Friday, August 14, 2009

The Julie/Julia Project: Two Characters Unequally Matched

Photo: Julia Child's Cambridge kitchen, on display at the Smithsonian..

In the movie, the Julie/Julia Project, the richness of Julia Child's life experience, relationships, and accomplishments (especially in Paris) contrasts sharply with the poverty of blogger Julie Powell's life, friendships, and ambitions in Queens and Manhattan.

The plot: Julie Powell creates a blog describing her self-imposed task of cooking all the recipes in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. Powell's ups and downs are portrayed by screenwriter Nora Ephron against the story of how Julia Child came to learn French cooking and write and publish that cookbook, as described in Child's autobiography, My Life in France.

The contrast the movie reveals between Julie and Julia is sort of like holding up a painting by a modern artist who never learned to draw against a masterpiece from an old master.

Don't get me wrong. I recommend the movie, with an additional caveat about the sexual situations and some foul language, some of it quoted from Julia Child herself. The sex is married sex, but still. The movie illustrates very clearly the link between the sensuality of food and that of sex.

Forty years ago, I watched all the PBS shows of the French Chef. At that time, the French were correctly if not charitably carping that Julia Child was not a real working chef. As Child admitted, she was a home cook and taught home cooking. She inspired me partly by her ineptness, actually. When I saw the lumpy buche de noel (Yule log cake) with the misshapen meringue mushroooms Child created in one show, I thought to myself, Hey! Even I can do that!

I started watching her show on PBS in Boston, continued when we moved to San Francisco and then when we lived in the prairie in Northern Minnesota up near Fargo. I still remember one midday when I carried a big steaming pot of garlic soup that I made from a recipe in Child's French Chef cookbook to a Freaky Foods Club meeting in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco.

The movie reminded me of my great affection for Julia Child. She was a bright original spirit, her cook books are very good, and her shows were entertaining and belied the impressive amount of work that she and her husband and many assistants did to prepare behind the scenes.

I also became acquainted with the Julie/Julia Project blog before it was famous, and I just now finished taking another look at the blogger's final posts. I have to say I can't abide its angry, mean, fairly superficial and not to mention expletive ridden and blasphemous writing. (When she hinted there would be an addition to the family [which turned out to be a dog], she wrote, "No, not a baby. J***s!) What does that say about her in contrast to Julia Child's tears and great sadness in the movie about the children she wanted but could not have?

I have to agree with Julia Chld's reaction to the blog: she said it was a stunt and that the writer was shallow and wasn't a serious cook.

One thing that is patently absurd is that in the movie Powell set herself a year's deadline for cooking all the recipes and then wailed that if she missed it she would have wasted a year. Huh? There was nothing to lose if she missed the deadline, nothing at all. It was inspiring to me that she got a book contract and a movie out of her blog, but was what she wrote actually worth all that? And her reported conversations with her imaginary friend Julia Child while she cooked seemed pretty absurd too.

The actor portraying Julie's husband has some tough lines to read when trying to console Julie after a reporter told her what Julia Child thouught of the blog. The husband speaks a psychobabbly bit about how the Julia Child that Julie has in her head is a different person from the Julia Child who doesn't appreciate the blog. And that somehow consoles the Julie character.

To tell the truth, I wonder if all the gourmandizing that Julia Child unleashed was altogether good for American culture. You cannot make a simple salad these days without a mix of six lettuces (with the mandatory arugila) in the circles I run in. My work cafeteria has all kinds of what I call yuppy food, when I'd like to sometimes go in at lunchtime and pick up a regular old low priced sandwich, with maybe romaine or curly leaf lettuce. Cooks these days don't seem to realize that good food can be made and enjoyed without expensive ingredients like varieties of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar. Even good, traditional, priests who are Facebook friends are sending tweets (from Twitter) about their gourmandizing and wine bibbing.

Excessive preoccupation with food, even excellent well-prepared food, and with other aspects of what is called good living is just as bad as any addiction. What have we come to with a TV channel totally dedicated to Foodie-ism? I have to admit I'm delighted that American cooking is no longer only packaged mixes, Wonder Bread, and convenience foods of all kinds. But food is not the meaning of life.

As St. Paul said, "The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." (Romans 14:17). And in Phillipians 3: 18, 19, St. Paul wrote that those who make their bellies their god are actually enemies of the Cross.

"For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their shame. Their minds are occupied with earthly things."

The true focus of our lives should be what St. Paul writes about in the next two verses (20 and 21):

"But our citizenship 13 is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.."

Great cooking, Parisian living, cooking shows, book contracts, fame, and fortune, all are intensely attractive. But as St. Paul tells us, our minds must be on heavenly things, we should be busy while waiting our savior, and we need to be humbly subjected to Christ. Ever hear of a saint who insisted on extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar on his mixed Spring greens? Me neither.

Aside from all this, in the face of Julie and Julia's atheism, I am sad, and all I can do in the face of that sorrow is pray for their souls.
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