Sorry, the beloved chef’s use of gas cooking was a gas industry sponcon.
For years on her popular cooking show, The French Chef, Julia Child used a crude, makeshift kitchen that she and her husband would haul to the set for each filming. When she returned to the screen for a new, 13-episode series later in her career, she had one condition: She needed a kitchen that was her own to film in, one “that we could just walk into and work in and leave.”
Child got her wish — thanks to a generous sponsorship from the American Gas Association (AGA), a powerful lobby for gas utilities, which paid for a new kitchen, complete with a four-burner commercial range and a gas oven rotisserie.
Her new show, Julia Child & Company, aired in 1978. “We have a new set, and a new theme song,” she said at the time. And each episode that theme music reached its crescendo, a slide noted a “special thanks to The American Gas Association.”
Child herself never endorsed products on her shows (regulations around public programming forbade it) and there’s no evidence to suggest that she was a willing shill of the AGA. But from the industry’s point of view, Child was potent product placement that could help establish the dominance of gas in the American home. “Millions of viewers week after week will be able to watch Julia Child as she stirs food simmering over a gas flame,” read an October 1978 article from the association’s monthly trade magazine.
This was a continuation of a larger campaign called “Operation Attack.” Launched by the AGA in the late 1960s, it employed at the time some of the same experts and public relations firms as the tobacco industry to fend off growing threats to gas. The nation was becoming more environmentally conscious; the fossil-fuel industry feared heightened scrutiny from the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency, and energy price shocks had begun to make alternative fuels more appealing. To make matters worse, new research raised questions about gas stove emissions and impacts on public health. Gas was losing ground to electric competition, but the industry had plans to fight back.
Child’s role in this industry battle would be largely forgotten if not for documents unearthed by the climate watchdog group Climate Investigations Center, which shared them with Vox for review.
This history adds a new layer to the image of the late TV star, affectionately known as “Joooooolia” by her fans, who was dedicated to teaching. Julia Child was also a weapon wielded by the fossil fuel lobby.
Reached for comment, the Julia Child Foundation, a grantmaking organization that Child established when she was still alive, expressed concern over the legacy of Child, who died in 2004. “We were unaware of the AGA’s misappropriation of Julia’s legacy for their own agenda,” Todd Schulkin, the foundation’s executive director, wrote in an email. “Julia’s legacy was about learning to cook and appreciating what makes for good food, which extended to an embrace of new technology.”
How the gas lobby infiltrated Hollywood
Child had many stoves over her five-decade career, but she was famously devoted to one in particular: the Garland, a squat, six-burner gas range Child used in her home kitchen that cemented gas as her recommendation for professional and home chefs alike. The stove was so iconic that the Smithsonian has dedicated an exhibit to it. “It was a professional gas range, and as soon as I laid eyes on it I knew I must have one,” according to her posthumous memoir published in 2006. “I loved it so much I vowed to take it to my grave!”
Decades after Child’s glowing endorsement, gas appliances have come under scrutiny in light of new evidence that they produce pollution linked to asthma and cancer, especially when not vented properly. Climate activists have also put pressure on lawmakers to pass local and state-wide bans on expanding gas infrastructure, to curb harmful emissions driving climate change.
But in 2023, a mention doubting the safety of gas stoves made some politicians apoplectic. In January, the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Richard Trumka Jr. set off a firestorm for raising the idea of a gas stove ban to which the Republican representative Ronny Jackson from Texas threatened “they can pry it from my cold dead hands.”
How did the gas stove become such a trigger point? Julia Child’s endearing affinity for gas stoves may have had some influence, but the industry was also reaching deep into Hollywood during the 1960s and ’70s.
As part of a larger campaign, the American Gas Association established a “Hollywood Bureau” staffed with agents whose job was “obtaining publicity favorable to the natural gas industry within the national media of television and motion pictures,” according to AGA Monthly, the trade publication read by tens of thousands of industry professionals.
“The fact that these shows make use of gas appliances is hardly an accident,” one of its trade magazine articles noted. The bureau took credit for gas appliances appearing regularly in 25 primetime television series, periodically in another 12, in eight television movies, and nine feature films.
Throughout the 1970s, AGA launched in-show product placements and paid appearances at conferences with celebrities — a kind of prototype of today’s social media influencer endorsements. The gas stove made appearances alongside stars Mary Tyler Moore and Doris Day. AGA brought football quarterbacks from the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Cardinals and famous French chef Jacques Pépin to homebuilders conferences to attract attention. Onlookers who stopped by Pepin’s cooking demonstrations received pamphlets from AGA.
