30 August, 2009

Julie and Julia

There's a frisson in writing about the new film, Julie & Julia, that I've rarely felt lately. It comes from the confluence of the literary, culinary, and blogging worlds, three of my favourite things, and even includes omelettes, something that I've had a few words about here, that remain a mainstay of my diet, and even laid the foundation stone of my kitchen life. And, in case there is any doubt, I am now and always have been a passionate reader of anything that catches my interest from schlock to Literature. Sometimes that might be a cookbook, or more recently, a food blog with good recipes. Something to arouse the senses as well as whip me away to another world when this one becomes too heavy to carry for another minute.

So it was with plenty of anticipation that I watched the trailers of the new film, and plenty of glee that I noticed that Meryl Streep was playing Julia Child in tasty period couture with that plummy voice at full throttle. Suddenly " Bon Appetit" was on everyone's lips, even if we sounded just a little less like Julia and a little more like Dan Aykroyd than we'd like to think. I shamelessly uttered it at the checkout of the local bookseller as I plunked down a bit more cash than I had anticipated when I spotted My Life in France by Julia and Alex Prud'Homme wilily placed just next to Julie Powell's Julie & Julia . I hear both are bestsellers now because of the movie, and that Julia's cookbooks are also being rediscovered. All of which is good, in a literary sense, and which should thrill her heirs, whoever they may be.
It thrills me on another level, the cook as superhero, and this time she's a woman. And you might think I'm speaking tongue-in-cheek here unless you've read the account of Julia's life in France, her exploits at the Cordon Blue cooking school in a class of ex-GIs where she was the only woman, albeit a 6-foot-2-inch woman, armed with a formidable character that no doubt could have laid waste to whole platoons if she had wanted, and maybe charmed the pants off them before she did it. Because Julia came from a moneyed family that gave her a good education, and she had the sense of make pretty good use of it, even if she pretends that she was no egghead. She knew enough to be able to talk to anybody from fishmonger to ambassador and she certainly knew enough to pick the right life companion. Someone to stand by her and support her through her great adventure until she became a celebrity in her own right, the superhero who stood her ground wielding pan and knife, ricer and sieve and taught America how to cook and eat French food.

Who ever heard of such a thing? Before Julia.

Her book, recounted to her grandnephew Alex Prud' Homme when she was in her early nineties and just before her death, is the story of passion and conquest, a story of a woman stronger than her circumstances, bigger than her life, yet boxed in by the expectations of society for the wife of a mid-level diplomat in the late 1940s and 50s, even one who had been a spy with him in Ceylon and China in the second world war. Well, she was the head of the Registry in the OSS, later the CIA, and processed all the reports of the agents in the field "and other top secret papers".

But there was no boxing in Julia. She was big enough to spring out of any box she was put in, and that through some old-fashioned virtues, stubbornness and hard work. For when she couldn't do something, some skill at the Cordon Blue exceeded her grasp, she went home and practiced and practiced and sweated and toiled until she could do it better than anyone in class. And, in her own words, she came to be respected by her peers because she was "fearless". Superhero fearless.

That unsinkablity carried her through the cooking school and into a career in teaching other Americans in Paris to cook, and to take on writing a cookbook about French technique in English, cooperating with Simone Beck and Louise Bertholle. Oh, did I mention that along the way she had also mastered the French language well enough to read French cookbooks like Ali-Bab and The Larousse Gastronomique and shop in the street markets for the best produce, meat, fish and wines both for her daily food and the classes? Shazam.

With one hand on the pulse of the artistic life of France, for her husband was an artist as well as a diplomat and they entertained and befriended other creative people, and the other two firmly fixed on testing and refining the recipes she would eventually turn into Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia attacked her life with a zest and vigour rarely found outside of the realm of the most driven, the most productive of humans, ones that seem to know something that the rest of us don't, the geniuses among us, those that are smart enough and lucky enough to discover their magnum opus and then go for it with everything they've got.

It takes the courage of a superhero to do that, when life has so many directions that you could explore, and there are so many interesting ways to spend your time. Most of us seem to stumble into some kind of work and then try to make the best of it, but how many of us find our real work, one that lifts the soul enough to bear on when things get heavy, the souffle falls, our boss is an asshole with no vision, and our co-workers spend their time nitpicking everything?

Luckily Julia did. For she certainly faced publishers with no vision, collaborators with no stamina or with narrow views, and complete indifference to her vision of bringing French cuisine to the American household. But somehow Julia knew and she kept on until she found someone who recognized her work, and her for who she really was. Presto! An american superhero was born.

