Julie, Julia, and Me

1 01 2010

Somewhere in my recent gushing about Redbox I mentioned that I rented Julie & Julia. The premise is that an obscure woman living in New York City decides one day to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 in 365 days. The movie version divides time between the “Julie” story in the near past and the story of Julia Child living in France and chipping away at creating her (co-authored) masterwork.

Here’s the thing, there: The Julie Powell and Julia Child of the movie are characters, not real people.

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie yet and plan to, just sock that above sentence away and go have fun.

In fairness to Hollywood, the requirements of a visual art (snort) like film making differ from print. And unlike real life, Hollywood generally demands a certain sort of pacing to the story, which means either events must be shuffled around to rise to the climax, or events must be created from whole cloth to get there. In Julie & Julia, we are shown the character named Julie Powell blogging away in obscurity, at one point shouting into the void “is anyone reading this?”

While certainly not without precedent, I hate to ruin the drama and reveal that it never happened.

The source material is still online. Despite the comments boxes puffing up with more recent screed as a result of the movie’s popularity, the original comments remain and one may see that she did have readers from the early going, and no, not just her mother.

Despite Amy Adams’ better efforts, I found the real Julie Powell to be rather off-putting. This is not to say that everyone has to meet or exceed some ridiculous standard of mine, but I tried, really, I tried to read each and every entry to see how the project progressed in 2002-2003 and I had to stop.

Long story short, I went to the library and found a book called From Julia Child’s Kitchen. Written after Mastering… volumes 1 and 2, Julia Child herself explains that the cookbook is much looser than the more rigid cooking course that ultimately launched the Julie/Julia project. Loose or not, I am finding it incredibly fascinating. Not to make unfair comparisons but I feel a kinship with Julia Child in that we appear to be process nerds. She doesn’t “just” cook asparagus, she is asparagus. One can rest assured that if Julia Child says she has found the optimal way to make the best asparagus ever, she certainly did, and you’ll be aching to try it for yourself. Really, this is the most interest I have ever had about asparagus. I was riveted reading about eggplant. I even want to make plain white rice her way (not a far walk from how I do it now) just to settle any lingering doubts as to my rice-cooking acumen.

By contrast, the real Julie Powell doesn’t seem particularly interested in mastering French cooking as completing a stunt. This is not new, and I can’t pin this entirely on the most recent decade, but indeed, this is the stuff of the modern non-fiction book. Person picks an offbeat goal, attempts it, and voila, book happens. An excellent (and modern) example of this is A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis. While I did find myself hoping he would indeed play even a few seconds in the NFL, the journey is what matters, not the destination.

This was my hope for the actual Julie/Julia Project.

Instead, I never really got a feel for what went in to cooking the recipes (some entries are more focused and detailed than others) or how they actually turned out. There is much talk of freak-outs and meltdowns, but this throws back to my “stunt” comment. Julia Child intended for the course to be approached with the seriousness that she put in to creating it. If I were to ape the Julie/Julia Project and approach it more in the spirit of Julie Child’s intentions, I’d be known for “The Noblest Green: Five Years, Six Kitchens, Three Continents and the Quest for Perfect Asparagus” (College Press, 2016, agents, call me and let’s do this).

Instead we are treated to a rush job, often after work and under the influence of gin-and, or wine, or similar.

Julie Powell, the character, is aghast that Julia Child comments (not directly) that the project is not serious. But she is so earnest! How can Julia Child not know that?

In a vacuum, Julie Child does seem rather bitchy for writing off Julie Powell, the character. But as I read through the various recaps (after a fashion) of the recipes they seem to be whatever was on the page in the cook book that day, and not necessarily courses that actually have any continuity. The topper came when there was onion-themed dinner, soup, and dessert. I suspect that Julia Child’s response may have been fueled by the many substitutions, short-cuts, and plain dismissals by the real Julie Powell, who at one point justifies this by playing the “I’m a Texan” card.

I imagined taking on authentic Indian cooking, but “I’m Italian” so I’ll swap out the Garam Masala for oregano, trade lamb for meatballs, add tomato sauce, garlic, and basil, add pasta, and ta da! Lamb Korma!

What the real Julie Powell does not seem to grasp – or to be fair, not in the first few months of the project, as I did finally stop reading – is that Julia Child wasn’t trying to explain how to cook like Julia Child. The object was mastery of French cooking. If one finds the French approach to cooking vegetables to result in mushiness, that’s not Julia Child having dentures and being confined to soft foods.

I suppose I should not have let curiosity get the better of me and seek out the source material for the “Julie” half of Julie & Julia, but what can I say, I’m a process nerd. If any good came of this experience, it was coming to a place in my life where I could look upon the work of Julia Child and receive her message.

If I have any epiphanies concerning asparagus, I’ll pass them along.

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