I don’t remember the first time I watched the movie Julia and Julia. This is not surprising considering the number of times I’ve watched it — often while sipping gimlets or a few glasses of Merlot. The movie, which came out in 2009, is an adaptation written by Nora Ephron of Julie Powell’s book, which was a combination of her blog about cooking her way through both Mastering the Art of French Cooking and My Life in France, by Julia Child.
I’ve tried to reason with my obsession with this movie, to explain what about it draws me in so intensely. I enrolled (briefly) in cooking classes, I learned to write. I pretend I’m being subtle when I ask a friend or family member if they remember a specific scene from it, when we both know I’ve made them watch it with me on multiple occasions. Again and again I find myself fixated on the screen, watching Julia and Paul’s blue Buick, nicknamed “The Blue Flash”, being lowered off the boat from America by a big crane, ready for them to start their new adventure in France.
* * *
I’m twenty-three when on a late afternoon in Denver a new friend and I decide to watch Julie and Julia in her apartment. After we finish the movie, she tells me that Amy Adams has a John Denver haircut and I never un-see it. We decide to cook together the next time we hang out—Boeuf Bourguignon, just like Julie makes from Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the movie. On the day we’ve arranged to cook I get up and start planning our meal. When I realize that we won’t actually have time to finish the recipe when she arrives later, I begin to have second thoughts. What if it doesn’t turn out? What if we don’t make enough? What if we’re not good enough cooks to make this?
In the middle of the recipe the dish goes in the oven for two and a half hours, so I decide to make the first half in advance on my own. A sink-full of measuring cups and spoons later, I am pulled out of a trance by the ringing of the front doorbell. My friend is here, and we realize by the time she is settled that I’ve worked my way through more like all of the recipe instead of just half. But the house smells savory and sweet, and she doesn’t mind that I’ve all but cooked dinner for us on my own. We eat and talk excitedly about the flavors: savory pearl onions, rich red wine, tender salty beef, smoky bacon, bitter carrots, and butter. When she asks what kind of beef I used, I tell her filet mignon. I assumed since the dish was French and I wanted it to be delicious, I should get the most expensive kind of beef they sold. She tells me with both shock and humor that I could have used stewing beef for a fraction of the price (and when I look it up, Julia agrees). We both slow down and devour it even more religiously after discovering this fact. We taste garlic, caramelized mushrooms, and thyme. And when we finish, I make us a chocolate soufflé courtesy of Martha Stewart, so warm and soft it’s almost a pudding. Even though it was a bit of a waste to use such a good cut of meat on stew, we still talk about it every now and then. Later, I buy Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, and read “’You never forget a beautiful thing that you have made […] after you eat it, it stays with you – always.’”
* * *
Having been so successful, if not a little misguided in regard to cuts of meat in my boeuf, I’ve decided to move on to something more challenging. I’ve discovered while watching the Food Network that there is a dish that can be set on fire. I’ve watched the chefs on TV flambé chocolate fondue, set fire to some kind of chicken dish, even torch marshmallows, and I want to light something on fire, too. Partially because, of course, it’s cool, but also because I want to taste something that has been set on fire and somehow tastes better. I search for “dish you set on fire,” and find Coq Au Vin, a recipe that happens to be in my copy of Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A quick skimming of the recipe lets me know that just like the boeuf, I will start with simmering bacon rind and then sauté it in hot butter. I dry the chicken (Julie says, “if you don’t dry meat, it won’t brown properly,” which I find is a combination of Julia’s advice in Nora’s voice.) When it’s assembled, I put my flame-colored casserole dish in the oven, and when I take it out, I do exactly as Julia says.
“Uncover and pour in the cognac,” Julia writes. I have set up a camera to record the whole thing. When I re-watch the video, I see that I combine this step with “averting your face, ignite the cognac with a lighted match.” I almost light the cognac while it’s still in the measuring cup which is still in my hand, and then sort of follow the flow down into the cast iron where nothing happens for a moment. Then, at the last second it lights, and my elbows pull my arms back and away like I’m doing the chicken dance. I quickly remember that I’m supposed to “Shake the casserole back and forth for several seconds until the flames subside.” I pick it up and start violently thrusting the pan back and forth. (I’m home alone, by the way, and the fire extinguisher isn’t exactly sitting out on the counter.) Later, the video will show that I emit a “Woohoo!” as I’m shaking it; I laugh like a maniac, and then say “Wow, oh my god I feel so cool.” When I set it back down, I say, “Oh my god that was awesome,” then bounce up and down, clap, whoop again, look directly at the camera, bow and say, “Thank you, thank you.” My version of the truth is that I was incredibly humble and felt my soul kind of emanate out of me like the wings of a dove. The one thing the two sources agree upon, however, is that afterwards I’m overjoyed.