Julie Powell is another kind of superhero. She is a writer first and foremost. A writer with a tremendous idea and a blogger at the forefront of the blog-to-book-to movie revolution. Also, coincidentally a wife and a cook, at least of the everywoman persuasion. Perhaps it was that, as well as the magnitude of her project that caught the readers of The Julie/Julia Project's imagination. For what young cook in her right mind, in this era of white meat and vegetarians, would think to take on the work of cooking all 524 recipes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days? Recipes full of organ meats, brains and eviscerating fowl and fish, killing live lobsters and making slippery aspics. Julie Powell, that's who. Unassuming secretary by day, superhero cook by night, donning the somewhat dusty cloak that Julia had shed some years before, she steps bravely into the limelight, armed with only a sharp wit and a modest budget and cooks and writes her way into blogging history and the hearts of America much as Julia did years before. She does not mince words, she is feisty and foul-mouthed and real, and she discovers along the way that she has broken the black spell of the Curse of The Ordinary and moved into the state of grace of being inspired by something. Inspired by Julia, she cooks her way to becoming relevant to herself and others and offers that gift to anyone with the ability to log on.

It is a story of love as much as of success. Love of a project that seems bigger than you. More daring than you think you can do. Something only love could inspire you to start. And what is that love? Love of the potential and ability to dream and transcend the ordinary cards you seem to have been dealt. The forces of evil telling you that that cubicle is the place you belong and should be happy to be. Even when you know it's not true, but are afraid as hell to even think those thoughts let alone act on them.

It is a story of bearing up through fear and uncertainty and chickens that fall on the floor, of people that must be fed dinner, and writing that must be done whether you feel like it or not, and more than that facing up to the truth about yourself, whatever it is, and then finding some version of that truth that you can tell to others.

It is the story of life and discovery, joy and pain and in this very fortunate case of Julia Child and Julie Powell it has resulted in two very inspiring stories for women, whether we are cooks, writers, bloggers, cubicle workers or just people looking for our way toward something better.

I like the episode of The French Chef where Julia flubs something and then looks into the camera, patting the back of her stylish flip as she says, "You MUST have the courage of your convictions". I don't know if Julia always was as sure of herself as that, but she has left us with a prescription for the ages, one that along with her, "Never apologize. Never explain." and "Bon Appetit!" make great companions when we hesitate or stumble with whatever great or little work we stoop to conquer.

Julia's opinion of MacDonald's French fries. (Youtube video)


Ruahines said...

Kia ora VJ,
She was an amazing woman to be sure. I remember her television show as a child, and how it made me interested in what went on in the kitchen. Now I am teaching my sons the basics of cooking, and I love to see the older one in particular trying out new spices and combinations.
Hope all is well and you are enjoying a beautiful northern hemisphere spring day. Kia kaha.

vegetablej said...

Hi Robb:

I'm enjoying a beautiful, coolish, autumn day, but that's good, too. We have wonderful autumns here with more sunshine and bright skies than in summer. Gotta break out the sweaters and jackets, though. But it must be spring, there, huh? Also a very lovely time!

Wonderful that you are teaching your boys to cook and trust their instincts about spicing. Soon you will be enjoying meals cooked by THEM for you. How exciting, and what a wonderful thing to pass on. Keep up the good work, Papa Chef!


Åsa said...

Oooh, I just saw the movie too. I was privileged to see the movie Julie and Julia a month before it's featured at theatres here in Sweden. I've also written a post in my blog about it (in Swedish though) and I hope it's ok with you that I made a link to your post and blog. It is very well written. It was a pleasure reading it :)


vegetablej said...

Thanks so much, both for reading and commenting so nicely, Asa. Sure wish I could read Swedish, and no problem about the link.


Margareta said...

Lovely to read your thoughts about the film Julia & Julie, and about Julia Child. I am just now reading Julie Powell's book and look forward to see the film later. I own the "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (in Swedish edition from the late 1960-ies?)and still use it now and then.
My son-in-law also owns it! He is the Chef in his family. :-)

May I put a link to your blog on my webpage? We are just now re-designing it, but we hope it'll be finished in late February.

Warm greetings from Sweden and Margareta

vegetablej said...


So lovely to hear from you again! (I also read your email and will be writing back soon.) Sorry I've been in a bit of chaos since moving from Japan, and feel guilty it's been so long.

I'd be delighted if you linked to my blog and I will certainly put up a link to yours.

I am really delighted that you commented on my post about Julie and Julia. I'm sure your copy of "Mastering" must be collectible by now. I think you will like the movie for its fun depiction of Julia. Meryl Streep plays her with a lot of spirit and only a bit of tongue-in-cheek.