Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Julie and Julia

I should preface this by saying that I was fortunate enough to have met Julia Child and her sister, Dorothy Cousins, when I was still a student at the California Culinary Academy. This was at the beginning of the food revolution in California, and the school was hosting a benefit. The speaker list included the usual culinary stars of those days. I'm not going to list the speakers because, with a couple of important exceptions, the tone of the evening was all pretty damn snooty and snotty and elitist, and it was one of those "what in the hell am I doing in this profession" moments.

Julia and her sister were the last to arrive. The movie does a great job of emphasizing how physically imposing they were, but it can't possibly do them justice. I'm fairly tall for a woman, and yet when they entered the room, side by side, there was a little hush. Because they weren't so much as imposing as just THERE. They were large women, but not in the sense of present-day jargon. Tall and healthy, they both looked like they could probably break the neck of a five-hundred pound steer should the occasion warrant it.

And the one thing that the movie did capture so well was the connection between the two of them. Dorothy was a little taller, and she'd lean over to talk to Julia, and Julia would have this intent look on her face as she tried to hear her sister over the din of voices, and there was NO sense of this celebrity and her sister. No sense that Julia was forcing her sister down everyone's throats. It was just McWilliams girls out for the night.

I asked her to autograph a cookbook for my mother, and it wasn't whipping out the pen and a quick scrawl. She ASKED about my mother and when she'd signed the book (Julia Child and Company, by the way), she said to me, "Aren't you sweet? I do hope she likes the book." It wasn't a staged scenario. I came away from that encounter thinking, "Oh, she's tall, and, oh, thank you for saying that I'm sweet, and I know my mother will love the book."

Again, I'm not going to name names here, but the high point of the evening was when another speaker got on his/her high horse about some sort of nonsense that doesn't bear repeating; basically, people were jockeying for position and fetishizing food as a way to get there. The speakers were sitting in rocking chairs, and by the end of this insufferable speech Julia was rocking so violently that I half expected it to fly off the dais. In the nicest way possible she put this person in his/her place and basically said, oh, please. It's just food and we should enjoy it, but it's not a religion. She brought the entire tone of the evening back to earth. Which was, I think, her true gift. Yes, she could cook and had a delightful personality that television showcased so well, but in the end, she was someone who enjoyed a damn good meal with a decent glass of wine, surrounded by friends and/or family. Which is precisely why I went into cooking.

And that's why the Julie part of the move fails so miserably, and I don't even think that the director got it, and certainly the writer, Julie Powell, didn't get it. Because the cooking was never about Julia Child tooting her own horn. She loved food because food was lovable. She understood it and she undoubtedly had a phenomenal gift for it. But what the movie so lovingly portrayed was that her marriage and her relationships with people were the key, with food being an important satellite. During the numerous scenes when they are having dinner parties or eating in restaurants, the movie doesn't focus on people loving Julia Child's cooking. The movie focuses on Julia Child and her wonderful husband and their special relationship and the fact she's a funny, intelligent woman. And a damn good cook.

Cut to modern-day Julie portions of the film: the movie (and I imagine the blog) focuses on Julie and how SHE'S becoming a good cook and how her husband and everyone else are satellites. I don't know how faithful this is to the blog, but I will say from the movie that Julie Powell has a bunch of really ugly, unhappy, and obnoxious friends. I assume that this is what propels her into the kitchen in the first place, but the repeated cutting back and forth between a woman with a hell of a lot of self-respect to a woman who has none and who basically embraces her "bitch" cannot help but come off as, well, bitchy and self-serving. The modern-day dinner parties are all about the food. How good this is. It's great. Man, I love this. They might as well be at SEPARATE tables because there is no camaraderie between any of these people. I disliked them. I didn't see Julie's accomplishments as anything but a leap-frog off of Julia Child's accomplishments. Because it was always about the food and Julie Powell saying, "SEE! SEE! ME! ME! I MADE THIS!"

Which, having watched her television shows and owning every single one of her books, Julia Child never said.


Maria Lima said...

Nice write up! Probably not going to see the movie until it comes out on Netflix, but I enjoyed your take.

It's just food and we should enjoy it, but it's not a religion.

I loved this! I remember watching Julia Child on TV when I was a kid and enjoying her joy in the food and the cooking. No foodie pretentiousness. Guess that's why I also loved the Two Fat Ladies.


Elizabeth said...

I remember you telling me about this when it happened, and how utterly wonderful she was. Too bad about the movie! I was looking forward to seeing it!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your comments. I lived in Montecito, CA between 1983-5 and often saw Julia Child shopping at the local Von's grocery. I watched carefully as she chose produce, and learned a lot. Funniest moment was when I was checking out behind her - I was buying microwave burritos. I quickly slapped a magazine over them after seeing the lovely food she was purchasing.

Rose said...

Enjoyed reading your memories of Julia. I loved the movie and did not find it as distastful as you. As a matter of fact, I thought Julie's description and love for Julia was inspiring. It has brought me back to the kitchen and makes me want to be a better person.

Claire M. Johnson said...

Dear Rose:

I think the big disconnect for me was that the food in her life became a distracton. I loved the Julia bits because it was about a wonderful woman who had a great marriage. The food wasn't all there was to Julia Child. The Julie Powell bits were about a woman who used food to distance herself from life she found distasteful and onerous. The food didn't bring her and her husband back together, it was like an infidelity; she cared more about this blog than the rest of her life, which as not true about Julia Child. It was a whole menu, so to speak. I LOVED the Julia Child portions of the movie. This is possibly a personal bias!

Elana said...

I enjoyed your take on the movie and the wonderful things you had to say about your personal experience with Julia Child.

I read Julie Powell's blogs and found Nora Ephron took a lot of poetic license and cleaned up the real Julie Powell considerably. By her own words in her blog on I found her very unlikable, obscene, negativity about life and narcissistic in the extreme. So I do believe Julia Child's opinion of Julie Powell as delivered in the movie by the reporter about to write an article on Julia Child's 90th birthday, to be correct.

Julia Child inspired me, brought me back into the kitchen and gave me a curiosity about food I had lost for years. You never know who will influence your life and to what extent, but I feel Julia turned mine around. Through my new found curiosity and food experiences I have become closer to my friends and discovered intriguing recipes and wonderfully delectable food.

Claire M. Johnson said...

Hi Elana: There was no reason for Julia Child to be nice to me, she just was because she was a nice person. She actually talked to me, asked me what I was interested in cooking, etc. She was truly genuine. I could recount other instances of that evening where other food 'personalities' weren't nearly that gracious by half. I took away from that experience the conviction that food is to be enjoyed, not revered.

I don't think it's quite fair of me to diss Julie Powell based on this one movie, but I have read interviews with her (I did not buy her book), and let's just say I'm not issuing her a dinnertime invitation any time soon.

May I recommend Julia Child's autobiography, "My Life in France." I can't recommend it more highly.

Anonymous said...

I love the movie, and I wonder if the difference between Julia and Julie's times is "time" itself....back in Julia Child's day, she wanted something of her own, to focus on....and so did "Julie", I agree with the caddy women in the movie, compared to the friends Julia had, but it is just a movie. I bought Julias cookbook and have made many recipes from it, I probably never would have done that had it not been for this movie. I also wouldn't have become quite the historian of Julia Child. I have seen Julie Powell on youtube and not impressed, as I was with the actress in the movie, who seemed innocently sweet...I also haven't read Julie Powell's blog, but anyhow, I love the movie so much I watch it frequently. More than the comparison between the women, I see the likeness of their husbands; supportive and interested in their wives interests.....opposite of MOST men then and now.....