Tim comes home from work a little early. I am ecstatic, almost bouncing as I run from the kitchen to the front door to meet him, and before he has even set down his briefcase, I am playing the video for him. And realizing—what a mistake this was!—as I watch his eyebrows raise, then his mouth drop.
Faced with the realization that I might have burned down the house that day, Tim scoots his chair closer to mine, probably thankful I’m still alive. We eat a delicious pot of seared chicken flavored with merlot and brandy, mushrooms dripping with butter, and tangy pearl onions.
The last few minutes of Nora’s movie play in the living room.
Julia’s books gaze from their place on the counter.
* * *
Another day while watching the movie, I decide to face Julie Powell’s fear and cook a live lobster. Back when I was taking writing classes at my undergraduate college, one of the first pieces I ever read was about lobsters—specifically, about the central nervous systems of lobsters and how they process pain. The short answer is: we don’t really know. But there are some generally agreed upon ways to be humane about making lobster.
I call a few places asking if they sell live lobsters, and finally a store gives me the number of a restaurant about twenty minutes away. I call ahead to reserve two and get in the car. What to bring with? A dog-kennel? I decide to just go, or I might abandon the whole idea altogether.
Inside the restaurant, while other people are peacefully enjoying their lunches, I approach the counter. A staunch woman bravely grabs my lobsters with her bare hands, one at a time—their claws already banded—and puts them into a plastic bag for me. While the little lobster legs twitch inside the bag, she runs my card. I am almost certain everyone in the restaurant is mortified; somehow, they know I’m not with the lobster rescue mission. They know I’m one of those people. A lobster killer.
Just as I turn to leave in a moment of total panic, I admit defeat and tell her, “Uh, sorry I’ve never done this before… do you have any tips?” She nods slowly, hiding a grin on her face, and tells me to keep a bag of ice on them so they stay still on the drive home, and if I’m boiling them to make sure I remove the rubber bands from the claws. If I don’t, the entire dish will taste like rubber. I drive home with them in the back of my car, one eye focused on the rearview mirror to make sure they’re not crawling up from the back seat to get me.
Once I’m home, I dig under the sink for bright yellow latex dish-washing gloves and stretch them over my hands. I pick up the lobsters with my thumb and pointer finger. The other three fingers flare out wanting nothing to do with them. I, for some reason, perhaps to prove to my future self that I really did this insane thing , decide to take selfies with the lobsters. There are three or four pictures where I have my face scrunched up like Godzilla is attacking, and the lobsters, numb from the ice, are just kind of I don’t know, glad to be taking pictures instead of boiling I suppose.
After our photo shoot and just before I name them, I read in Julia’s Mastering “A NOTE ON DEALING WITH LIVE LOBSTERS: If you object to steaming or splitting a live lobster, it may be killed almost instantly just before cooking if you plunge the point of the knife into the head between the eyes, or sever the spinal cord by making a small incision in the back of the shell at the juncture of the chest and the tail.” I lose all my nerve. I put the knife down and instead I do what Julie does in the movie; I toss them into the boiling liquid and slam the lid on. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Then I remember the rubber bands. I panic, I don’t want the entire dish to taste like rubber, not after all this! I grab the lid and take it off. I try to pick the rubber bands off the lobsters, who I notice aren’t dead yet. I pull, but the rubber bands stick to the claws, and they’re hard to grab onto with the dish gloves. I try a little harder, and the entire arm detaches from the body. “OH MY GOD I AM SO SORRY,” I say, as if it can understand me, as I scramble to finally get the rubber band off the amputated limb and then toss it back on top of the steaming lobster before doing the same with the rest. I quickly slam the lid back on, turn up the heat to max, and step back. I notice the brandy sitting next to me so I grasp around quickly for a glass before giving up and just taking a swig from the bottle—there will still be plenty for the sauce, after all. Brandy, it turns out, is delicious. I take another sip, a toast for the death of a lobster. It does the trick, maybe a little too well, and I confront Julia with my new courage. After all, she was fearless. Soooo Julia…. How long do we cook these things for? I ask, looking to her book for a response. She writes, “The lobsters are done when they are bright red, and the long head-feelers can be pulled from the sockets fairly easily.” I add on her behalf, “Pretty soon, judging from the way you pulled their arms off while they were still alive.”
Despite the fact that I am now a murderer and didn’t object to steaming a live lobster, I feel my heart lighten and my pulse quicken. I stay in the kitchen for another three hours after steaming the lobsters to make the sauce, sauté the lobster meat, and assemble the entire dish. Not once does the cooking high begin to fade.
