Julie & Julia Gets People Into the Bookstores…And The Kitchen

Sometimes, I am just all late and wrong.

Last night is the first time my girls and I (my daughter Morganna, the 19 year old line cook, and her best friend Brittney, the 18 year old line cook) could get together and get away to see Nora Ephron’s film, Julie & Julia. Which means, since it opened on August 7th, that I am sure that everyone else in the country, especially food bloggers, have already seen it. (OK, not everyone else has seen it. My dear Aunt Judy hasn’t seen it yet, either–she is going later this week.)

Late and wrong as I am, I still want to write some of my thoughts on the film, because I think that one of the best things that films do is they bring people together to talk about them. (Yeah, I have a minor in film, along with one in history, one in biology and one in women’s studies. Yes, I am a super-geek who would go to college the rest of her life if she could get away with it.)

Unsurprisingly, I really liked the movie, and I love the way that the script was structured, flipping back and forth between Julie Powell’s life as sourced from her blog and later her book, Julie & Julia, and Julia Child’s as remembered in her memoir, My Life In France.

Viewed as a purely structural device, bouncing back and forth between the two women’s lives and marking parallels between them brings a beautiful symmetry to the narrative, and builds a sense of anticipation as the stories unfold. The actors were all superb, and each of them brought an authentic sense of their characters’ humanity and reality to the screen. Even the supporting actors, particularly Linda Edmond who portrayed Simone Beck, were spot-on, their performances sparkling, fresh and genuine. They all brought a strong humanity to the characters which made them very appealing to the viewer, even when the characters’ personalities were not ones which would normally appeal to the viewer.

Here is where I tread in dangerous waters as a food blogger. It seems that any criticism of Julie Powell as a writer or as a person portrayed in this film or in her memoir, especially when written or uttered by a food blogger, is viewed as a sign of jealousy or personal attacks by herself and her fans. This is a shame, because the fact is, Julie Powell put herself out there in public view–she wrote her blog and wrote her book in a way which she can easily be viewed as narcissistic and shallow by readers–so if there are some who look at her work and declare their honest opinion of it, it doesn’t mean that they are attacking her personally. It means that they read her words and her own portrayal of herself and had an opinion about them–an opinion which may not be positive.

And that is okay. As a food blogger and a chef, I have taken plenty of flak for things I have written, and have gotten personal attacks which may or may not have been warranted. It comes with the territory of writing for the public. If you write strong opinions on issues, you are going to step on some toes, and you are going to hear about it from readers. And yeah, some of them are going to get personal, because frankly, some people take what you write personally, (even if it isn’t personal) and respond in kind.

It is just something that you should expect.

And really, if you write about yourself, as in a blog or memoir, you as the author are the one who is making it personal. And the fact is–not everyone who reads about someone is going to like them as a person. It is just how it is. Not everyone is equally loved by the rest of the world, because different people get along with different personalities, period. End of sentence, paragraph and story.

So, knowing this, I am just going to say the bad thing that food bloggers have to be very politic and not say: I did not care for either Julie Powell’s blog, nor especially, her book.

There. I said it.

And if readers want to see it as sour grapes or jealousy, so be it, but the truth is, I found Julie’s writing to be very shallow and her story to not be all that compelling. Her idea of cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a stroke of genius, and as a blog subject it was perfect. It still stands as one of the best thematic hooks in the history of food blogging. I bow to Powell when it comes to the narrow focus and time limitation on her blog, especially since I have never been able to narrow down what I want to write about in my own blog. (I am just too damned interested in too damned many topics to impose limitations on Tigers & Strawberries.)

It is just the execution that I found lacking–I just didn’t like her writing style.

And that is fine. I don’t have to. Lots of people love the way she writes and what she writes about and I am happy for them and for Powell.

Now that I have said the dangerous thing, I can get on with what I wanted to say about the film. Amy Adams’ portrayal and the script make Julie Powell a much more interesting and sympathetic character than Powell does herself in her own writings, and that is a good thing. However, her story is just not as compelling or interesting as the story of Julia Child in postwar Paris, and that is the film’s greatest flaw. The two tales, while superficially similar, are not that analogous, and while presenting them equally in the structure of the film provides a sense of symmetry, the overall effect is not symmetrical.

Even though I liked Amy Adam’s portrayal, I found myself growing impatient during the segments that showed Powell’s struggles to complete her self-appointed mission. I wanted to go back to France, or Germany or Norway–wherever Julia and Paul had been stationed, and see what was happening there, because it was just more interesting to me. Like many reviewers, I feel that it was a shame that My Life in France wasn’t given its own film treatment, because it is just that more fascinating to the viewer.

