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Julia Child on the set of The French Chef, c. 1965. Photo by Paul Child

I WANT TO tell you about the drive to NYC early Sunday morning, the car packed with items for a party I’d agreed to cater. The man I live with was driving, and in my passenger seat I fell into a sleep that was deep and uncomfortable and thrilling as a cloud that swallows you. Pure sensation is a thing you can’t prepare for.

The venue we arrived at was squalor dipped in sequins, and I was reminded how little I know the world. There were two performers at two pianos who sang songs by request and reminded the guests of the best moments of their lives. The food arrived late. The rentals arrived late. The man I live with and two friends who know how parties work looked beautiful in their masks. We were the only ones masked, and inside the machinery of catering, we made the buffet tables tempting and the guests happy.

I love standing on my feet for ten hours straight. I love walking out to the floor and back behind the curtain, being no one in particular and all the people I have ever been. The man I live with drove us home, too, and we were through the badlands of the Taconic State Parkway before the sun went down, and later at home as we were streaming something with subtitles our eyes were closing, and we were laughing, and I could feel the beauty of sleep I sometimes think is a waste of time.

In bed this morning, the man I live with and I were talking about the catering job I’d written a little about. He said, “I think there are cultural lines some people won’t cross. They say to themselves, ‘I don’t see myself doing that,’ in the many-layered cake of society. To cross beyond ‘the things I wouldn’t do’ is to cross these invisible lines against a sense of their own dignity. You are insensitive to the ways you are seen and are always surprised when people think less of you for doing something. It’s a useful inability. You can go places you wouldn’t ordinarily go and write about the attraction of these places.”

He was referring to things my friends have said over the years. The sentences go like this: “I could never do that,” or, “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that,” or, “That’s the last thing in the world I would ever do.” Normally, you wouldn’t feel free to say something so disapproving to a friend, but they feel the right to speak because maybe their association with me has pushed them too close to the invisible line.

In the world of catering, I operate neither as a tourist nor a resident. I’m more of a floater or a flaneur, someone whose identity is liquid. I love being around chefs, bartenders, and waiters. Inside the group that serves, the group that eats is indistinct. Working shoulder to shoulder with servers opens a world of understandings of the people on the team and the ways we are seen by those we serve. Serving has taught me better than anything that what we take to be identity is mostly a case of mistaken identity.

I learned to cook watching Julia Child on TV. My mother didn’t cook. She didn’t want to do things expected of a woman that would make her feel like putting a gun to her head, and I respect that, looking back. Alone on the living room floor, I learned to galantine a turkey and a chicken and anything else that can be galantined. Now comes Julia (HBO), an eight-episode series about the making of The French Chef, Julia’s cooking show that debuted in 1963 on Boston public TV.

The series was created by Daniel Goldfarb and stars Sarah Lancashire as Julia; David Hyde Pierce as her husband, Paul; Bebe Neuwirth as her best friend Avis DeVoto; and Brittany Bradford as Alice Naman, a fictional Black woman working at the TV station who believed in the show before anyone else. The series is tender and warm, portraying its hero as thrilled by life and alert to the moods of other people—who love her and who sell her short.

Serving has taught me better than anything that what we take to be identity is mostly a case of mistaken identity.

From the start, viewers are tickled by her sexual wit—the way, for example, she pronounces coq as cock, saying of her recipe, “It’s the best cock I’ve had in my mouth and that’s saying something.” She is a woman who wants something. At first, she isn’t sure what, just that she’s burning to enter the world. She has a father who thinks she’s ugly and clownish and takes pleasure in causing her pain. She has a husband who thinks of her the opposite way but still needs to be handled in order for her to find freedom. She cowrites a genius cookbook and then, with her TV show, transforms the way Americans understand food.

After watching the first few episodes, I came across “Just a Pinch of Prejudice” (Boston Magazine, 4/2007), a well-researched account by Laura Shapiro of Julia’s long-standing homophobia and dislike of women as a group. She hated to be anywhere apart from men. She thought it was okay to get a leg up in the world and advocate against women integrating male-only restaurants and bars, for example. She was one of those women of her generation who thought women and effeminate men equaled idiocy, dimness, the place you didn’t want to be.Tiffany is smart about the needs that fandom meets and the ways in which it can be a powerful force for both connection and destruction. On Tumblr, she finds fantasies of dating stars and also of being murdered by them. Fandom has a long history of enabling abusive behavior, she acknowledges: in 1929, Rudy Vallée fans wrote thousands of letters, some containing death threats, to a New York Daily News columnist who had disparaged the singer. This capacity for outrage helped form the discourse of social media eighty years later, Tiffany argues, “and the vitriol of defensive fans is the dominant mode of shouting people down on social platforms.” No matter what the subject of discussion, fans excel at polarization and the pile-on: “When anybody, anywhere, says something critical about Taylor Swift, they know what kind of week they’re in for.”

I remarked on Facebook about these aspects of Julia and, in a private message, Goldfarb said the show dealt with these subjects in later installments. He meant, I guess, an episode in which Julia is freaked out to learn a classmate from Smith College credits her attraction to Julia as pivotal to her coming out. In another episode, Julia spends an evening with James Beard, who takes her to a gay club. A bit rattled at first, she quickly plays the good sport, singing onstage with a drag performer who has modeled his act on her. Neither scene scratches at the sneering and condescension she expressed in her letters.

