Monday, August 24, 2009

Julia Child

Julie & Julia is a movie about food, about love and about loving food. It is also a film about writing and publishing and the joy of success. I think it works really well, and it's hard to understand some of the reviewers' initial criticisms after seeing the movie.

Meryl Streep is of course great as Julia Child, the American in Paris who truly did change the world with her cookbook. But the other part of the movie, Julie Powell cooking her way through Julia's book and blogging about it, creates about as successful a blend of stories as you can imagine.

For the first time ever, the New York Times reports this morning, Mastering the Art of French Cooking will top the bestseller list next Sunday as a whole new generation of home cooks discovers Julia's masterpiece. This would not have been possible, really, without the role model played by Amy Adams, making this 40-year-old cookbook relevant for today's twenty-somethings. It proves that Julie Powell's effort always was a respectful homage, despite Julia's own criticism, to Julia's original accomplishment.

And Amy Adams, proving herself once again to be the versatile actress she is, holds up her own end, and makes Julie's story, as a personal story, as uplifting as Julia's. Of course, Julie Powell's kitchen in Queens is not likely to find its way to the Smithsonian, and her impact is not of the historic nature as Julia's, but for the purposes of this movie, it turns what could have been a hagiographic biopic into an inspiring human comedy. (Credit is also due to the third genius at work in this film, screenwriter and director Nora Ephron.)

Julie Powell had an extremely clever idea to cook 524 recipes in 365 days and blog about it, and her blog, from what appears of it in the film, was charmingly written with a distinctive voice. Yes, she's riding on Julia's back to success, but Julia herself owes a lot to Larousse Gastronomique and generations of French chefs. The book based on her blog is now out in a new paperback edition with the title, Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.

The Julia part of the movie is based on My Life in France, a totally charming memoir of the Childs' sojourn in France and Julia's discovery of food and cooking. Dan Burton recommended it to me more than a year ago and it was a true revelation. Aside from the lovely depiction of postwar Paris, the book relates the back story to so many of the recipes in Mastering, adding so much to the appreciation of these descriptions.

Like so many others of my generation, I came to cooking through Mastering. I took up cooking as a hobby when I was living in Hamburg as a way to do something with my hands that was a break from reading and writing all day as a freelancer. Julia's famously foolproof recipes introduced me to so many basic techniques.

Later, in Paris, I was able to go to Cordon Bleu myself -- not for the full program as Julia did, but just a single eight-week class. I took another course later at Anne Willan's Ecole de la Varenne, but always relied on Julia's original book as my touchstone for cooking.

The very revolution that Julia inspired has given us thousands of cookbooks that take all of us into wonderful new ventures in nouvelle cuisine, new American, fusions and all the other exciting stuff that's happening in cooking. Julia's recipes now can seem dowdy and unhealthy. The Times article quotes so many recent purchasers of Mastering as being astonished about the amount of butter and other fat used in the recipes.

That's what's so exciting about Julie Powell's contribution to the movie. She ignored all that and singlemindedly and singlehandedly made Julia relevant again. Now my neighbor is suggesting that we get together with a third couple and cook up a menu from Mastering -- a suggestion I'm sure is being repeated a thousandfold around the country.

I've cooked many of the recipes from Mastering, including the de-boned duck that Julie saved to the end. I've done the carbonnades (beef braised in beer) more often than the boeuf bourguignon featured in the movie, and have repeatedly used her recipes for cassoulet and ratatouille. I may have attempted the aspic early on, but not recently. Living in Europe, I never had the chance to watch French Chef on TV, but the descriptions and drawings in Mastering were generally clear enough to attempt the most ambitious dishes.

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