(Let me add that one of the most interesting sociological contrasts between 2002 Queens and 1950′s Paris was the amount of cigarette smoking that was going on in the 50′s. Everyone smoked. Everywhere. In restaurants, in restrooms, at home–everywhere. And, while I am at it, I must applaud Nora Ephron’s eye for detail–the costumes, hairstyles, make-up, props, sets and street shots of Paris were period-perfect and really drew the viewer into that world.)

But, flawed as it was, in truth Julie & Julia has had one great effect on me: it made me want to crack open my ages old copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, get in my kitchen and whip up some Boeuf Bourguignon, a dish I haven’t made since culinary school.

And it seems that I am not the only one who wants to revisit the classic tome: The New York Times reports that for the first time since it first came out, Mastering is once more at the top of the best-seller list, as it rides on the coattails of the movie that it partially inspired. Nearly fifty years after its publication, it is once again flying off of the shelves (along with everything else in print by Julia Child, including her memoir, as well as Julie Powell’s book) and hopefully into kitchens across the country.

Many readers, however, seem to be stunned by the amount of fat involved in these recipes, and many are adapting them to lower the fat content, while hopefully retaining the flavor. One reader quoted in the Times article who made what she called “beef fauxguignon”–great name, by the way–admitted to using a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of burgundy wine and a can of cream of French onion soup seems to have missed the point in lowering the calories–cream of mushroom soup is anything but low-calorie. When she said, “Yes, Julia Child rolled over in her grave when I opened the cream of mushroom soup, I’m pretty sure of that. But you know what? That’s our world.” I had to laugh. The truth is, the opening a can of this and a can of that and popping some wine in the pot isn’t just our world–it was the world of 1950′s American cooking that Julia Child set out to change in the 1960′s too.

The irony is delicious.

But, when all is said and done, I think that we cannot dismiss the fact of Julia Child’s lasting impact on the eating habits and cooking abilities of Americans, nor can we downplay the effect that this film will have upon a new generation of American cooks.

By getting people who were only tangentially aware of Julia Child as a pop-culture icon out of the theatre and into the bookstore and then, hopefully, their kitchens, we also cannot dismiss the fact that by writing her blog, and then her book, and by selling the film rights to that book, Julie Powell helped remind America of why we loved Julia Child in the first place.

12 Comments

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  1. I haven’t seen this yet either (and all my friends are stunned), but the sad truth is I hardly get to movies in the theatre any more. That said, I enjoyed the books that were the source material. And I’ve been cooking more Julia Child lately in tribute. Especially been on a bit of a savory pastry kick, which has been fun.

    Comment by Diane — August 25, 2009 #

  2. I tried to read the book–at first it went quickly and I found it funny. but after about 40 pages I was very bored by Julie. So I hear you. I do mean to finish the book, but…..

    Comment by Laura — August 25, 2009 #

  3. Laura: The other book it was based on – and WELL worth reading – was Julia Child’s “My Life in France,” which is charming and one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. Julie Powell’s book I enjoyed, but kind of skimmed.

    Comment by Diane — August 25, 2009 #

  4. Excellent analysis of the movie, and I agree with you on just about all of it. I enjoyed the Julie parts, but I dearly wanted more of the Julia parts.

    Comment by Christy — August 25, 2009 #

  5. I haven’t gotten to see the movie yet and “My Life in France” is on my to-read list. But I agree with you about Julie’s book. I got it as an audio book, which she actually recorded. I didn’t like her language or her voice, and I almost didn’t finish the book. I was actually quite disappointed in it. I don’t know if I would’ve preferred it if I’d read it in print.

    Comment by Zebe912 — August 25, 2009 #

  6. I could have written this post word to word! I read the book with my book club girlfriends and we all agreed with you. I am also with you about going back to my MTAOFC book and start cooking from it again.

    One thing I have to say about fat, and I think that Michale Pollan would agree, Julia used plenty of fat in her cooking AND she lived to be 92 years old. Maybe it is not the fat that is sickening people, but the chemicals they consume with their low-fat processed food. Fat in moderation is not the monster people think it is.

    I just found your blog through Ilva, and I love it already.

    CIAO!

    Comment by Laura — August 30, 2009 #

  7. Thank you everyone for the kind words!

    Let me second Diane’s recommendation of Julia Child’s My Life in France–it is probably my favorite memoir of all time–and I do like to read about other people’s lives–especially if they tell me all about food! But I am re-reading it now and it is still an amazing book.

