Thursday, April 12, 2012

Julie & Julia -- memoir by food writer Julie Powell

Hey Readers!

Hope you all had a great Easter since we last talked - I loved mine! Turned out to be a sweet, soft, quiet kind of day that made me very aware and thankful of all my blessings. Love having those reminders from time to time, keeps me from turning bitter about the negative in the world!

So here's a quick read for you guys - a day or two at most, I'd say. And written in this century! Yeah ... told ya I switch it up here and there... my books are like my taste in music, a good story is a good story regardless of when it was written - same with my favorite songs. Admittedly, most of my favorite books were written in eras long before my own, but I'm neither so jaded nor so pretentious as to say nothing good has come out of recent literature :-D

So here we go...

This is a memoir of sorts written by blogger Julie Powell, who at the time of writing, was working as a secretary for a 9/11 government agency in New York City. She makes it clear in the book that she is limited about how much she can talk about her employer, as far as specifics, but that much she does divulge. She's not all that satisfied with her job (who hasn't been there!), lamenting her dissatisfaction to her husband. She goes on about the grief of turning 30 and wondering where her life's going, trying to figure out what her real goals in life are. His response is an idea to take her love of cooking and Julia Child and make a blog out of it. Julie then runs with the idea and decides to start a year-long project in which she cooks her way through all the recipes in Child's Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, blogging about her results. The book turns out to be more about what Julie learns about herself in the process than the recipes themselves, which is often how I find my projects going - starting on a straight and clear path and getting tangled up in a labyrinth of ideas (and not minding the trip at all, usually).  

A few years ago, if you were reading or writing blogs, it was hard not to hear about this book. I had heard of it but wasn't sure I was all that interested in it. Beauty in culinary arts for me is cooking when it's close to its roots. I don't get giddy over fancy sauces {the one exception to this being my love of beautifully prepared and plated Eggs Benedict lol}, I don't need intricately prepared meats. I will try most anything once but having tried it I pretty much just check it off mentally and wrap it up with a "yeah, not bad" or a "okay, lesson learned - not for me!". I love simple pastas with bare-bones sauces, rustic bread and a good cheese, a plate of fruits and veggies fresh out of the garden, meats that are flavorful because they were seasoned nicely and then cooked slowly but simply, not because they're drowned in a mushroom sauce or something. I guess it's mainly a need for me to be able to really discern individual flavors within a dish. Many of the recipes in the book seem heavy and outdated to me -- and Powell admits as much herself. But she seems to get a kick out of the richness and extensive preparation of these dishes. Nothing wrong with that, just a matter of preference. 

Honestly I didn't give much thought to the book at all until I saw the movie. I'm curious though, Powell mentions at one point trying to coordinate meeting up with her family at a Stanley Tucci theater performance, is it just a coincidence that he portrayed Paul Child in the film or was he thought of for the role because of this book? Hmm. I thought Amy Adams was adorable as Julie Powell, and of course Meryl Streep as Julia Child was amazing. I love people and characters who admit and embrace flaws or weaknesses and just work them in as an essential part of their personalities. I don't always have the strength to do that myself but it's always admirable to see and aspire to. So I imagined that if the real Julie Powell was anywhere as entertaining as Adams' portrayal onscreen, then I was in for a great read. Well... hmm. Weird to say but I have to admit that Julie Powell in her own voice -- not as interesting. Still entertaining, but I give this one to Amy Adams. That'll probably irk hardcore Powell followers who read this but hey, I'm entitled to my opinion as much as the next person. 

The book is a fun read, there is a good deal of profanity, which even Powell admits to herself. I'll admit heavy profanity in books is distracting for me, but I didn't chuck the book in disgust or anything. I do think profanity serves a purpose in times when no other words will do, but for me over-cursing is as bad as over-seasoning. But Julie's observations on food and cooking, and her life in general, still made me want to hear her out. I related to her revealing that she suffers from Fibrocystic Breast Disorder (or Disease/"Changes"/Condition -- whichever term you want to go with) which I have myself. People who don't have this condition, even some in the medical community, love to say that there are no real symptoms and they love to gloss it over with the word "benign". The truth is many women, myself included, live with intense pain in the breast and chest area every day. It's hard to do at home exams because with this condition, everything feels lumpy. You're told that having the condition is not a guarantee that you'll get breast cancer, but you're haunted by the thought that something might be hiding in there that won't be caught in time. Each breast exam after diagnosis now has me holding my breath and saying a prayer that everything is still okay. Oh yeah, and part of the recommended treatment is cutting out or cutting back caffeine and rich foods to next to nothing :-S. It seems to be one of those things in the Merck Manual that little is known about, leaving many to wonder "is it a real issue?". Well, just like those who suffer from things like Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and get that question .. yes.. it really does exist and yes there really are physical symptoms. I know. I deal with them every day. That's my two bits on that. Off my soapbox. Back to the book.. 

