Julia on Julie
Thursday, January 16, 2014
I know I’m four years late to the party on this, but I’m writing a post anyway. Because … well, I don’t know why. Just because.
I am here to put to rest, once and for all, the burning question of Why Did Julia Child Not Like Julie Powell’s Project?
There is a scene in the movie Julie & Julia where Julie receives a call from a reporter who tells her that Julia Child was not impressed by her project, and wondering if she has any comment about that. Julie is distraught by this. This scene is taken from the Julie & Julia book, which I read last month. I am up to July on the blog and have not yet come across any mention of this event in the blog itself.
There is a very long thread about it on Chowhound.
This is what Julie Powell herself said about it in a 2009 blog post:
A lot of people have been asking whether it’s true that Julia Child wasn’t a big fan of Julie Powell, and whether she and I really didn’t meet. Both of those things are true – Julia, I think, from what I gather, was less irritated than simply uninterested. Which, when I first found out, was of course devastating. But the thing about Julia, to me, was that she was a real person – a great 6-foot-2 force of nature, with tremendous gifts, nearly limitless energy and generosity, firm opinions, and even a few flaws. That’s what I love about her – she inspired because she was a woman, not a saint. Not to say that her not loving my blog was a flaw. I just mean that the fact that she might not for whatever reason adore me as much as I adore her has absolutely no bearing on what is wonderful about her. Throughout her life, Julia nurtured and encouraged and gave great help to chefs and writers both. And she changed my life. No matter what she – or anyone else, for that matter – thought of the project. I know why I did what I did, and I am proud that I spent a year writing and cooking in tribute to one the most wonderful women I’ve ever not met.
There is a post by Russ Parsons, food writer with the Los Angeles Times, who was friendly with Julia Child and saw her regularly after she retired to Santa Barbara, describing how he brought the blog to Julia’s attention, printing out everything Julie Powell had written to that point (he doesn’t say at what point in the project he did this, though his article about the project was written in March 2003) and delivering it to her. And then when he didn’t hear back from her, following up to see what she thought.
This would appear to be the source of the scene in the book and movie, though at the same time, Russ Parsons said that Julia asked not to tell anyone her thoughts on this, and he didn’t. So not sure how to reconcile that.
At any rate, in the 2009 blog post, Parsons does say that he was “right there in the middle” of this event, and says that Julia Child replied thus, when asked what she thought of Julie Powell’s project:
There was a silence as she gathered her thoughts. Then in that familiar reedy voice she nailed the answer: “Well,” she said, “she just doesn’t seem very serious, does she?”
“I worked very hard on that book. I tested and retested those recipes for eight years so that everybody could cook them. And many, many people have. I don’t understand how she could have problems with them. She just must not be much of a cook.”
She asked me not to quote her, and after thinking it over, I didn’t, choosing a valued friendship over a couple of juicy paragraphs in a story. I’m still not sure it was the right call, but there you have it.
So that solves part of the mystery of Julia’s dis: professional pride.
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knew her well. One of the marvelous things about Julia Child was that even with all of the honors she had earned, she still approached her work with the earnestness (and competitiveness) of a beginner.
However after reading the books As Always, Julia and Julia Child: A Life, I think that’s an odd interpretation of Julia’s statement.
For one thing, it feels surprising to me that Julia would say that she can’t see how someone could have problems with the recipes because they had been tested so thoroughly. Julia did not sail through life effortlessly putting elaborate meals on the table. She struggled to learn to cook and worked and worked at it, experiencing many a failure along the way. In Julia Child: A Life, Laura Shapiro gives us this quote, taken from an episode of The French Chef:
“Cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn,” she told the audience while she stirred the caramel. “You’ve got to have what the French call ‘je m’enfoutisme,’ or ‘I don’t care what happens — the sky can fall and omelets can go all over the stove, I’m going to learn.'”
Perhaps she had forgotten all of this by the time she was 91, or perhaps there was some interpretation on Russ Parsons part, writing a blog post six years after a conversation that he says he didn’t tell anyone about at the time. I don’t know. But it struck me as odd.
