On Wednesday, my favorite Russian emigré and I packed a lovely dinner courtesy of tbsp. (and our favorite Bandit single-serving boxed wine from Bottlerocket) and snuck it into the Chelsea cinemas for our overdue viewing of Julie & Julia.
Confession: I went to the movie not for Julia Child but for Julie Powell.
Yes, everyone agrees that Julia was a domestic goddess, that she fundamentally altered the way we cook and think about cooking, ad infinitum, but Julie had a pretty profound effect on a certain food-obsessed writer as well.
While toiling away as a young, unhappy, low-level women’s magazine editor in the wilds of northern New Jersey, I read through the original Julie/Julia Project blog in 2003-2004 as JP was writing it.
Although a few years behind Julie, I was already grappling with many of the issues—career ambivalence, the grind of New York, and the search for a purpose-driven life—that she was cooking through on the blog. It was gutsy, ambitious (and yes, foul-mouthed), and it struck a deep chord.
The book, with its print format-imposed narrative structure, diluted some of the blog’s raw spark, and that’s true for most of the movie as well—especially the the Julia Child moments filmed in the dreamlike environments of post-war France. Red-banquette bistros in Marseille and charming ancient fishmongers don’t lend themselves very well to bile, but there’s also a gloss to the modern New York scenes that manages to polish even a subway commute. You know you’re in a Nora Ephron movie when even Long Island City gets a glamorous sparkle.
But despite the sanitized Hollywood treatment of both journeys, the movie powerfully clarified one fundamental truth. We all want Julia Child’s life, but even though most of us end up with a version that falls closer to Julie Powell’s, we can still revel in the transformative impact of food.
For those of us who can answer Paul Child’s question to his wife, “What is it you really like to do?” with the same answer as Julia: “Eat!”, the sense of purpose and fulfillment that comes through cooking and sharing food with an appreciative audience can truly change a life.
As Jeffrey Steingarten noted in his August Vogue column, “This is precisely where the true stories of Julia and Julie intersect most closely. For both women, different as they are, cooking—even an obsession with cooking—lifted them out of a sense of uselessness, of dilettantism.”
Yes, the movie is a fantasy that smudges away a lot of difficult moments, but it’s also a validation of our most basic happinesses. When I stand at my kitchen counter slowly stirring a risotto, painstakingly icing mini veggie cakes, or working my way through the millionth step of a Thomas Keller recipe, the whole world falls away. There is nothing more important in that particular moment than the task in front of me and nothing more pleasurable. And absolutely nothing wrong with that.