 I love that she describes her cat as "rubenesque" and find it disturbing that she calls her blog readers "bleaders"... just the visceral visual...blek. It was funny to read of her love of Jason Bateman and I can understand her fascination with David Straitharn... there is something compelling about that guy when he's onscreen!

 ** Sidenote: Julia Child died shortly after Julie's blog initially started gaining fame, here is a statement made by Child's own editor, Judith Jones:

Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn't attractive, to me or Julia. She didn't want to endorse it. What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt. She would never really describe the end results, how delicious it was, and what she learned.
Never really describe the end results? Tastes, and what she learned? I thought that's exactly what she was doing. She'd describe when it worked, when it obviously didn't, the rush of endorphins when something came out blissfully perfect in taste, and what she was learning about herself. I don't think Powell was setting out to learn how to be a gourmet chef, I think she just thought of an idea and wanted to see if she could pull it off. I'm not sure if this claim from the editor was based off of what Julia and her editor were hearing via word of mouth or if they themselves were actually following Julie's work. 

I do want to give props to Julie for making one of the best comments about doing call center work - I did this kind of work for years and texting / IMing my husband and friends was one of the few things that kept me sane during some of those calls. You know those people that you meet sometimes, who are so god awful rude to you that it makes you wonder to yourself what kind of hell their spouses must be in? Yeah, those are the kind of people that make "Customer Service Rep" such a soul-crushing position:

You cannot imagine how it eases the suffering of serving a mind-numbing public, when you can snidely judge said public via IM at the same time. 
 She also makes a good point about cooking, something that may have something to do with why I am so detail oriented and experimental when trying new dishes out on my more-than-happy-to-be-your-kitchen-guinea-pig husband:

There is something intensely erotic in making elaborate, nearly impossible food for someone you'd like to have sex with... Then later, regarding Martha Stewart: Unfortunately, Martha's recipes, though suitably complex, fall short if you're looking for aphrodisiac cooking, only because everything about a Martha Stewart recipe, from the font it's printed in to the call for sanding sugar with appended notes on where to find such a thing simply screams Martha. Wildcat though she may be in bed, for all I know, Martha just isn't someone you necessarily want in your head when you want to seduce someone.

I did like the homage Julie makes to her idol towards the end while visiting Julia's kitchen exhibit at the museum, very sweet and touching. I do wish that there had actually been more of Julia Child infused into the story than there actually was though.

From the reviews I've read elsewhere regarding this book, some really came down hard on Powell. She was called bratty, spoiled, caught up in the fame. And I could see that in this book. It was hard to hear her whine about not being able to find a certain food delicacy in some specialty market or having to kill multiple lobsters and all that when my husband and I struggle to keep basics in the cupboards. The fact that she could run off to Austin,TX to mom's house whenever she needed a break from NYC, when my last real vacation was more than 4 years ago... and she did seem kinda brutal to her husband sometimes (but then when she mentions her husband choosing to watch CNN over wanting nook nook time with her -- he's not blameless either) but I don't know.. it wasn't all that bad. I look at it as luck and blessings and being at the right place at the right time, all that stuff hits different people at different times. And I don't know the details. Maybe she glossed over some stuff. But that's her business. Many bloggers I've read were angered to find out that her second book discusses how the fame of this book did do some damage on her relationship with her husband and both ended up having affairs. I don't have any tolerance for screwing around in my own relationship but I can't speak for them. That's their business, their choices. Some of what I read in Julie and Julia regarding their relationship made me wonder if extramarital business would come into play later so I wasn't exactly shocked but I've also read that the two seemed to have worked out their troubles and are stronger now so kudos to them. 

If I was going to follow Julia down this rabbit hole, I was going to enjoy it, by God -- exhaustion, crustacean murder and all. Because not everybody gets a rabbit hole. I was one lucky bastard, when you came down to it.  ~~ Julie Powell

 episode from Julia Child's cooking show