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08.04.09

How Meryl Streep Nailed Her

Julia Child’s former assistant and friend for a quarter-century, Food Network host Sara Moulton, watched Julie & Julia with a skeptical eye. Here are the five things the movie got right.

My 25-year friendship with Julia Child began with a lie. It was 1979 and I was the chef/manager of a catering operation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One day when I was peeling hundreds of hard-boiled eggs with one of my workers and discussing Julia Child’s method of hard boiling eggs (which involves not boiling them, but that is another story), my worker mentioned that she was going to be a volunteer on Julia’s upcoming cooking show, Julia Child & More Company. I asked her if I could be a volunteer too and the next day she came in and said that Julia wanted to hire me. I was baffled; Julia didn’t even know me, why would she want to hire me? So I trotted down to the corner pay phone and Julia picked right up.

“Oh dearie,” her familiar voice said from the other end of the line, “I’ve heard so much about you. Do you food style?” Back then, nobody had any formal training in this field; each chef just tried to put food on the plate in an attractive fashion. Of course I lied and said yes. “Yes, I’m really very good.” She hired me on the spot.

Julia’s response in the film? She sticks out her tongue as the director walks out the door. The real Julia might have given the finger.

Julia was the warmest, most down-to-earth person on the planet, but she was still Julia Child. I had a hard time completely relaxing around her which was ridiculous. After Julia Child & More Company, I worked with her on various charity events and later at Good Morning America. She was an angel to me, helping me to get jobs and pushing me to work hard. She even brought me along as her protégé to the White House in 1999 when she was receiving an award with several other women at a luncheon hosted by then-first lady Hillary Clinton. I had her on my Food Network show, Cooking Live, twice (the first time to make those famous non-boiled hard-boiled eggs). In 2004, I convinced Food Network to do a special on Julia. I flew out to Santa Barbara that March and recorded what I think was her last interview before she passed away in August. The special aired shortly after she passed away.


See Streep's performance in the Julie & Julia trailer.

Video screenshot

It was a bit of shock, although, a wonderful one, to see Julia so accurately brought back to life in Julie & Julia, which opens in theaters this week. I didn’t stop smiling the whole time. Here are the five things that Meryl Streep and filmmaker Nora Ephron get right about my mentor.

The Voice: Meryl Streep really nails Julia’s voice. Julia would get caught up in her words, almost inhaling them, so they didn’t come out very easily. She would belabor breathing while she talked—she was a heavy breather—and then trip over her r’s. Every word of hers had more going for it than something spit out by somebody else. The only part of Julia’s distinctive voice, which Streep missed is the energy that was behind it. I think Streep talked just a tad too slowly, especially in the television clips. Julia was very deliberate in what she said and what she did, but I felt as if a tiny bit of zest was missing in Streep’s performance.

The Movement: Julia had this gawky awkwardness, which Streep picks up. She was tall, and she moved the way she talked: weirdly. It was as if all her joints weren’t screwed in right, which Streep does a good job of capturing. Julia had this big, gangly schoolgirl demeanor which never disappeared despite decades of television and public appearances. Even the outfits were right, although probably a little bit fancier than the real Julia sported at the time.

The Attitude: There’s a scene in the film when Julia is being put down by the dour female director of the Cordon Bleu where Julia was taking classes in Paris. Julia has just sit down to take her final exam and the director comments, “I don’t know why you want to do this, you are a terrible cook, but if you cook for Americans, they won’t know the difference.” Julia’s response in the film? She sticks out her tongue as the director walks out the door. The real Julia might have given the finger. She was so spontaneous, and yes, at times, a little crude. If somebody pissed her off, she might shout, “Balls!” When we were at her house in Cambridge madly cooking up a big meal for company, she would turn to one of us and say, “Aren’t we having fun?” Still, the movie takes her very seriously. People loved Julia, but they sort of saw her as a ham. Here, she’s portrayed as she was: a talented determined woman who constantly pushed her projects forward.

The Passion: I've talked to quite a few people in the past week who were shocked to see Julia and her husband Paul get into bed and start kissing each other. But they were madly in love and not afraid to show it. While other people sent out Christmas cards to their friends, Paul and Julia sent out Valentine’s Day cards, some of which were quite risqué like the photo of the two of them in a bubble bath that they showed in the movie. Paul was shorter than Julia, but he was also very manly; that he was shorter didn’t make a difference. Stanley Tucci captures both Paul’s elegance and that manly strength. Theirs was the Pygmalion story. Julia was great raw material, but Paul really inspired her to blossom. She wanted to enter his world, which was so much more cultured than hers had been. She wanted to cook for him and in the process she fell in love with cooking. That passion comes through in the movie, too.

The Food: Julia quickly became very proficient in the kitchen and although she would never call herself a chef, her skills were up to any pro’s. Streep’s portrayal is just right whether she is boning a duck or making an omelet. There’s a shot of Julia whacking away at a piece of pastry with a rolling pin (which is what you do when you first take in out of the fridge and it is cold) that felt very reminiscent. Streep also nailed how Julia ate. She was such a thoughtful eater. There’s an epiphanic moment in the beginning of the film when Julia takes her first bite of sole meuniere. She can’t believe how good it is. You can just imagine what is going on in her head. Julia Child could not separate chewing from thinking.

I am sure that Julie & Julia will renew interest in the life and work of the woman I met a quarter century ago. She is going to be discovered all over again. That would make her so happy.

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Sara Moulton is the executive chef at Gourmet magazine, where she has worked for 25 years. She is the host of Sara's Weeknight Meals on PBS and was one of the original Food Network stars as the host of Cooking Live, Cooking Live Primetime, and Sara’s Secrets. She is the author of Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals and Sara Moulton Cooks at Home.