Opening today at the Seven Gables and other theaters, Julie & Julia has drawn raves for Meryl Streep's performance as Julia Child (review). Perhaps unfairly, Nora Ephron's movie seems more weighted to Child's side of the story than that of Julie Powell, the blogger-turned-author whose 2005 book relates how she cooked her way through Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Child, of course, is dead. But Powell is very much alive, contributing to The New York Times and preparing her second book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, for publication in December. Whatever the merits of Amy Adams' portrayal of her on screen, Powell in person has plenty to say about food, as I discovered at a recent sit-down here in Seattle.
This town, I observe, like Powell's New York home, is full of snobbish foodies who spare no organic expense to cook everything from scratch for their kids (if they have kids). "Obviously it's not realistic for your average two income family with four kids living in the suburbs," says Powell. "We have to keep going back to: How do we make good food available to people? That's the essential question in America: How can we get decent food into people's mouths who are struggling to put food on the table and can't afford to go to the farmer's market?"
That reality is far different from Julia Child's era, the postwar Camelot years of JFK and booming economic growth. Child was cooking from a privileged position, supported by her husband while living in Paris. Says Powell, "Her problem was that she had nothing to do. She wasn't struggling. The American culinary landscape is so different now."
Today, not many housewives have all day to shop at Whole Foods and prepare lavish meals in professional-quality home kitchens. Nor did Powell, back when she began her blogging project in 2002. She recalls "I was certainly struggling to pay the rent while making leg of lamb. It was completely impractical for me, obviously. But for what I needed to sustain myself spiritually, it was vitally important. That's what Julia was doing: She was creating art, really."
And more, Child offered a way out of the tedium and rationing of the World War II years, the privation of the Great Depression, "that drudgery of housewifery of opening up a can." At the time, pre-Child, cooking represented "that thing that had to get done and wasn't particularly pleasant. To see that as expression and a creative outlet was liberating for a lot of women. That's really an important component of why that book worked the way it did.
"It seems to me that for many women who picked up Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the early '60s and began cooking seriously through it, it was almost a statement of self and even a feminist statement. You're cooking for yourself in a creative way, rather than just for hubby and kids."
Child's book was published in 1961. Now jump forward four decades to the realities faced by most women, most cooks: the time bind, both spouses working, kids to shuttle to school and soccer practice. Then there's the constant worry about obesity, natural ingredients, and so forth. All of which leads to what Powell calls "the schizophrenia of American food--privation and overindulgence. This hyper concern for organic this and that."
Those are concerns Powell expressed in a 2005 New York Times op-ed, which many took to be a slam at Alice Waters. "I find her slightly pretentious from time to time," says Powell today. "Not that farmer's market and local everything aren't important. But on top of everything else, on top of the pressure of just trying to get your kids fed and put them to bed, to have this ethical-morality judgment placed on you. That you're not being a good mother."
We all know what it's like to be judged by privileged foodie elites as we slap down a frozen pizza in the supermarket checkout line. Or to ourselves judge the mothers, often minorities, supersizing their orders at McDonald's to feed their hungry yet obese kids. "That just drives me completely insane," says Powell. "I'm a raving liberal and I believe in all the good stuff. But all the time you have to be hyper-vigilant that what you're doing is not judging and what you're doing is not being smug and offering easy answers--'Just eat your vegetables!'
"I am sort of annoyed by this bromide that food is eternally a good thing; to be cooking wonderful things for your family--that that means your family is going to be happy. And your community, too. It's this ultimate positive. Whereas food induces all kinds of feelings of guilt and class resentment and ethical dilemmas. Which is why I like writing about food as a subject, because it's thorny. It's not nearly as simple as people think."
Or rather, it's simple for the affluent who have all the time and resources to cook just so. Powell sees a troubling foodie attitude of, "Because this is right, this is what it should be, and there's no compromise. There's this utter idealism. That's the thing we're fighting against: It shouldn't be a privilege. You should be able to nourish yourself. And I don't mean with the fancy shit. There should be basic food available that you can cook in a limited amount of time and feed your children with, and they will not grow obese and have diabetes by age eight. That should be a right."