Everyone needs a break, but in fictionalized Julia Child’s world (as in our own), breaks can be hard to come by. Just as Julia finishes taping an episode before her week off, they discover there’s a wrinkle in the tape. I mean an actual, physical wrinkle in actual tape. Do young people know about actual tape? Do young people watch this show? Regardless, it means they have to reshoot parts.
Associate producer Alice tells Julia she now cannot have a week off, because their syndication deal means they have to provide continuous programming and they can’t fall behind. Arghhhhh. (Everyone around me is pandemic-exhausted and would snap if they had a week off taken away from them, so this feels unimaginable.)
At home, Julia continues to work on the cookbook and she wants to do a bread section. Her co-writer, Simone “Simca” Beck, disagrees with this, because, Simca says, French women do not bake their own bread. Julia mentions Wonder Bread and hot-dog buns and wishes to bring the glories of the baguette to the American people. Okay, this is fair, but do not talk down Wonder Bread, ma’am.
Simca ends the call by asking why Julia’s show is called The French Chef if Julia is not French. It’s French food, Simca! Isabella Rossellini plays Simca; I would be delighted to see her — except that she is so frequently grumpy. I want one call between Simca and Julia in which they just laugh back and forth and hang up. Even though Simca’s question about the show and refusal to send a bread recipe backs Julia up even further, Julia is determined to soldier forth and make her show ever more French. And to crack bread, so to speak.
Editor Judith takes a week off (again with the week!) to stay with the Childs and work on the bread chapter. Judith is extremely excited to be there, spend time with Julia, and work on the process — except this episode’s “I’m going to ruin everyone’s vacation” theme continues! Julia and Paul worked out that she can’t shoot the new episode and also figure out the bread, so Julia tells Judith that Judith will now instead be spending her vacation days trying to figure out bread with Paul. Paul. I just. I can’t. Can you imagine taking some of your precious time off to do something you’re really excited about with someone you very much enjoy, then you get there and they say, “I’ll be unavailable, but don’t worry! You can work on it with my husband you don’t really vibe with!” Good Lord, Julia. Judith is not thrilled. And Paul wants to start at 5:30 a.m. “Nothing can’t be fixed with some good old-fashioned time management.” Did my friends write this?
Because Julia feels she needs to prove her “Frenchness,” she decides to make sweetbreads this week. If you, like the crew on Julia’s show, have ever been tricked by the word “sweetbreads,” I am so sorry. They are not Hawaiian rolls; they are gross. Sleep-deprived from having a new baby, Russ says, “Sure. Great. Let’s do it.” He thinks sweetbreads mean danishes. Alice is overworked and under-titled but agrees to the entire reshoot. One of Julia’s friends (Cathy from The Office) will be out this week and Julia is too busy, so Avis and Alice have to buy new groceries for the episode now that Julia has thrown away the poulet au porto concept.
So off we go to the butcher. Let’s pause momentarily on sweetbreads, since you rarely see them now and for a good reason. Sweetbread is, according to Wikipedia, “a culinary name for the thymus (also called throat, gullet, or neck sweetbread) or pancreas (also called stomach, belly or gut sweetbread).” This is usually from a calf or a lamb — y’know, baby animals. The etymology is unclear, but it seems to have to do with Old English definitions, and we don’t need to worry about it — other than the fact that it’s misleading. So here are Alice and Avis at the butcher, looking for the throats and stomachs of baby animals to highlight on the cooking show. (This reminds me of that part of The Silver Chair when Jill finds out the giants are only being nice to them because they’re going to eat them at the Autumn Feast.)
But ignoring that, guess what Alice has to deal with at the butcher? That’s right — racism! She’s waiting at the counter, and a white woman steps in front of her and receies immediate help from the butcher. He continues ignoring Alice, and, when Avis steps up and calls out to him, he serves her right away. Avis essentially tells Alice she needs to ask louder. Does she, Avis? Is that the problem? Alice has to leave because of, y’know, all her work, but Avis says she needs Alice’s help to prep the sweetbreads. “Apparently, glands are very high-maintenance.” Gross, ma’am!
Let’s see how the actual bread is progressing! Paul and Judith are using science to bake bread in the Childs’ kitchen. They haven’t gotten very far; Paul has humidified the kitchen the way he wants it — which means when Alice and Avis come in with their “it smells like pancreas” glands, he forbids them from opening a window. They have to share counter space and Avis abandons Alice because of the smell, so Alice has to prep all the truly gross sweetbreads by herself. Here’s the thing. I’m sure these actually taste great. I had foie gras once before I became a pescatarian. That is goose liver from a force-fed bird. It was delicious! But we should ban it forever.
Paul says, “This heat wave is a gift from Hestia,” because he is a nerd. He ends up sitting with the dough while Judith visits Julia and talks to Julia about how, while it’s great baking bread with her author’s husband, the recipe requires Julia. This conversation lays the groundwork for Judith’s eventual transition to cookbook editor — and writer! She wrote, among other things, The Book of Bread with her husband — but it also settles that Judith will stay and work on figuring out bread with Paul instead of doing something relaxing on her vacation.
When Judith and Paul really get into it, there are at least 18 failed loaves on the table as they stand in front of the oven waiting for the next. In Julia’s memoir, My Life in France, she recounts this as “the Great French Bread Experiment” — performed by Julia and Paul over two years with their false starts sent to Judith by post. This fictionalized version with Judith and Paul is very rewarding, done as it is over a week, and they finally figure it out through the use of an asbestos tile. (Asbestos! Yes, indeed! Volume II of Mastering the Art of French Cooking recommends you bake your bread on a piece of asbestos cement.) They ended up finding a replacement — please, do not bake your bread on asbestos! — and Judith and Paul celebrate to “The Rain in Spain” from My Fair Lady.
Back to the sweetbreads. Alice tries to fire Avis, who ran off the set during rehearsal because she couldn’t handle the smell. While complaining to Julia later, Avis realizes that, due to her own squeamishness, Alice ended up having to do all the work herself, so firing Avis and hiring a real production assistant maybe makes sense. Julia will not be having it, though, as Avis is family, which is what she tells Alice. Julia says that Alice overstepped, and Alice starts holding back tears. Of course she does! No one will tell her what her job parameters are! They talk about the show and the fact that Alice sold it to San Francisco when Julia assumed Russ did. In the end, Julia says that Avis is one of the people who made the show happen at a time when only Julia and Alice believed in it. She’ll never let either of them go — because they are family. Hurray! Cooking-show family! Better figure out that part where Alice has to do all the work, though!
After Judith, Paul, and Julia go out to celebrate the cracking of the bread recipe, Julia gets a call at home from her sister. Her father has died. Paul holds Julia’s hand while she tells her sister that she’ll handle the funeral arrangements (good job, Paul). Paul suggests that they cancel the taping, but Julia says no — people depend on her.
Julia dedicates the show to her father, saying she is who she is because and in spite of him. That sums up adult parent-child relationships quite nicely. After the taping, Hunter offers Julia a second season, but she has terms. They need breaks in production (yes!), WGBH needs to pay for the food (very good), and Alice gets promoted to a full producer. Hunter says okay, and they’re a go for season two. Huzzah!