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The French Food Connection

By (September 1, 2009) 2 Comments

Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously

by Julie Powell
Little, Brown and Company, 2005

My Life in France
by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
Anchor Books, 2006

Julie & Julia
directed and screenplay by Nora Ephron
Columbia Pictures, 2009

Gourmet Rhapsody
by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, 2009

juliajuliaThis summer, I discovered an exquisite form of torture, the likes of which I haven’t experienced before. August is my leanest month – as a grad student, I’ve spent my summer funds but there are still several weeks until my September stipend check. Some of my colleagues worry about rent, and others realize they can’t pay off their credit card bills. As for me, I don’t really eat. Solvent, but starving. Sure, I could dip into my savings or beg my parents for money, but no, “I’m gonna hold out for a few more days.” Now looking back on my decision to review several books about cooks, cooking, and most of all food, I recognize my own desires writ large. Needless to say, it was a very bad idea.

Around 5 p.m. today with only one cup of yogurt and some 6 a.m. cereal rattling around my stomach, I read this passage from Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody:

And yet I had always been acquainted with the tomato, since the time of aunt Marthe’s garden, since the summer when an ever more ardent sun kissed the timid little growths, since the moment my teeth tore into the flesh to platter my tongue with the rich, warm and bountiful juice, whose essential generosity is masked by the chill of a refrigerator, or the affront of vinegar, or the false nobility of oil. Sugar, water, fruit, pulp, liquid or solid? The raw tomato, devoured in the garden when freshly picked, is a horn of abundance of simple sensations, a radiating rush in one’s mouth that brings with it every pleasure. The resistance of the skin—slightly taut, just enough: the luscious yield of the tissues, their seed-filled liqueur oozing to the corners of one’s lips, and that one wipes away without any fear of staining one’s fingers; this plump little globe unleashing a flood of nature inside us: a tomato, an adventure.

When I reached the part about “a radiating rush in one’s mouth,” my eyes lost focus, and I went to the kitchen to zap my last bag of microwave popcorn. Even as I mechanically crunched lightly salted, lightly buttered kernels and sipped a glass of a much treasured $11 rosé every four or five bites to add some semblance of flavor, I started fantasizing about tomatoes, particularly the recipe for “Tomates Grillées au Four” from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol 1.

It’s clear that similar single-girl experiences prompted Nora Ephron to direct Julie & Julia. Earlier this month, Salon.com’s Rebecca Traister, in a cozy interview with the director, commented, “Food has brought me joy in times when there wasn’t love or work or sex or money. It’s something that brings you pleasure even when you have little control over the lack of other pleasures. You can bring food into your home; when you’re a single girl who doesn’t have plans in the evening you can make yourself dinner for four.” And Ephron handily replied, “And feel that you are not sad, because you’re not eating yogurt.”

Dear lord, this has been a hard month. Not only have my own yogurt-eating practices been shown up as a sad indicator of a lonely half-life, but I’ve salivated over scenes (both written and filmed) such as this famous one from Julia Child’s My Life in France:

Rouen is famous for its duck dishes, but after consulting the waiter Paul had decided to order sole meunière. It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said: Bon appétit!

I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.

The sputtering sole meunière leads seamlessly into descriptions of a happy marriage and a saucy photograph of Julia and Paul Child posing in a Valentine’s Day bubble bath – as the wise Julia Child intuited, “a morsel of perfection” can spark connubial bliss and great sex. Although Ephron has distanced herself from the term “food pornography,” there’s a reason it was coined. In Julie & Julia, the look of ecstasy that floods Meryl Streep’s face after her first bite of the sole meunière certainly suggests that the dish satisfies more than one kind of appetite. And in one of the film’s funniest scenes, Streep elegantly maneuvers through the steps of making sauce and pasta, and grabbing a piece of cannelloni from a boiling pot with her bare fingers exclaims, “It’s hotter than a stiff cock!”

But hot and stiff cannelloni aside, Nora Ephron is correct in thinking there’s more to food than satisfying humans’ base hungers. For me, reading Julia Child’s memoir felt like going home. Although I’ve haven’t spent much time in France, her cozy, jumbled anecdotes and caring descriptions of her favorite meals remind me of the times I’ve most enjoyed living. Meandering and full of minor details, the memoir resembles the long car trips that Julia and Paul Child liked to take with friends, food, and a few good bottles of wine. Some people feel the world through food, and Julia Child eventually defined herself (and later redefined the lives of many Americans) by cooking it:

By now I knew that French food was it for me. I couldn’t get over how absolutely delicious it was. Yet my friends, both French and American, considered me some kind of nut: cooking was far from being a middle-class hobby, and they did not understand how I could possibly enjoy doing all the shopping and cooking and serving by myself. Well, I did! And Paul encouraged me to ignore them and pursue my passion.

From the beginning, Child realized the political ramifications of a woman discovering her artistic potential through cooking. Not only did she need to distinguish herself in a male-dominated profession, but she had to prove that an American has the ability to master and express herself through the classic French cooking techniques. To do this, Child defied those who assumed that she was just a bored housewife, but she remained perfectly aware that most housewives in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s were forced into the kitchen by necessity and cultural pressure. In Alex Prud’homme’s introduction to My Life in France, he remembers how “she lamented that in her day the American housewife had to juggle cooking the soup and boiling the diapers,” adding, “If she mixed the two together, imagine what a lovely combination that would make!”