Tim works late that night, gets stuck in traffic, so by the time he gets home, I’m just putting the finishing touches on my Lobster Thermidor. I’m a weird combination of thrilled and traumatized. I wonder what on earth I was thinking, and then we taste the first bite and the thinking stops. Buttery, savory, creamy lobster cheese casserole obliterates everything but the present. Time seems to slow and though we only eat for half an hour for a day’s worth of work in the kitchen, it’s half an hour that stays with us for weeks. Afterwards of course I’m exhausted, but again Nora and Julia keep me company in the kitchen as I clean up the dishes. I’ve started Julie and Julia over from the beginning (I know, it’s a disease. It will probably be in the DSM VI just wait), and Julie is asking her husband Eric, “You know what I love about cooking?”
Later, when I sit down to write this essay, and I search for the exact quote, it will be credited to Nora—her words: “What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing! It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure; it has a mathematical certainty in a world where those of us who long for some kind of certainty are forced to settle for crossword puzzles.”
And when the movie cuts back to Julia as I’m hand-washing my knives, I hear Meryl Streep-as-Julia: “No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize.” So, to my lobsters: Sorry, not sorry!
I’m grateful to these guiding voices that keep me company, and I want to do what they do. I consider professional cooking school.
* * *
A few months later, just as I’m about to start cooking school, we get transferred to Pennsylvania for Tim’s job, and have to move. My culinary degree is put on hold again. In Pennsylvania, I look for an alternate culinary institute, but the degrees are longer and more targeted to the restaurant industry and I feel mismatched.
Then, one summer afternoon on the drive home, Tim hears an ad on the radio for a writer’s retreat at a nearby school and suggests I go. I decide not to, with the excuse that I haven’t written anything in years, even though I know I could scrape something together. But then that fall I register for Creative Writing classes, not because I want to be a writer or make a living from writing specifically, but because I haven’t worked in six years and if I don’t take a step forward it may be another six until I get up the courage to try something new again.
The classes are challenging, but they fill up my time, and on the nights I’m home with Tim, I cook. I make all kinds of things: bread from scratch, Irish stew with Guinness Stout, barbecue mac and cheese, tostadas, buffalo chicken pizza, milk chocolate fondue, beef wellington, burgers, biscuits and gravy, deep-dish cast-iron pizza, and filet mignon with twice baked potatoes. I spend entire days in the kitchen after entire days at my desk (with naps in between) filling our life with prose and parmesan, satire and sauces, humor and hotdogs.
* * *
On summer vacation, I return to Colorado and spend a weekend in Keystone with a teacher friend and a poet friend. We sip on sparkly cocktails and mocktails and discuss publishing, teaching, writing, and passion. In the afternoon sunsets that stage-light us in the living room, I realize that to be surrounded by people who both inspire and challenge is a rare blessing. And so, I can think of only one thing to honor the three of us. The next day I put on Julie and Julia, get out the ingredients for Chicken with Mushrooms in a Wine and Cream Sauce, and I make us the simplest and most delicious French recipe I know.
Picture: the azure lilac mountain range out the window to my left, a cooktop under a single flame-colored casserole dish filled with the ambrosial smell of shallots and mushrooms simmering in butter in front of me, while just in front of that my two dear friends sit on the couch and all of us fixate on the screen to the right, watching what I begin to realize isn’t just a story about cooking, but also about writing. About friendship. About passion.
When it’s finished, we sit over the counter and tear apart a huge loaf of warm ciabatta bread, dip it in a gravy of mushrooms, heavy cream, chicken stock, and Riesling. We make ridiculous sounds—our proud vocabularies fail to communicate what we already share.
* * *
Back home in Pennsylvania, my thesis advisor gives me an article written by Nora Ephron titled My Cookbook Crushes, written in 2006, about three years before Julie and Julia. In it she writes “[… I cooked] half the recipes in the first Julia, and as I cooked, I had imaginary conversations with [her].” I recognize this as a line from the movie, spoken by Amy Adams, that I thought originated from Julie Powell. But the voice no longer belongs to Amy, and I don’t think it belongs to Julie either. The voice I hear is Nora’s.
These voices can be confusing, so I draw a chart. A map of my essay:
Even so, it doesn’t change the fact: so long ago now it seems I picked up a stick of butter, a pan, and set it over an open flame. I cooked because of a film I saw, based on a novel, based on a blog, based on a cookbook written by Julia Child herself.
And I’m sure that Julia sparked this whole thing for me, that the ten years she went through trying to get her book published will remind me when I’m getting down on my writing that “it’s not going to be easy, this whole getting published business.”
And just like Nora had conversations with Julia, I catch myself now having conversations with Nora. I often tell her what I tell Julia, I miss you, I wish you were still here. How did you get so damned good? What should I do next? I hang a tea towel over the handle of my oven with the phrase, “What would Julia do?” and I keep Nora’s essay folded up inside my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking which sits on the kitchen counter.
And when I’m feeling lost, I hear them ask me, “What is it that you really like to do?” To Julia, I say eat. And to Nora, I say write.