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Uneasy fusion: cooking, then and now

I don’t know if I’m looking forward to this Friday’s release of the movie Julie & Julia or not. I’ve read both of the books it’s based on and liked them both, and I’ve been an avid fan of Julia Child as a person if not as a chef since I was four years old (this was 1968 or so) and the only one in my family to watch her show to see her cook rather than to laugh at her voice. Even then I recognized how sure-handed and direct she was. When she cooked, cooking was a skill, an honorable and challenging form of work. There was nothing domestic or dopey about it.

Julie Powell, in her recent blog-based book on taking Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a personal mission, rediscovered how serious Child was. As she found out the hard way, learning to cook as thoroughly as Child did is like learning to be a Zen master or a swordsmith. And yet it’s not beyond you to do, as long as you’re willing to do the hard work.

I also, oddly enough, read one of Nora Ephron’s early books, Crazy Salad–-this was back in the early 1970s, the days of the ERA and Billie Jean King–-from the far corner of my parents’ bookshelves, and unbeknownst to them. The essays in it, which skewered everything misogynistic in society from porn to politics (and memorably specified the difference between liberal and libertine) were particularly inspiring to a word-hungry 10-year-old looking toward feminism from the sidelines of childhood. The attitude, if not the material, seems to fit both of Ephron’s ambitious subjects in Julie & Julia, the movie.

I’m just not sure it all belongs in a movie, particularly not one that boils two gritty memoirs down into something of a chick flick, as this is being advertised. Or one with a movie star like Meryl Streep, whose undoubted talent is, as with most female movie stars, still forced to subordinate to her looks. Wig or no wig, when it’s her on the screen, you never completely forget you’re watching Meryl Streep. It’s not her fault, but I don’t know if I want to see her standing in for someone as vivid as the real Julia Child.

Amy Adams is almost certainly going to be cuter, younger and a lot simpler than the real Powell, who is currently working on a book about a 6-month stint she did learning the butcher’s trade in the wake of her first book’s success. Julie Powell is young but older-–we hope also somewhat wiser–-than when she started her blog. She can represent herself–-very interestingly, in a longish interview on Borders Media and elsewhere–-in contrast to the movie adaptation of her, which she seems not to mind.

Both Child’s book and Powell’s are now being reissued with covers showing scenes from the movie with pictures of Streep and Amy Adams as Child and Powell, rather than Child and Powell themselves. It’s what all the major publishers do when they ink a movie deal. I don’t know why it bothers me so much, but it seems fundamentally creepy for autobiographical works to supplant the author–the actual author–with an actor.

Beyond the chick-flick reservations, I wonder how the two memoirs are likely to mesh onscreen. My Life in France is ultimately a more important book than Julie & Julia. It’s centered less on food–-and “food porn”–-than on history, and less centered on self than on the outside world. And Child was eminent even before her cooking career in ways that Powell probably won’t get to be, if she’s lucky.

Julia Child, who belonged to my grandparents’ generation, describes day-to-day life in Paris right after World War II in a way American generations since have not  experienced. It’s an unsentimental and un-chickish view of how things really were on the ground before Europe had a chance to rebuild. Child calls up a memory of ordinary people–not fashionable, not attractive, just neighborhood people–who simply got used to passing piles of rubble that only a year or so before had been familiar buildings, and she observes the grinding postwar poverty in the city that she, like us, probably grew up romanticizing in her mind. It’s a fascinating context in which to discover a love of good food and the tenacity to learn everything about it.

Child’s sometimes raw sense of humor and her frankness about the conditions of postwar Europe are backed by years of experience working in the intelligence service during the war. It’s something she doesn’t really discuss in the book, but which was detailed at some length in an earlier authorized biography, Appetite for Life, by Noel Riley Fitch. She and Paul met while working for the OSS in Ceylon, where she developed a complex, database-like filing system for cross-referencing intelligence reports. The couple were transferred, flown over the hump (the Himalayas), to Kunming, China, where they became part of a field intelligence team that advised against the U.S. hastening to take sides between Mao Tse Tung and Chiang Kai Shek, both of whom were essentially regional warlords. That advice was disregarded by the hawks advising Truman, and many OSS members, Paul among them, were later persecuted and blacklisted under McCarthyism as the new rival CIA sought to supplant and discredit them.

Child, whose more public masterwork remains on a lot of kitchen shelves but largely untested because it does call for actual work, was not a glamorous person like Streep has to be. She was a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-speak-your-mind kind of person, and looks were not the point. Read My Life in France and you’ll find a sharp and demanding intelligence, curiosity about everyone around her, frustration at ineptitude–her own or others’–a lively sense of humor, a bone-deep but realistic regard for her husband, and something else that just transcends the physical impression she made on television audiences in America.

I hope Streep can do it–has done it. I really hope I forget it’s her when I see the movie. I really hope Ephron has done it as well, and that the movie trailers that smell of chick flick cha-ching aren’t the best scenes. I want the movie to live up to both of the books, and I’m afraid of seeing too little of either.

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