August 3, 2009 | Short Order
Remembering Julia; Not Sure I Want to Know Julie
You’re a foodie. You cook or you don’t. Of course you must see the movie. "Julie and Julia" may not be the best or most important film Nora Ephron has ever done but it’s charming and fun and, dare I say, she was born to write it. It will remind you how much you love butter. How much you miss cream. What it reveals of Julia and Paul Child’s relationship is ultimately quite moving. Even in front of strangers, like me, the first time we met, they were unabashedly lovey-dovey.
And Meryl Streep is dazzling. She is the tallest 5’6” woman I have ever seen, as tall as Julia’s 6’2”, smoking up a blaze as she chops away. Perhaps she doesn’t quite capture the younger, thinner Julia at the beginning, when she fell in love with that sole meunière. I didn’t know Julia at 40 so I can’t say, but she sounds and moves like the Julia I knew, listing a bit as she loped up Fifth Avenue after our lunch at Le Cygne and drawing smiles of recognition.
I had toted both volumes of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and “From Julia Child’s Kitchen” in a shopping bag for Julia to autograph. She signed each one and then passed it on for Paul to sign, reminding me that the how-to drawings had been made from Paul’s photographs. “They’re his books, too,” she said. Just as she does in the film.
Le Cygne’s owners did headstands to please us. The courses of our $8.95 lunch kept multiplying. “I get upset when the kitchen sends out extras and refuses to put them on the bill,” I told her, not wanting to make my usual fuss and demand everything appear on the bill in front of Julia.
“I think we should just enjoy it,” Julia cried in her wonderful bass falsetto. “Who knows how long it will last.”
Two years later Julia swept into the lobby of La Trémoille, my hotel in Paris. And as she swept, she knocked against the bouquet of flowers on the tall pedestal at the door. It tipped. I gasped. Behind her, Paul Child caught it mid-topple and set it straight. What a team, I thought. Not only did they adore each other, but Paul was always there, seemingly content to swim in her wake, picking up whatever she might bowl over in her exuberant passage through life.
It seemed like the entire audience, plus some, at last Thurday’s Zeigfeld premiere had been swept up into the Metropolitan Club after party (hear me dish the movie in this podcast on Feedbag). I imagined Nora the fussy gourmand pretasting every dish. People couldn’t stop talking about boeuf Bourguignon. “I know it’s not exactly a summer dish but I’m not waiting. I have to make it,” a friend confided. “I’m cooking it this weekend,” said another. “The secret is wiping each chunk of meat dry before you put it in the butter.”
I remember an early boeuf Bourguignon in my life. I found the recipe in “Mastering” and read it through…four or five pages of instruction. Then I took my butter-stained “New York Times Cookbook” by Craig Claiborne off the shelf. Craig’s boeuf Bourguignon with caramelized shallots was less than a page. So I made his version. In that very same orange enameled Le Creuset casserole. Back in the days when it was good to be a cliché.
The Washington Post gathered close friends of Child for an early screening to record their reaction. I was surprised to read that some said Julia would not have liked the movie because she thought Julie Powell’s blogging feat exploitative and disrespectful. “She thought it was opportunistic," Post writer Robin Shulman quotes Jacques Pépin, Julia’s long time friend and collaborator.
In a world of back-stabbing and fierce competition, Julia Child always seemed uniquely above the fray, taking time to embrace many food professionals on their way up. I remember her calling me once and saying, “Be sure to invite that nice Martha Stewart.” The Julia I knew would have been amused by Julie Powell’s determination to spend a year cooking 524 recipes by Julia Child. Perhaps she soured at the end, being forced to put Paul into a nursing home after a stroke, and later, suffering from ailments we didn’t know in a wheelchair after a knee surgery with complications. Could that have made Julie’s homage seem poisonous?
No one in the four decades of the food revolution in America was ever as generous as Julia, although James Beard in his delightfully bitchy way came close.