I saw the movie “Julie & Julia” a couple of weeks ago and after leaving the theater I was one of the gazillions of people who raced to my local bookstore to buy Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes I and II. Sadly, the books were sold out and no wonder. Following the film’s release, moviegoers catapulted the tomes to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list.
On the surface, Julie & Julia appears to be about cooking, but when you boil it down it’s also about literature and life. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, it follows two women as they travel parallel paths in pursuit of their passion for cooking. In the 1940s, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) begins a quest to write the first French cookbook for Americans. The companion story takes place circa 2004. Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a young woman with a bad case of ennui. Her job is unfulfilling. Moreover, her life seems purposeless, which is perhaps why she never finishes anything, including the Great American Novel that lies fallow in her desk drawer. Only cooking and presumably her hunky husband incite her passion. To break out of her languor, she decides to make all of the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days and to write a daily blog about her experiences.
I understand Julie’s admiration for Julia Child whose book The Way to Cook is my kitchen bible. The pages are dog-eared and butter-stained. Post-it notes wag like happy little tongues from dozens of my favorite dishes. Every recipe I have made from the book is perfection. Better yet, even though my guests know the boeuf Bourguignon is Julia’s creation, they still give me the credit.
Critics disagree about the merits of the film. I liked it because I came away with more than a pleasurable evening and a renewed interest in cooking. There are lessons to learn from a story about people pursuing a seemingly insurmountable goal, with meager chance of financial success, for only one reason: passion. One could say the same thing about the writer’s journey and the love of story-telling.
People who take creative risks face emotional ups-and-downs. That’s a given. In the film, what is telling is the contrast between the two women’s reaction to failure. The filmmakers portray Julie as insecure and self-absorbed, often collapsing into tears like a deflated soufflé, while Julia mostly maintains her indefatigable sense of humor. For example, when Julia learns that her publisher has rejected the book she’s labored over for eight years, she is understandably disappointed but instead of crying in her trout meunière, she says: “Eight years of my life. It just turned out to be something to do, so I wouldn’t have nothing to do. Oh well, boo-hoo. Now what?”
During all the years I’ve been cooking with Julia, I only had one Julie “meltdown,” which occurred during the making of a caramel veil for a Bûche de Noël intended as the pièce de rèsistance to what I hoped would be a spectacular Christmas dinner. For the uninitiated, transforming sugar into threads of stiff caramel sounds simple but that was not this cook’s experience. As it turned out, the Bûche was delicious even without a perfect veil but that’s another story. As I recall, instead of saying Boo-hoo; What’s next? I screamed I AM A TOTAL FAILURE. HOW CAN ANYBODY LOVE ME NOW?
Sometimes I feel that way about my writing, too. Even though I want to face life with Julia’s plucky optimism, it’s easy to fall prey to Julie’s weepy insecurity, which is why I have to constantly remind myself of that old saw: Attitude is everything. Pick a good one.
Happy Monday and bon appétit!