In the twenty-first century setting of Julie Powell’s blog-adapted memoir Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, most middle-class American women have abandoned the kitchen for the office, but the stigma of home cooking remains. The majority of distinguished restaurant kitchens in the United States are still dominated by men; the home kitchen is still seen by some feminists as a place of oppression; home cooking is often regarded as a middle-class hobby rather than a legitimate form of expressive art. Nevertheless, Julia Child helped introduce the concept that women as well as men could practice cooking as an art, and the idea that cooking should be fun, not a chore. And the post-feminist idea that traditional “female” activities such as cooking and clothes-making should be reclaimed as legitimate art forms for modern women has found many followers, as attested by the prominence and popularity of people like Child, Alice Waters, Coco Chanel, and Diane Von Furstenberg.

Despite the inspiration for her blog, it should be noted that Julie Powell isn’t really a culinary artist – she’s more of the middle-class hobbyist that Julia Child envisioned so many years ago in France. The blogging concept to cook the 524 recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 in 365 days, in fact, launched Powell as a writer rather than as a serious chef. She brags in her conclusion, “Two years ago, I was a twenty-nine-year-old secretary. Now I am a thirty-one-year-old-writer. I get paid very well to sit around in my pajamas and type on my ridiculously fancy iMac, unless I’d rather nap. Feel free to hate me – I certainly would.”

Although I don’t really believe that Julie Powell finds a Julia Child-like satisfaction in the art of cooking (and I might add that Julia Child viewed Powell’s project with derision for “not being respectful or serious”), her bloggy memoir offers the pleasures of witnessing a thoroughly grumpy, foul-mouthed New Yorker go through a laughable late-twenties identity crisis, discover the erotic allure of good food, and tell terrible gossip about all her best friends. More than her descriptions of (badly) attempting Julia Child’s recipes or even discovering a new career, Powell’s passages evoking the sensual delights of food connect Julie & Julia to the vivid memories in My Life in France. Finally sitting down to steak with beef marrow sauce after many shopping and butchering misadventures, Powell sighs,

If I had thought the beef marrow might be a hell of a lot of work for not much difference, I needn’t have worried. The taste of marrow is rich, meaty, intense in a nearly too-much way. In my increasingly depraved state, I could think of nothing at first but that it tasted like really good sex. But there was something more than that, even. (Though who could ask for more than that? I could make my first million selling dirty-sex steak.) What it really tastes like is life, well lived. Of course the cow I got the marrow from had a fairly crappy life – lots of crowds and overmedication and bland food that might or might not have been a relative. But deep in his or her bones, there was the capacity for feral joy. I could taste it.

Taken together, Julia Child’s and Julie Powell’s memoirs might make you think that the sexual revolution came about when women started embracing the joys of eating. Otherwise, the two women couldn’t be more different – while Julia Child is positive, hard-working, patient, and charming, Julie Powell complains incessantly – no matter what she’s doing it’s “a hell of a lot of work.” While Julia Child describes the thrill she finds in perfecting a dish (after hundreds of test runs), Julie Powell fires off a pat observation (“it tasted like really good sex”), never cooks the dish again (unless it’s good for a hangover), and then reverts to snide irreverence (like christening the dirty-sex steak). Julie Powell is a funnier writer than Julia Child, and her book is a trifle that can be consumed in one sitting – much like a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, I couldn’t put it down. Still, if you were choosing between Julia and Julie as a dinner companion, there would be no contest. One is an astounding professional and cultural icon who redefined the way people thought about food and women; the other is a flip blogger.

This obvious disparity mars Nora Ephron’s screenplay for Julie & Julia, and it doesn’t help that the luminous icon is played by Meryl Streep, one of the greatest screen actresses, while Julie Powell is played with cutesy fervor by Amy Adams. Ephron obviously idealizes Child, and her delightful interpretation of My Life in France rings true, but did she read Powell’s Julie & Julia? The screenplay follows the basic 524 recipes/365 days plot, but Powell’s bitchy tone and hilarious tirades are gone. For example, Powell begins her memoir by realizing “the only two reasons I hadn’t joined right in with the loon with the gray crew cut, beating my head [on the subway platform] and screaming “Fuck!” in primal syncopation, were (1) I’d be embarrassed and (2) I didn’t want to get my cute vintage suit any dirtier than it already was. Performance anxiety and a dry-cleaning bill; those were the only things keeping me from stark raving lunacy.” In the movie, Amy Adams, looking something like a mid-1990’s Meg-Ryan-perk-bubble, asks her husband with some trepidation if moving to Queens was a good idea.

