Saturday, August 06, 2011
Books: “Julie and Julia” - Julie Powell 
The concept of the book is probably by now familiar: a New York secretary decides to work her way through the Julie Child cookbook and make every recipe in it over the course of a year. Now I can certainly relate to the obsessive and completionist concept here. It’s just the sort of thing I might undertake and then get bored with. So we’re starting out at a point of relative commonality but much like our sunbathing pachyderm’s distended swimming gear, the idea that was intriguing in paragraph form becomes trite and redundant by the time one’s reading has progressed much at all.
Despite the unnecessary prolixity of the novel, there were some reasonable cultural and psychological points that bear discussion. I’m not convinced that any of these were really among the items the author intended to invoke in her readers, but they did come unbidden to mind for me at least. Let’s enumerate in no particular order.
At one point she tells the story of a call she received at work from a “black woman who runs an S&M dungeon.” This in itself isn’t unusual but she goes on to say that her dear husband is the only one with whom she could ever share such a story and have hopes that it would be appreciated properly. This I found a bit perplexing. It’s been my experience that just about EVERYONE appreciates a story of this ilk. The odd and unusual are the meat and drink of many, many people so the value of a story like this one is not to be diminished. What is it that makes her think her husband unique in his appreciation? Is she simply trying to find reasons to heap adulation on him or trying stealthily to criticize the rest of humanity for its narrowness of mind? It does seem that much of the book is intended as a vehicle for placing her husband on a pedestal.
In a similar vein, the protagonist is keenly aware of political divisions in those around her to the point of bigotry. She refers to “the Republicans” as if they were a troupe of scabrous lepers banging their tin cups on her cubical wall. Her attitude is very much one of of good-guy Democrats versus those ignorant Republicans and if one has the audacity to disagree with her then, as she might say, “fuck them.” Those who disagree with her might as well not even exist. This attitude becomes decidedly apropos at the climax of the novel when it’s found that her beloved Julia Child does not, in fact, like her or what she’s done. This leaves her between her previous state of admiration and an obligatory, “you don’t agree with me so fuck off.”
Moving on, I was reminded of one of my larger pet peeves when the protagonist put a ‘Donate’ widget on her blog page. Why is it that society thinks everything of value must be paid for? At what point in this country did we become so wrapped up in materialism and amassing wealth that doing something simply for the public good and entertainment was relegated solely to low-grade criminals doing “community service” and those too addled to know any better? Did the author entertain some people? Yes. Did the author inspire some people to cook? Yes. Does that make it appropriate for her to rattle her tin cup in front of the masses asking for donations? No. Call me communist if you want, but sometimes the best things are free. If you’re constantly looking to make a buck then it’s likely that’s all you’ll make.
OK, now for some palate cleansing before we close. Now that I’ve romped incessantly to the negative, weren’t there some positive aspects here? Most certainly the author’s dedication to a project, and a non-trivial one at that, are to be admired. The body of work required to actually cook that much and that consistently is nothing to be sneezed at. This is especially telling considering the apparently far-too-carnivorous nature of the French diet at the time. The amount of animal flesh and butter products used during the course of a single year must have rivaled that of some healthier restaurants during the same time period. Personally I would have found Eastern cooking for more palatable (and survivable).
Lastly, if the author’s characterization is to be believed, the book does serve to underscore the importance of Child’s seminal works on cooking. Making European cooking accessible (and entertaining) to hoards of US housewives probably contributed at least somewhat to the explosion of dietary diversity we see in America today. To be clear, I’m not claiming familiarity with the history of cuisine in this country over the past 50 years but it would not be surprising if the popularity of French, Thai, Greek, Chinese and a hundred other ethnic food genres owes at least some debt of gratitude to Child’s work in making those exotic French foods seem much less exotic.