    Laura–I am glad you found me! My Gram ate butter and bacon fat and cooked with both as well as making pie crusts with lard and she lived to be 90 years old. And what finally did her in was a broken hip–not heart failure or hardened arteries or anything.

    She also smoked, ate chocolate and drank coffee and whiskey almost until the day she died–sometimes I wonder if the fact that for the last month of her life she was in a nursing home and her whiskey and cigarettes were denied her was what killed her!

    I think that Michael Pollan is correct to an extent. I think that genetics is a large part of what determines who can and cannot eat fat easily and without risk. Chinese folks thrive on a high-carb, high vegetable low fat and meat diet–but a lot of northern Europeans if they ate like that would gain weight. But they can drink milk and eat fat without getting high cholesterol. And then the Masai can drink milk, eat beef and beef blood with few vegetables and they are healthy….I could go on, but I think that we all have different genetic abilities to safely eat certain diets, but there is no way to tell what is best for you from birth–especially if you are an American–we have been intermarrying back and forth for so long, it is hard to tell what culture our interior bodies take after.

    For example, I am of German, Dutch, French, Irish and Native American, and possibly African American descent.

    Who knows what I can safely eat without gaining huge amounts of weight and having high cholesterol?

    Comment by Barbara — August 30, 2009 #

  8. Julie Powell’s blog inspired me to buy a copy of “Mastering,” though the only recipe I’ve made from it was a hollandaise. (Would’ve worked beautifully if I hadn’t accidentally set the egg yolks on a hot burner. Worked beautifully on the second try, though.) Not surprising that there’s been a spike in sales again. (I also ended up buying Vol. 2 of “Mastering,” but I found that copy at a used bookstore.) I also own Powell’s book, after seeing it on the discount racks at the bookstore. Guess the film’s apparent success makes up for that. *g*

    Comment by Laura C. — August 30, 2009 #

  9. I thought Julie Powell’s book was okay but I’ve enjoyed other food memoirs more. Like you say, it was a great concept: cooking through Julia’s tome in one year. Parts were hysterical as she wrestled with time constraints, a tiny kitchen, and so on. But other parts just trudged along.

    I’m hoping the movie is on DVD by the time my daughter comes to visit in December so she can bring it and we can watch it together (she’s even more of a foodie than I am). It’s the first movie I’ve even wanted to see in a couple of years. I’ve read a lot of blog posts and you aren’t the only one to say the Julia parts are much more interesting, but anything involving food will entertain me :-)

    I cannot even buy canned soup here, not that I used it much in the U.S. either, but since it’s not even an option I’ve had fun adapting recipes. Gotta say, like the fresher, lack-of-canned-soup versions better :-) And really, how hard is it to make a cream sauce or mushroom gravy to replace the canned stuff? You can control the salt, quality of ingredients, finished product…

    Comment by Kim — August 30, 2009 #

  10. Barbara, nice comeback. I agree with you about genetics, but moderation never killed anyone, your grandmother was lucky not to have the gene that makes you more susceptible to cigarette carcinogens, other people aren’t that lucky. Pollan advocates to eat little and mostly plants, which makes so much sense and it is so simple. I am enjoying his book in defense of food very much.

    Keep on cooking!

    Comment by Laura — September 1, 2009 #

  11. So, knowing this, I am just going to say the bad thing that food bloggers have to be very politic and not say: I did not care for either Julie Powell’s blog, nor especially, her book.

    There. I said it.

    Barbara – I love reading your blog. You don’t pull your punches.

    I agree with you 100% about making yourself a public figure – you have to take the good with the bad. No one MADE you become a blogger – and you can’t expect everyone to love you. So quit your whining Julie and suck it up.

    I took my hubby to see “Julie and Julia” with me. It was a great time – and a movie I would watch again with some judicious editing (fast forwarding through the non-Julia parts) We loved the portrayal of Julia and Paul Child’s devotion to each other. Sometimes with happy couples it the little things that tell – a look or an in-joke – not the over-the-top *smoochie smoochie* all the time.

    Time to go make some rockin’ Julia omelets for dinner…

    Comment by Rosie — September 1, 2009 #

  12. Hi – I love your blog and want to subscribe, but I dont see how to sign up? I’m going to quote you, re: muhammara on my own blog. Your writing and your recipes are both excellent!
    http://www.t2fish.blogspot.com

    Comment by Tameri T. — February 18, 2010 #

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