Julia Child Returns to Maine on the Big Screen
Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail) has made a career of telling the stories of lost, hapless women who find fulfillment and happiness through the men on the other end of their telephone and email conversations. In her latest accomplishment, Julie and Julia, Ephron tackles a new technological convention (blogging) and a new kind of fulfillment (cooking). The film traces the “two true stories” of culinary legend Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and the woman who cooked and blogged her way through Child’s encyclopedic Mastering The Art of French Cooking—Queens, New York cubicle drone Julie Powell (Amy Adams).
Julia Child had a deep connection to Maine. Her family had a summer home here overlooking Bass Harbor and her husband, Paul Child, grew up in the state. The couple spent time here visiting whenever they could.
Here, Notes From a Maine Kitchen embarks on its most meta project yet: food blogging about a movie about a food blog. Last night I was given tickets to see a preview screening of the new film (which opens August 7th). I brought my twenty-one year old daughter, Maya, with me because A. she was home and B. she recently graduated from Columbia where she studied film and English. Here’s a conversation between the two of us on what we thought of the movie, the food, the acting, etc.
Kathy: Well, I have to admit it was fun. Two hours of sheer entertainment. For me it was a huge treat to see Meryl Streep take on the role, the persona, the body, the accent, the entire being of Julia Child. She got it down perfectly. (Julia Child was 6 feet 2 inches and Meryl Streep in a mere 5’6”, but she felt HUGE.) About thirty years ago, when I was living in New York City and working at a travel and arts magazine, I was lucky enough to meet Julia Child and spend an hour or so in a midtown Manhattan hotel room interviewing her and her beloved husband, Paul. And let me tell you, based on those memories, Meryl Streep did a near perfect job. The one-of-a-kind sing-song accent, the oh-so-tall woman with her infectious laugh and her huge love of life and food.
Maya: Meryl Streep is a force of nature, no doubt, and does a masterful job tutting and laughing and stirring her way through Julia’s colorful, elegant Parisian life. Every frame of Paris (by way of a Queens soundstage) is totally tantalizing—especially in not-so-subtly presented contrast to Julie Powell’s bleak Queens existence. Living in a world of monotony, stymied ambitions, and the worst on-screen haircut since Javier Bardem’s in No Country For Old Men, Amy Adam’s Julie Powell is certainly pitiable, if not all that likable.
Kathy: I agree. Totally. But let’s talk about the food. A warning to all you going to see Julie and Julia: don’t do what we did and arrive hungry. It’s painful. No matter how large a bucket of popcorn you order, and no matter how much butter you ask them to put on it, you won’t be satiated. The food in this movie—butter, in particular—is the best co-star of a recent major motion picture that I can remember. The first scene of Julia and Paul Child (Streep and Stanley Tucci) arriving in Rouen, France, sitting in a classic bistro and being served a sole meuniere, golden brown and sizzling in an oval-shaped copper skillet, will make you so crazy hungry that it hurts. As the movie unfolds, and we watch Julia eat her way through France and learn to cook at the Cordon Bleu, and watch Julie Powell cook her way through Julia’s great book, we get hungrier and hungrier. There are soufflés and chocolate cakes, artichokes with perfect hollandaise, roast chickens, and boned duck baked in buttery pastry. All of it is magnificent. And one of my favorite parts of the film is the scene is which Julia Child’s sister comes to Paris to visit her and Julia describes to her, with all the poetry of a true artist, the beauty of a perfectly made beurre blanc sauce. Meryl Streep infuses the scene with so much life and passion it’s as if she’s describing a lover.
Maya: Right, the sumptuous details, most of them food related (though some of the production and costume design is just as luscious), are what make this movie appealing. Unfortunately, details do not a two-hour movie make and, while Ephron weaves Julie and Julia’s stories together with great skill and good pacing, the plots never quite get off the ground. Food can do many things, but creating narrative and drama is not really one of them. No matter how many “meltdowns” Powell experiences at the hands of her cramped kitchen or an unruly aspic, there’s no way to create a dramatic arc from the story of this bewildered blogger. Ephron drags countless little sub-plots into both stories, but none of them pick up any steam and, ultimately, the lack of intrigue falls flatter than a botched soufflé.
Kathy: I like the analogy. And how right you are. But I for one don’t need much plot, or “narrative arc” as writers are taught to strive for, when you take me to dreamy 1950’s Paris and parade gorgeous food in front of me. Granted this film could have used a little tension or real dramatic conflict. But I have to say I loved some of the dialogue about what’s great about cooking. According to my notes (and I’m still not very good at writing in the dark) here were a few of the gems: “Cooking is a way to get away from what I do all day.” And Paul Child, who was stationed in France as a diplomat, has a great line as he toasts his beloved wife on her birthday at a Parisian restaurant: “Julia, you are the bread to my butter.” In France, where bread is always crisp on the outside and flaky and perfect on the inside and butter is yellow and creamy and makes everything tastes better, there is no better compliment.
Maya: Mom, you’re not really writing a movie review. Yes the food was great, but this is not the Food Network, it’s a two hour movie in which the big climactic moment is the revelation that Julia Child has a pen pal (Don’t worry! This isn’t even close to a spoiler…). I’m not so easily won over by Nora Ephron’s style of seduction, be it cinematic or romantic and something about her writing feels dated. “We can’t all be Julia,” Julie laments, but there’s something powerless, almost pathetic, about Julie Powell’s obsession with Julia Child that prevents us from getting to know or care about Powell as a character or as a woman. But I’ll leave you to obsess a little more about all that amazing looking food.
Kathy: I guess I have gotten a little carried away. If you love Julia Child and you love food and you understand how much cooking fresh food can make a day feel worthwhile you are sure to get a kick out of Julie and Julia. At the very least you get to witness Meryl Streep in yet another incredible transformation, this time playing a woman who had a profound impact on the way Americans eat and think about food. As Julia would say “Bon Appetit!”
Sole Meuniere a la Julia
Try to find really fresh filet of sole (glistening, moist, with no odor) for this French classic. This is my take on Julia Child’s beloved recipe. The trick is to cook the fish in a really heavy skillet and let it get good and hot but not so hot that the butter burns.
1 ½ pound very fresh filet of sole*
About ½ cup flour Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons good butter
*You can also use haddock, flounder, or any white fish filets, but sole is the classic.
Place the flour, salt and pepper in a large plate. Dredge the fish in the seasoned flour on both sides. Heat half the butter in a heavy bottomed good skillet over high heat. When the pan is hot add the butter and let it melt and sizzle, being careful not to let it burn. Cook the sole for about 2 minutes on each side, or until it is golden brown. The sole cooks much faster than you might think. Add more butter to the skillet as you cook the remaining filets. Serve hot with the lemon slices.
Serves 2 to 4.