To be faithful to the original, tart source, Ephron would’ve had to cast someone like Janeane Garofalo in the part, not Amy Adams. But that would’ve made the incompatibility of the two stories apparent, and there’s Ephron’s problem. How do you combine a film starring Meryl Streep as the ebullient Julia Child with a film recounting the near nervous breakdown and cooking obsession of a bitter, riotous, and drunken Janeane Garofalo? Maybe a great filmmaker could have contrasted twenty-first century New York sarcasm with Julia Child’s mid twentieth- century positive, can-do spirit to good effect, but Ephron simply isn’t a great filmmaker. No one who sees Julie & Julia will want to read Powell’s book, an unfortunate side-effect for the budding blogger/writer who likes to hang out in her pajamas.

Despite this, I enjoyed watching Julie & Julia, and I can’t wait for the DVD so I can skip all the tepid parts. In the good half, not only was the relationship between Meryl Streep’s Julia Child and Stanley Tucci’s Paul Child believable, but I was moved to tears by their child-bearing problems when I wasn’t laughing at her elongated vowels. And oh my, the sole meunière sputters and sizzles onscreen just as Child described. A pile of onions. Whisks and whipped cream. Omelets. A simmering duck. A trip to the nearest French restaurant appeared to be an inevitable aftereffect of the barrage. Quel dommage! Visiting Daniel or Le Grenouille are completely out of the question. August. No money. Remember? In the words of Meryl Streep’s Julia Child, “What should I doooooo? Do you think?”

So my editor sent me the new English translation Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody (originally published in France in 2000), as if reading more tantalizing food porn would help. It didn’t. Barbery’s description of the tomato represents only one of many savory interludes – the food writing is so vivid that I could have been dining at La Couronne.

Gourmet Rhapsody recounts the last day of a revered food critic, Pierre Athens, who yearns for one last flavor before he dies, but can’t quite articulate what that flavor is. Just on the tip of his tongue (so to speak), he searches through his fleeting memories of meals past to find his heart’s desire. Although Gourmet Rhapsody is a fictional account, taking place in the same hôtel that was featured in Barbery’s popular 2006 novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Julia Child’s memoir confirms that the French do elevate some food writers to the level of (what Barbery terms) “supreme monarch.” In her memoir, Child describes her encounters with the larger-than-life Prince Curnonsky, and he leaves an indelible impression:

The day we met him, Curnonsky greeted us at four in the afternoon in his apartment, dressed in a billowing nightshirt and red bathrobe. He was eating a boiled egg. As usual, he would go out to tea, or for a cocktail, a bit later. Come evening, his biggest decision would be which invitation to accept, as there were always more offers that he could accept. After an enormous meal at one of another of Paris’s best restaurants, followed by the theater or music or the latest nightclub (always at someone else’s expense), he’d retire by 4:00am.

Simca and I immediately fell for him, He struck me as a character out of a novel, or from another century. I couldn’t imagine a person like le prince coming from anywhere by France.

Julia Child’s real-life account of Curnonsky is more fanciful than anything Barbery invents – Child insinuates that the prince élu des gastronomes committed suicide by “falling” from his balcony after his doctor ordered him to restrict his diet – but Pierre Athens does make an excellent central character for a novel, just as Child suspected le prince would.

As Athens broods over his last taste, Barbery alternates small chapters relaying the critic’s sense-memories of foods like tomatoes, mayonnaise, and bread with the reflections of his family members, friends, a lover, a doctor, a local vagrant, and a cat. While all of his children hate the father who ignored them to pursue the best meals and most gorgeous women, acquaintances tend to remember the critic fondly. Some chapters strike a melodramatic tone, like when his wife Anna remembers,

The joys motherhood, of bringing them up, are all things she has known; as well as the horror of having to raise children who are unloved by their father, the torture of watching them gradually learn to hate him, because he looks down on them, because he has abandoned her….

Leavening this overwrought portrait, his housekeeper simply reflects, “The second reason I like Monsieur, it’s kind of hard to put in words…it’s because he farts in bed!….A man who farts in bed, my grandmother used to say, is a man who loves life. And then, too, I don’t know: it made me feel closer to him…” Some portraits are more convincingly written than others, but all of these awkward jigsaw pieces serve to characterize the man who narrates the book’s beautiful sections.

As loved and unloved ones memorialize the dying man, Athens rhapsodizes about the sensual life of a gourmet. And Barbery’s lush food writing makes these sections sing. There are so many rich passages like the one revealing the perfection of tomato – despite the pain and rage expressed by his own children, it’s difficult for the reader to hate (or even question) the man who associates his childhood pet with warm brioche,

Yes, my dog, my Dalmatian, was a past master at sniffing out a scent; and believe it or not, on his neck and on the top of his well-shaped crown he smelled like the toasty aroma of brioche bread and butter and cherry plum jam that would fill the kitchen in the morning.

And his dazzling first taste of sashimi was “velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by the clouds.” Viewing the world from a gourmet’s perspective awakens the senses. At her florid best, Barbery captures the arousal inflamed by good food (and good food writing) almost as well as Julia Child, who inspired countless readers with her recipes and epiphanic mouthful of sole meunière. While reading can’t replace the joy of biting into a juicy tomato, Barbery cooks up a decent substitute. I consumed words with ever more zest and an increasing sense of despair. Would I never eat in the month of August?

Sharon Fulton is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about the role of animals in the literary dream-visions of the late fourteenth-century.

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