Surrounded by giant liquor bottles and sides of beef and pork in Williamsburg’s new hipster butcher shop The Meathook, a chain-smoking Julie Powell seems perfectly at home as she reflects on her latest journey into sex and food. The author, who blogged her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and saw her memoir Julie & Julia turned into a film starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, now says her perspective during that time was one of “innocence.” But below the surface, she felt restless and a need to strike out on her own, to separate in some way from the husband she’d met at 18, her “surrogate soul.” Her second act is chronicled in Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, which pairs her butchering apprenticeship with her kinky affair with a man named D, as well as a sprinkling of recipes for blood sausage and pork cheeks.
“My exploration of my sexual life felt like something I needed to write about. It makes people uncomfortable. They get embarrassed for me, which I think is adorable.”
Powell acknowledges that there’s “no question” that her fame in the wake of her blogging project affected her marriage. Of her success, she writes, “I accepted the congratulations [b]ut privately, I knew that I owed it entirely to Eric.” When she throws herself into an apprenticeship two hours from her Queens home at “meat hippie” butcher shop Fleisher’s, Eric’s support is strained—all the more so when he discovers her affair, after her BlackBerry goes off one night.
“I don’t think that I would have ever had the affair if Julie & Julia hadn’t done well,” she explains. “I wanted to write about the difficulties of a marriage and [show] that that’s what makes a marriage strong. There are all these people out there who wanted the movie version of our marriage to be this paragon of perfect marital bliss. It’s much more complicated than that.”
Indeed, the arguments, jealousy, and hurt between Powell and her husband are wrenching to read. Watching movies one night, he thinks she’s surreptitiously checking for texts from her lover, and comments, “What’s the matter? He’s not paying enough attention to you?” Soon Eric takes up with another woman, while Powell maneuvers uneasily between her two lovers, negotiating each relationship along the way, so unwilling to let go of D that she resorts to stalking him at one point. Eventually, though, Powell gets over D and reconnects with Eric, as the couple regroups from the sting of their mutual affairs. “What I wrote in Julie & Julia wasn’t a lie, but it began to seem like a lie in retrospect,” she says. “That wasn’t the endpoint; marriage doesn’t have an endpoint. It moves. I wanted to respect that.”
Early reviews have shown as much squeamishness about the details of her affair as the gorier aspects of tearing apart hunks of meat. “My exploration of my sexual life felt like something I needed to write about,” she says. “It makes people uncomfortable. They get embarrassed for me, which I think is adorable, but if I get unhappy, that’s my problem; you don’t need to worry about me. I don’t like to be a big conspiracy theorist or feminist crazy person, but men have been writing about this for a long time. Maybe I don’t know what the f--- I’m getting into, but I wrote the book, I’m OK with it. You can criticize me all you like, but what you can’t do is say, ‘You’re a skanky, adulterous self-involved twit,’ because I wrote that already! It’s done; yes, that’s true.”
The apprenticeship gives her a world of testosterone-fueled intense learning (“Hey, pussy!” Fleisher’s co-owner Josh calls out as he slams a ham onto the table, only to have his wife respond, “We have customers, goddamnit!”), where cuts are repaired with oregano oil and meat hooks are “more effective and terrifying” than she’d imagined. The male-dominated field is opening up to women, says Powell, but the cursing and drinking are “part of the appeal. I love being part of that guys’ world. What’s funny about these new guy butchers is that they’re very masculine but you tap half an inch below the surface and they’re really sweet, adorable boys.” In an act that’s as much about conquering international travel on her own as it is about gonzo butcher journalism, Powell travels to Argentina, Ukraine, and Tanzania, where she partakes in the local custom of drinking cow’s blood from a tin cup and watches a dead goat get punched in the stomach.
For Powell’s male counterparts, butchering is an act of aggression, of “beating up on the meat,” but it’s not for her. “It was delicate; you’re following the road map that’s being left for you and being shown how meat comes apart,” she says. “It was meditative. All that toughness goes away while I usher animal into meat.”
The experience made her into what she calls a “restaurant vegetarian” who only eats meat when she knows exactly where it’s from; she says she eats less animal flesh now after working with it daily. “Jonathan Safran Foer irritates the shit out of me, but he’s right,” she says. “He and I are really together in that what we’re trying to come to a decision about what we feel like we can eat. There’s got to be some middle ground between the industrial farming system and all the ways that’s broken and the various privileged ways people like me [respond].”
Going behind the scenes is one way for consumers to get one step closer to their food, though you may not want to get as close as Powell, who witnesses “gruesomely grinning, fleshy half skulls, eyes still in their sockets” when making headcheese. (I admit to skimming some of the grittier passages.) “If you make a relationship with the people you’re getting your food from, you’re going to feel so much better, I promise,” she says.
Today, the Fleisher’s Web site touts the opportunity to do the same internship Powell did. For those so inclined, she has some advice: “Be brave about asking your butcher what you want to know. