August 10, 2009
Rob and Julia
In the Foodaism pantheon, She is as close to deity as you get.
I learned to cook by watching her shows and working my way, recipe by recipe, through The French Chef Cookbook. I was 11. I took a paperback copy with me to college, to San Francisco, to LA. When I needed comfort, I read her clear, enthusiastic prose.
Two years before she died, I met her.
Of course this all came flooding back when I watched Julie and Julia last night at the Crest.
I hadn’t read Julie Powell’s book for the same reason I’m not a Catholic: I don’t lik anyone to mitigate my relationship with God.
I had my own intense, almost maternal relationship with Julia Child—though we met only once, and for five minutes, she nurtured a substantial part of me, the part that loves food, knows food, cooks. So I never logged on to Powell’s blog, never followed the coverage of it—I simply wanted to keep Julia to myself.
But the movie’s a different story. That’s Meryl Streep. That’s Nora Ephron. That’s Paris. That’s a food movie, and I can’t miss one of those.
(Foodaism’s 5 Best Food Movies, in order: Big Night, Tampopo, Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe.)
The movie’s central theme is a central tenet of Foodaism—that cooking has the power to save your soul. It plays out in Julia Powell’s life, rescuing her from a dead end job and the dread of turning 30. It plays out in a parallel track in Julia Child’s life, rescuing her from an essentially meaningless existence in Paris.
The Julia Child thread was so powerful, and Streep so remarkable, I think—I think—I would have preferred if the movie had been solely about her. She was a big enough character, with an interesting enough life, to sustain it.
But I understand how the theme played out in their twin stories, and watching Amy Adam act overweight was a lovely Hollywood fantasy—only in LA can women with protruding hip bones and concave bellies complain that they’re getting fat.
As for Julia, Streep’s portrayal only burnished my memory, which I got to share with my kids at a post-movie dinner at the new French brasserie in Culver City, Le Saint Amour. (We had—we HAD to have—the Ile Flottante for desert. It was fine, but the one in the cookbook is better).
It was at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 2002. A friend invited me to a fundraiser for an organization that was trying to preserve cookbooks and the culinary hasty of early California—recipes and manuscripts going back to the days of the Californios, the first Mexican settlers. The guest of honor was Julia Child.
Of course I went to the luncheon, and promptly fortified myself with two glasses of wine so I could face the very frail-looking woman in a wheelchair seated a few tables away from me.
I watched her the whole time, noticed how she nodded off during the proceedings, and how, when the audience erupted in applause for her, she waved from her seat with the same joy she showed on the TV show.
Finally, I saw that her attendant, who had driven her down from her home in Santa Barbara, was making a move to wheel her away. I took another couple swallows then walked over to her…
…and I knelt at her feet.
I had to—she was in a wheelchair—but it nevertheless it felt like the right stance—I worshipped this woman.
I introduced myself, and told her that from the time I was 11, I watched her, read her cookbooks, and I thanked her for inspiring me and teaching me how to cook.
She nodded, not at all ungracious, just that how many times had she heard that same speech, this time delivered on a vapor trail of red wine breath?
“And what do you do with food now?” she asked—Julia Child talking to me!
“I used to cater,” I said, “Now I just cook for my family. I do something else for a living.”
Did I see disappointment, or boredom, or fatigue, or utter disinterest, in her face? Either way, I had hooked her, then I lost her.
“Oh, well, thank you very much,” she lilted.
I didn’t know what else to say, so I added, “I’m so glad you came today.”
“Well, it’s very hard for me to travel these days,” she said. “I need an assistant.”
Someone spoke from the dais, and our attention shifted.
“Nice to meet you!” she finally said.
And I said thank you, and goodbye.
And that was it.
I met Her without really meeting Her—but it wasn’t unpleasant, and I was in her presence, and that wouldn’t happen again until, many years later, I would se Meryl Streep on screen.