The industry fought hard to win favor in American kitchens so that it could generate demand to ensure new homes were built equipped with gas. The industry took out advertising in magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal, House Beautiful, and Good Housekeeping specifically to target the American housewife.
Of course, natural gas utilities weren’t the only companies pursuing celebrity endorsements; General Electric hired then-actor Ronald Reagan to appear in widely watched ads for the all-electric home. But the AGA kept an especially close watch on its image.
According to an article in its trade magazine, AGA’s influence went so far as to alter scripts that made gas look dangerous. “This ‘watchdog’ function is aided by friends in the industry who alert the bureau to scripts that call for a gas explosion or an asphyxiation,” the article read. “As a result of the Hollywood Bureau’s efforts last year, four potential damaging and misleading portrayals of gas incidents never reached the air.” The group also detailed efforts to land more pro-gas scripts, working with studios so “an environmentally conscious producer or director” might plug the “non-polluting” aspects of “natural” gas in scripts. “If such a screenplay eventually appears,” AGA Monthly claimed, “it will not be entirely an accident of fate.”
In 1977, American Gas Association’s president gave a sense of the scale of these campaigns, writing “an estimated eight out of 10 Americans saw AGA commercials on major network television in which we appeared as the sponsor of TV spectaculars, major documentaries or sports events.”
In the course of reporting this story, Vox reached AGA for comment. A spokesperson for the group declined to answer specific questions but provided a general statement.
“The natural gas industry has collaborated with subject matter experts and credible researchers to develop analysis and scientific studies to inform and educate regulators about the safety of gas cooking appliances and ways to help reduce cooking process emissions, regardless of heating source, from impacting indoor air quality,” AGA spokesperson Emily Carlin wrote in an email.
Today, approximately 40 million homes, or about 38 percent of households, cook with gas, and 61 percent of households rely on gas for some other use that includes cooking, water, and space heating, according to the Energy Information Administration.
How the gas lobby uses influencers now
Since at least 2018, gas interests including the AGA, which represents the vast share of the industry, and the American Public Gas Association have hired influencers — though not quite of Julia Child’s caliber — to promote gas stoves on social media like YouTube and Instagram. These ads have been filled with youthful women posing in their stylish kitchens, flaunting the sponsored hashtag #cookingwithgas.
One of those influencers is Kate Arends, writer of Wit & Delight, a style website for “designing a life well-lived.” In a sponsored blog post, Arends defended her new natural gas fireplace: “We knew it would be safe and ventilated properly—a MUST if using natural gas anywhere in your home.”
After I first reported on these campaigns in 2020, Sue Kristjansson, who is now president of Berkshire Gas, fretted in an internal company email: “If we wait to promote natural gas stoves until we have scientific data that they are not causing any air quality issues we’ll be done.”
AGA’s efforts go beyond hiring influencers. Many of its campaigns aim to thwart environmental regulation. Last year, AGA hired a consulting firm, Gradient, which has a track record defending tobacco and chemical companies, to dispute research from scientists on gas stove emissions.
Gas utility ratepayers ultimately help pay the tab for these efforts. State utility commissions allow the gas industry to add a fee — usually just pennies to every consumer’s gas bill — so it can recoup its membership fees to the American Gas Association. Though small in scale, these fees add up to an expansive war chest in the tens of millions of dollars annually, according to the utility watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute. Environmental groups have called on FERC, the agency that regulates interstate gas and electricity commerce, to close what they see as a loophole that holds ratepayers captive — using funds meant for consumer education, not “political activity that does not benefit them.” They are also pressuring AGA’s utility members to exit, asking seven CEOs to abandon AGA because it is undermining their companies’ stated climate goals.
In addition to hiring social media personalities and sympathetic scientists, AGA and gas utilities also seem to perpetuate disinformation. When the Department of Energy proposed new efficiency regulations for stoves, a process required by law, AGA suggested this spring it amounted to a de facto ban. In reality, a limited number of older, less efficient models would be phased out after 2027, with no effect on existing gas appliances.
Even so, this June, House Republicans passed a bill prohibiting the federal government from issuing any kind of regulations around gas stoves, which would interfere with the Department of Energy’s ability to set new efficiency standards.
The AGA submitted comments to the Department of Energy in response to a proposed regulation to strengthen stove efficiency standards, with a nod to Child: “Thankfully, Julia Child was able to cook her masterful creations and have her gas range displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History before DOE had a chance to ban it.”