“Julia was a force of nature. The essence of what Julia taught me is how to live in a different way.Nothing is impossible.Confront your fears, acknowledge them, and carry on.”
When Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams in the movie Julie and Julia, started her blog in 2002 from her Queens apartment overlooking a pizza shop, it was with her husband’s encouragement and technical support. With only a half-finished novel to her credit, Julie lamented to her husband Eric (played by Chris Messina) that she couldn’t call herself a writer unless a publisher published her.
“No,” Eric called out from the sofa, “You are a writer.”
As Julie cooks and blogs her way through all 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child (and co-authors Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle), Eric’s gift to his wife empowered her to grow as a writer. The deeper wrestling in their relationship that ensues ultimately helps each to be more fearless and more human.
The movie progresses almost as if the young Powells were being mentored by Julia and Paul Child, played most delightfully and affectionately by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci. When Knopf finally accepted Child’s 752-page manuscript after it had been rejected elsewhere, Julia Child is said to have exclaimed, “Oh Paul, they are printing our book.”
It’s a simple statement, with only a sliver of difference between “my book” and “our book.” But such a nuance is as crucial to marriage as warming the bowl is to making splendid mayonnaise. A true marriage is different from a “relationship” in its essentials. Marriage is about two equals, each delighting in the other’s gifts without expecting praise in return, freely participating in one another’s successes and coming to terms with failures, without demanding reciprocation, and promising to love and support each other’s current and future identities. Successful marriages creatively tell “the Story of Us.”
Among this summer’s plethora of movies about relationships, such as (500) Days of Summer (a sort of a Nora Ephron movie wannabe) and Paper Heart, how rare and refreshing it is to see one about two successful marriages, spanning the gap of time from post-WWII Paris to post-9/11 New York. With so many cultural products that seem never to question the narcissism of our desires, and which accept ephemeral relationships and failed attempts at long-term relationships as the cultural norm, it is remarkable to see one in which a young wife, the character Julie, recognizes her narcissism, turns from it, and grows beyond it, with her husband at her side, and with Julia Child’s cookbook as a manual.
In all fairness to the entertainment industry, one explanation for the rarity of storytelling about successful marriage could be the difficulty of portraying it as intriguing or exciting. In real life, successfully married couples may be considered somewhat boring, and the same old cycle of dating and breakups may seem to be more dramatic. But as Julie and Julia portrays, good marriages are full of tension and comedy; good marriages act as the salt of the earth, preserving what is good, pure, and beautiful, becoming as fascinating for the next generation to observe as Julia Child’s kitchen, displayed in the Smithsonian, is to a devoted cook and foodie.
Julie and Julia is also about the creative birth pangs toward a new cultural reality, as two determined women make their voices heard from a place of exile to a world that may or may not be ready to hear them. Two voices: one directed toward American housewives from post-war Europe, and the other toward the empty echoes of cyberspace in post 9/11 New York. The art of cooking provided shelter for both women, one amidst the despair of a bureaucratic nightmare at Ground Zero, and the other sharing the deep grief of Parisians as she walked their streets once destroyed by Nazis.
As Julia cooked, she also aimed to create a home for her husband, fighting against the shadows of McCarthyism casting suspicion upon anything foreign, and willing to destroy people’s careers and reputations in the name of patriotism. The word “homemaking” may be old-fashioned, but Julia’s cooking was the only constant, a true home, as they bounced around in various State Department posts. The aroma from her kitchen was an antidote to the toxins of the broken world – a generative reality that pointed to the world that ought to be.
Thus when 20th century American women tried French cooking in places as far away as Texas, they, too, were embarking on a journey of healing and an exploration of a new world. As Julie blogged her way out of her despair of Ground Zero, she, too, gave permission, a voice to others feeling unheard and lost, and invited her friends to join in the feast.
We are reminded by Julie and Julia, though, that before these women had the courage to speak, write, and to create, they were fortunate to have their own husbands as their listening partners. Julie and Julia is more than the hilarious scenes of conquering lobsters (“lobster killers!”) or successfully boning a duck; this rich gastronomical journey captures two husbands who willingly took on supportive roles to their sometimes prickly spouses – husbands who stood ready to eat, dance, and make love. In doing so, they gave a much larger gift of “our” art of cooking, and “our” art of life, back to the fragmented and confused world.