Tuesday, August 11, 2009


We have the story of two women, both adrift. One arrives in postwar Paris the wife of a mid-level embassy official, unable to bear children, with nothing to do. One works as a mid-level bureaucrat in post-9/11 Manhattan and has awakened to find her life somehow less than she had imagined, back in college, it would be. Both women aspire to control events, but both feel instead that events are controlling them. How does such a woman save her soul, save herself?

On the surface, the answer Julie and Julia serves up would appear to be cooking. Julia Child studies at Le Cordon Bleu and reinvents herself by learning to cook; Julie Powell decides to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking and invents a life for herself far away from the cubicle she inhabits eight hours each day. Ephron's film is in many ways a celebration of the preparation and consumption of food, of excess. Julie and Julia are both perpetually hungry, and both set about sating that hunger. Be sure to eat before you see the movie, because it's filled with food porn. Julie and Julia's hunger is also carnal, and both enjoy sex as much as lobster thermidor. It's easy to leave the theater believing that satisfaction of one's primal, physical needs leads to spiritual fulfillment.

It wasn't cooking or eating or even sex that gave definition and direction to either life, though. Julia Child became Julia Child not because she learned how to cook but because she learned how to write about it, and Julie Powell became the subject of a movie not because she spent a year cooking her way through Child but because she wrote about it. Neither of these women became chefs; both became writers.

The act of writing is a very literal way to control events. To author something is to be its god, its originator. Think of the etymology of "author" and this becomes evident: authority, authoritarian, authoritative. Child didn't write just any text but a book of recipes, of instructions. A cookbook is, very simply, a way of controlling and shaping experience; a recipe is a set of specific instructions that tames the chaos of the kitchen, that turns alchemy into procedure. A cookbook is a structure. Deciding to cook every recipe in a book in 365 days is also a structure, and by taking on that project and writing about it Powell was, powerfully, authoring her own life. This was Child's penultimate recipe: words will set you free, wield words and you can invent yourself.

Writing is a large part of the movie, but of course it's much less visual than food, and because it's not a communal activity but is instead solitary it's not the stuff of either comedy or drama. But if you see the film look carefully and you'll see the way writing is central. Child is continually at her typewriter, composing letters and then her book; Powell is continually either at her computer or reading from Child's letters. In the end, words are more powerful than even aspic, and in the end this is not a story about some people who like to eat but instead a story of two women who hunger for so much more than a properly prepared meal.

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