it was mostly just screaming. I've also written a lot of fan-fic about Dr. Anthony Fauci, and a lot of it is wildly inappropriate. I realize that now.

So far, the one and only thing that has worked for me, the one thing that makes me forget everything (at least for 28 minutes and 48 seconds at a time) is watching Julia Child's first cooking show, The French Chef. Last week, I learned that all 10 seasons are streaming online, and just scrolling through the list of episode titles was enough to smooth out some of the knots in my entire central nervous system:

Season Two, "Elegance with Eggs"

Season Nine, "Ham Transformation"

Season Six, "The Mayonnaise Show" (This may or may not also be the name of a Primus record.)

I'm not sure I'd ever taken a seat to watch a start-to-finish episode of The French Chef, but after pressing play and hearing that theme tune —which can only be described as 'jaunty'—I was hooked. Regardless of what main course or dessert or entire goddamn dinner party Child is preparing, she's completely unflappable, and despite always seeming just slightly out of breath, she projects a confidence that I think I've only felt once in my life. (I corrected someone who'd misquoted a David Bowie lyric in a newspaper's comment section. But still...)

I wanted to know why I found such catharsis in all of this meat and mayo, so I reached out to an expert.

"The cooking shows might be helpful for several reasons," Dr. Holly Chalk, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist with McDaniel College and Cedar Ridge Counseling, told VICE. "If you enjoyed them before, or as a child, then it may be bringing you back to a time when you felt safer. We often create emotional associations with stimuli from our past. If we reconnect with those things, it can recreate those positive feelings. Alternately, it may also just be a distraction. Thinking about cooking gives you a positive focus."

The French Chef originally aired from 1963 until 1973, and it's a (mostly) black-and-white throwback to a time that, to me, feels comforting because it's not a reminder of what life was like, you know, a month ago. Instead it takes place in an era that was both simpler and more complicated, back when social media didn't exist (PRO!) but you were expected to have a duck press and a quiche Lorraine on hand, just in case your neighbors stopped by. (CON!)

I appreciate that Child, who died in 2004, is skilled and practical in ways that I've never had to be. She's the kind of person who worries that we've gotten ourselves in a "meat rut," so she'll teach you how to soak and prepare calves' brains. She can calmly use a knitting needle to truss a stuffed goose. And she recommends sliding a doorknob into a suckling pig's mouth to keep its jaws open as it roasts. (Do not use a potato, she warns, because the potato will get too soft in the oven. Obviously.)

"I would guess there's something about this show that gives you hope or comfort," Caitlin Zaremba, a Bay Area organizational psychologist, told me. "In many other present circumstances, the shows and characters we are attracted to may be much less wholesome—and I'm talking to you, Bachelor fans.

"Either way, the exercise stands. What is it about this activity that I like? What is providing me joy, connection, entertainment? Better yet, what about this show, person, character do I dislike? This should all provide insight into who we want to be and how we want to conduct ourselves during this novel and uncertain time. It's really all we can control right now."

Dr. Chalk believes that acknowledging all of our overwhelming feelings during this time might be a better (and ultimately healthier) mindset than ignoring the reality of our shared situation, or dismissing its gravity. "Over the past two weeks in my practice, I have seen many people using denial as a coping mechanism. This has led to them not social distancing or being careful," Chalk said. "I believe the news outlets are trying to communicate the seriousness of this to those people. However, in my practice it seems that the people following this news are the ones who are already anxious and are already distancing. For these clients, I am encouraging them to 'narrow their circle.' By this I mean that they need to focus on themselves and the things they can control. Connect with your few closest friends and family. Spend time with your pet. Focus on a new goal for yourself. These are the things that you can control in a time that feels out of control. That's how we manage the bad anxiety."

And if we're just feeling fucking lonely, we should probably share that with someone, too. (Quick show of hands: who else in my kitchen feels a deeper sense of isolation than they've ever felt before? Just the one, then? Great.)

"Feel everything and try not to take it out on others. Talk about your anxiety with people who matter, like your family, partners, friends, or bosses, and with 'safe' others who will not judge your emotions," Zaremba said.

"Your goals in these conversations should be twofold: to seek to be understanding of and supportive of the vast variations of responses that are possible and within our unique rights to have. Secondly, to seek the kind of connection and support that is capable of staving off the feeling of, 'I'm alone in this.'"

I can appreciate that my newly developed attachment to Child is a bit silly, if only because most of what she demonstrates is not-at-all applicable right now. If Instacart substitutions and my friends' firsthand accounts are any indication, the meat cases at the supermarket are mostly empty. But Child's quiet competence and moments of levity give me a strange sense of optimism, if only because I look forward to feeling both of those things again. And when I'm watching the show, I'm also not worrying about the next… however many months, or even the next afternoon. Instead, I'm waiting to see whether the non-collapsible Cheese Soufflé lives up to its name. (NO SPOILERS).

I'm still not coping with our terrifying new reality. Coping is too strong a word. But thanks to The French Chef, I'm getting by, one episode at a time.

Tagged:
TV
anxiety
julia child
Coronavirus
cooking shows
COVID-19
the french chef