As for Julia and the women’s movement, in episode seven, she’s told by the head chef at Lutèce to leave real cooking to men. Standing face-to-face with him, she’s stunned and goes quiet. She then encounters Blanche Knopf and Betty Friedan, two women meant to stand for feminist values, which, on this show, means behaving with the tact of a scorpion. They trivialize her instead of trying to make common cause, and at an awards ceremony, our girl is reduced to tears until Fred Rogers comes to her rescue.

How do we engage with figures like Child in dramatic forms? I don’t believe in canceling people from circulation. I don’t believe in whitewashing them, or excusing them, or setting them back in their time, as if there were no exceptions to the damaging things they did, back in the whenever. There are always exceptions, and those people were probably punished for being exceptions. I’m against editing out who people were because then you are lying about how the world worked in the past and lying about how the world works now.

Maybe a Brechtian intervention in the narrative? Maybe Sarah Lancashire in her Julia makeup and clothes, breaking the fourth wall and owning up to the things she spouted? Something straightforward, even funny: “I was clueless and destructive, and I know you find these things unacceptable now, and I couldn’t very well go on asking you to love me without filling you in on the person you are being asked to love. Oh, and by the way, I did come around when my friends were dying of AIDS.” Perhaps when we look back at this time of looking back, we will see it as the era of breaking the fourth wall.

If you prefer your feminism served neat, may I interest you in season three of My Brilliant Friend (HBO)? We’re in the 1970s now, and we are inside Lenù pretty much the entire time. She has married a man she doesn’t love, Pietro, a professor from a family with money and cultural influence. He is every husband who’s ever cried out, “I’ve been cheated,” when charged, at long last, with turning his wife into a serving tray. Before the marriage, Lenù has written a book to some acclaim. After marrying, she gives birth to two daughters she is made to understand belong to her—the way the giant rock assigned to Sisyphus belongs to him.

Lenù and comrades get hip to feminism in season three of My Brilliant Friend. Image Courtesy of HBO.

Watching the insights of feminism slither into Lenù reminds you of how it swept over you—upending every table, scattering every particle that had settled on the surface of life, reformatting the facial expressions of every woman. This season, Lila, who lives in their hometown outside Naples, isn’t seen apart from Lenù, who lives in Florence. Lila’s role is to connect Lenù to her first awakening when, as a little girl, she was shaken by Lila from the slumber of her life. Now, to slip the marriage and write again, she needs Nino, the perennial seducer, who has left a trail of babies and women in his sexy, smarty-pants wake. Sometimes a kiss does jumpstart the mind.

Before there is a kiss, there is knowledge Lenù is willing to admit: Her marriage is a detour. The children are not who she is. They are who they are. The scenes in this season are rapturous in their pain. The politics of street-thug fascisti and government fascisti are a permanent pandemic Lenù begins to understand as a feminist married to a man who isn’t interested in the connections between big lies and little lies, big murders and little murders.

One of the things I love about the show is the way Nino is a cannoli shell that can be filled by Lenù or Lila. We don’t need to know what he thinks or wants, really, if indeed he thinks or wants anything, really. He is the object of desire both women have wanted at various points, and to actively desire is the way you know you are alive.

Lenù’s hesitation, mounting clarity, and drive to leave are elegantly calibrated in the face of Margherita Mazzucco, and I will greatly miss the quiet creation of a self in her performance—a kind of human version of Max Richter’s brooding and jubilant score. In the final scene, she places her hand on a mirror and sees her future face, both women smiling in shared intimacy. She has come to see herself reflected back, instead of Lila.

On the phone before Lenù’s getaway, Lila tells her Nino will leave her because that is what Nino does. Lenù already knows this. We always know this. Lenù’s daughter Dede is her id puppet, aware of her secrets even before Lenù can admit them to herself. It’s like Lila is watching her through the little girl, who is going to feel, in the wake of her mother’s departure, as if she’s been tossed out a window, as Lila was by her father when she asked to keep going to school. It’s a good thing Dede has Lila’s tenacity to keep moving forward. It’s thrilling to see the mistakes of a first marriage everyone will make laid out like the contents of a body. If you don’t agree, then of course I am only speaking about myself.

I am exhausted, dear earthlings, from a day of asking people to preorder my book. I can barely type. Asking people to buy your book is a little like dying, rounding up attachments from all parts of your life, especially those you have not actually met. I heard from a few people I did not realize I had emailed or texted or messaged or sent out thought waves to. They are ghosts that remain active, like radiation, even though you will never see them again.

On Saturday, our beloved friend Bill arrived in his massive vehicle with a giant mound of compost, black and effulgent as the Mesopotamian delta, and we have been cleaning and replenishing the flower beds. Little green heads are poking up. When we cleared the western thicket, we discovered bamboo, and these babies unfurl with little red capes. Outside we go, and then inside we come, and then outside we go, then inside we come, dogs running off and circling back.

I remember falling in love. Not always with people. It’s hard to remember falling out of love. I don’t think we can. I think falling out of love is written in disappearing ink. It was easy to fall in love with our neighbors to the south, B and C, who have lived on this farm road for generations. It’s the most amazing thing, the way they know how to start our generator and plow things when it snows and bake things. The four of us come from different worlds and have lived very different lives, and none of it mattered for a second.

We were over at their house the other night, and the next morning, the man I live with said, “B thinks you were a hippie.” I said, “I was never a hippie. I was a radical.” He said, “He doesn’t see a distinction.” I said, “I could never have been a hippie. There was always a pot in the sink caked with pinto beans no one bothered to wash, and all the spoons tasted of cat food.” When you feel a surge of well-being and there is no one to tell, tell it to me.

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