Julia: Shrimp and Grits is my all time favorite episode of Julia. It tells a clear story about women’s role in the world and the almost invisible ways they’ve had to wield influence over the years. Episodes like this one are the reason I keep writing about women. There are spoilers ahead.
Julia: Shrimp and Grits tells several parallel stories about women that have been building all season. It’s 1968. Lyndon Johnson is in the White House when the team from The French Chef heads to Washington DC to make a documentary about White House state dinners. Julia (Sarah Lancashire) interviews the rude and grumpy executive chef Henry Haller (Patrick Breen) but isn’t allowed to stay in the kitchen, touch anything, or try the food.
Julia and Alice (Brittany Bradford) are left in a hallway, abandoned with nothing to eat or drink while the men film everything, including Tony Bennett performing at the state dinner. Hannah Einbinder as the hilariously proper chief of protocol whizzes by them without a glance. They are rescued by the Johnson’s personal chef, Zephyr Wright (Deidrie Henry), who brings them plates of shrimp and grits. I want to talk more about Zephyr Wright in a bit, but let’s look at some of the other women’s stories told in this episode first.
Blanche Knopf (Judith Light) has been leaning hard on editor Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott) all season to try to hide the fact that she’s going blind. When Alfred Knopf stands up at a company celebration and takes credit for the success of the company, Judith Jones jumps up and reminds everyone that Blanche was a co-founder of the company and lists the authors she brought aboard. Later when Blanche talks to the board, she comments that she left a piece of herself in every book she edited. It’s invisible but it’s there!
Gretchen Fletcher, the aforementioned chief of protocol, won’t let Avis (Bebe Neuwirth) into the White House. Those anti-war protests got noticed. So Avis jumped on the train to head home to Stanley’s (Danny Burstein) place and found him in bed with a co-ed. The classy way Avis kicked Stanley to the curb was a lesson in why men are idiots. The co-ed in the situation admired Avis so much she asked her to be her mentor! She also revealed that she, a Harvard magna cum laude graduate, and all her friends were sleeping with their professors. That’s the way things were. Egad!
Paul Child (David Hyde Pierce) on his own back in Boston, spends time on the phone with Simca (Isabella Rossellini). Simca is having a problem living in Julia’s shadow and watching her become famous using Simca’s recipes!
Paul also helps the rocky marriage of Hunter (Robert Joy) and his wife (Melanie Mayron) when he brings them over to make pizza and talk about twin relationships.
When Julia gets back home, she and Paul spend time processing everything they did while apart. Paul mentions their old friend Frank, now with the FBI. Julia finally confesses Frank and the FBI have been blackmailing her to rat on folks at WGBH. They decide they can put their skills as former members of the OSS to work to turn the tables on the FBI. It’s a lovely moment between them and the last scene in the episode.
Which brings us to that one scene.
That one scene
Zephyr Wright is an actual person. She was the Johnson’s personal chef brought to the White House from Texas. Alice and Zephyr had been eyeballing each other in solidarity throughout the episode. When she was going home for the day, Zephyr asked Alice to walk to the bus stop with her.
Zephyr talked about how Alice had a big voice and a significant position. Zephyr said she whispered her resistance. But she was whispering into the ear of the President of the United States. And he listened. She told Alice that LBJ gave her the pen he used to sign the Civil Rights Act. What didn’t get into the episode but is historically true is that Zephyr Wright was invited to the ceremony when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act and he gave her credit for her ideas when he gave her the pen.
That conversation led Alice to point out to Julia that she had the megaphone and the platform to do more than invisible influencing on women’s issues. We know from the example of Elaine Levitch (Rachel Bloom) that Julia didn’t always get things right the first time. But it was an epiphany for her when Alice remarked about her power to make change. Julia did, in fact, get stronger at supporting feminist causes as time went by.
Jenée LaMarque directed this episode. Only one more episode to go in season 2.
What did you think about this episode?