Also I think calling Julia’s comment a “dis” of Julie Powell doesn’t seem quite right either, and I don’t see how her “professional pride” could possibly have been touched at all by what Julie Powell was doing. As Julie notes, it wasn’t so much that Julia didn’t like the project, but that she wasn’t interested in it.
But more important is the question of what Julia’s most direct statement means — “She just doesn’t seem to be serious, does she?” — which it seems to me Russ Parsons misses the boat on entirely.
Laura Shapiro, in Julia Child: A Life, talks about Julia’s beliefs about French cooking specifically, and cooking in general.
“People are always saying WHAT MAKES FRENCH COOKING SO DIFFERENT FROM OTHER NATIONS’ COOKING?” she reflected in a letter to Simca [Simone Beck], and she set down four principles that struck her as definitive.
–Serious interest in food and its preparation
–Tradition of good cooking … which forms French tastes from youth
–Enjoyment of cooking for its own sake — LOVE
–Willingness to take the few extra minutes to be sure things are done as they should be done
Her highest praise was the word serious — the very first word that came to her fingertips when she started to type these principles. A “serious” cook, to Julia, was a careful, mindful, thoroughly knowledgeable cook, whose pleasure you could taste in the food….
And at the opposite end of the spectrum from the serious cook was the dark angel who hovered over the last principle in the list, the cook who refused to put in those extra minutes it took to reach perfection. This cook — male or female, French or American, famous name or anonymous homebody — was fatally associated with the term housewife. Julia never did recover from her early, bruising experiences with that word, and she consistently refused to be associated with such creatures. As she put it many times over the years, whenever the subject of housewives came up, “We are aiming at PEOPLE WHO LIKE TO COOK.” Yes, supermarket ingredients could be transformed into authentic French dishes, but not without two ingredients for which there were no substitutes, and Julia named them often: time and love.
If you actually read Julie Powell’s blog — which is very different from the movie, and much better than the book — she ultimately did learn a lot about cooking while doing the project. But I can see how someone reading through a print-out of the blog that a reporter dropped off might not see that.
Much of the blog centers around dealing with life in New York, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, working at a job you don’t like, and drinking vodka gimlets. And sometimes successfully getting a meal on the table, and sometimes doing things half-assed because you don’t have the right ingredients or don’t have the time to do it the way you’re supposed to. But you have a deadline, so you just have to keep moving, and you make the recipe anyway.
When Julia Child says that Julie Powell doesn’t seem “serious,” she means it in exactly the way that Laura Shapiro describes. Because Julie Powell is cooking all of the recipes in the book in a single year, while working a full-time job. She often does not have the time or energy needed to focus properly on the recipe at hand and make sure it comes out right. To Julia, this means that Julie is not a serious cook. And it would be hard to argue with her on that.
However, in Julie Powell’s defense, I will say that buried within the stories about bad housekeeping and difficult bosses and crappy apartments and vodka gimlets, are also stories about how much she has learned as a cook.
Julia was teaching people to use their senses when they cooked, because she thought the senses belonged in every well-run kitchen, like good knives. There was no better instrument in the service of accuracy than an attentive cook who was watching and smelling and tasting. Monitoring the progress of a syrup for candied orange peel, she made a point of listening for the “boiling sound” coming from the mixture. You can use a thermometer here, she told viewers, “but I think it’s a good thing to see and feel how it is.”
And that is exactly what Julie Powell did:
The kind of thing I really am learning from J.C. is about really paying attention to the food as it cooks. Instead of depending just on time or heat, she instructs me, for instance, to watch for “a little pearling of red juice beginning to ooze at the surface of the steak”….
You know what? She’s right. Those things really happen, and when I pay attention and my attentions result in a perfect medium-rare steak, I feel like I’m really beginning to cook.
And I think if Julia could have seen that in the print-out of the blog she was given, she would have liked it. And Julie Powell knew that, which is why she was ultimately able to take the report of Julia’s lack of interest in her project in stride, as much as it might have pained her when she first learned about it. Because she knew she was learning from Julia, and she was becoming a serious cook. And that is all that mattered.