Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Different menu

Flying off-topic...

So Ruth Reichl, who edits the magazine Gourmet, wrote a tweet about Julia Child expert Laura Shapiro's take-down of the new film Julie & Julia that L. mentioned to me. I immediately read it, and it has bugged me for days, so I thought I'd say a few things about the two books (which I read last year) and the movie (which isn't out until later this week).

First, the Child book. Written by a Child nephew from her vivid notes, letters and, I believe, some interviews, it paints a magical picture of a woman -- a couple, really -- exploding into life together in France after the war. Alex Prud'homme evokes France in the 1940s in filigreed detail with amazing descriptions, ones rooted in research and direct testimony, yet touched with a novelist's powers of imaginative description. And Julia Child herself is so there: big and lusty and excited, always, to work and learn, learn, learn. Her vivid excitement about life shattered me; I cried several times as I read. As reviews of the movie are already pointing out, books about adult love and discovery written with such passion and frankness are rare. I won't blather on about it more: read the book, just read it.

The narrative of Julia Child's experiences, quips, grueling apprenticeship and eventual success form, in my mind, almost a treatise of how to live. She never stopped working -- the story of the creation of the often-revised baguette chapter of Mastering of the Art of French Cooking is testimony to the long miles her intelligence and sense of debt to her audience travelled. I want to tell little T. and B. to read this book someday as they go forth to seek their pleasure and do their work.
Julie Powell is more complicated. At the time she began the blogging project that led to her book, she was a secretary, presumably well-educated and definitely underpaid. Stymied by life, she decides in 2002 to create The Julie/Julia Project, vowing to cook and blog the 536 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days in her hopelessly inadequate outer-borough kitchen. She does it, she says, for a "challenge" -- but it's soon clear more is going on. This, too, is a story about a woman trying to invent a different kind of life for herself. The gimmick becomes a quest.

Powell, it seems fair to say, pisses Gourmet reviewer Laura Shapiro off, and not just because her character siphons screen time away from Meryl Streep, whom Shaprio finds a most magnificent Julia. "Meryl Streep’s deep, detailed evocation of Julia in the new Nora Ephron film, Julie & Julia, has the power of the original to win every heart in the crowd," Shapiro writes. "As you might expect, she inhabits Julia beautifully—the size, the voice, the physical mannerisms—but to me it’s even more impressive that she gives an account of Julia’s character very much in tune with Julia’s own sense of herself."

Argh, but that Julie. The foul-mouth, the gimmicks, the cooking short-cuts, the occasionally queasy stomach and aversions, the amateurish food foul-ups. What kind of heir is this to Julia Child? Forget heir. What kind of woman is this to even appear with Child in a film?

I don't exaggerate this personal animus. Here's a little more of it: "There’s no question that Powell had a great idea for a blog. What she didn’t have was anything interesting to say about cooking her way through Mastering. Her writing is hollow, narcissistic, and unforgivably lazy—qualities so foreign to Julia that it’s not at all surprising that she once said she couldn’t abide Powell’s work."

(If you're curious about the link, longtime Child editor Judith Jones and Child read Powell's blog together. Here's Jones on the experience: “Julia said, ‘I don’t think she’s a serious cook.’ ” Jones thinks there was a generational difference between Powell and Child. “Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn’t attractive, to me or Julia. She didn’t want to endorse it. What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt. She would never really describe the end results, how delicious it was, and what she learned. Julia didn’t like what she called ‘the flimsies.’ She didn’t suffer fools, if you know what I mean.”)

Shapiro, for her part, ends her essay with hyperbole. "The idea of Powell as a contemporary heir to this personal and culinary epic is absurd," she writes, even though I can't imagine anyone, not even the Food Network, nominating Powell as a contemporary Child. The film's juxtapositions, I suspect, are intended to frame Powell as disciple, not inheritor.

"Nothing [emphasis mine: Powell also has "nothing interesting" to say about cooking] in her relation to the kitchen offers the slightest hint that she has learned anything at all from her heroine. In the film, Adams tackles each recipe as if it’s her opponent on a battlefield and the only point of cooking is victory. If the dish comes out well, she glows; if it fails, she throws a tantrum. ... Bring a book and a penlight for the Powell half of this movie."

I can't comment on Amy Adams's performance. But it's worth pointing out that she's an actor performing a script under the careful direction of strong-willed expert. Powell's book is vanishingly involved at this stage; I wouldn't conflate the script with it. And Shapiro's flat "nothings" are strong stuff, even for criticism. I freely grant that Julie & Julia (the book) is badly written for long stretches. Words like "crude" or "crass" sprung to mind even as I read it with increasing voracity. My overworked tear ducts remained sand dry.

Does she say interesting things about cooking? Not the way someone like English chef Fergus Henderson does, who talks about chopping parsley in such a way to "discipline it" a little. The language instantly gives you an image of fluffy stack of chopped parsley, slightly bigger pieces mixed with less rustic ones, the whole pile contrasted with the thoroughly cowed little mound of oxidizing green your mom might have produced way back when. Or Southern chef Edna Lewis, who tests cakes by listening to them for the slow, steady bubbling of a not-quite cooked center. Or just about anything Judy Rodgers writes about food. But cooking isn't just great verbs and rhapsodies of caramelization or the creamy transformation of tiny pats of butter added one by one to smooth, transform and thicken a pan sauce. It's more than leeks that acquire a sublimity that make it seem almost impossible that earlier they were sitting in a colander, astringent and filled with dirt.

Cooking is also a physical reality, a manipulation of materials, and reality is messy, for Julie if not always Julia (despite all her charming ability to steamroll through mistakes). You have silky leeks, yes, but there is also the grocery shopping, often in a fluorescent barn at 6 p.m., the knocking elbows with other shoppers and praying someone thought to give the kids some crackers for a snack. Then there's putting the food on the table. Then removing it and putting it away. And the dishes... those dishes... Powell's skill, inelegant as it is, is to capture the messy side of cooking while aspiring to a more, well, Child-like approach. As she pursues this over the course of the book and year, she gets more interesting, less cramped and less crass. I do believe she learns, grows and finds more refined pleasure, despite limited time and sensibility. (And here's a little secret: If she had an editor like Judith Jones working over her prose and pruning the dead spots, the brilliance of the book might match that of its gimmick.)

Early in her quest, after a half-hearted, sleepwalking rant about high-end food culture, Julie Powell reflects on Julia Child. They are straight from the blog, and early in the whole thing, so the writing is even more horrendous than the book's, but there's a point here:

Julia Child wants you -- that's right, you, the one living in the tract house in sprawling suburbia with a dead-end secretarial job and nothing but a Stop-n-Shop for miles around -- to master the art of french cooking. (No caps, please.) She wants you to know how to make good pastry, and also how to make those canned green beans taste alright. She wants you to remember that you are human, and as such are entitled to that most basic of human rights, the right to eat well and enjoy life.
I'm halfway there. I won't give up capitalizing "French cooking." But I shall eat well. I shall see the film as soon as I can upon release. And even if the Julie Powell section of the movie is as awful as Laura Shapiro says, I won't miss any of Amy Adams. That just wouldn't help me enjoy life.

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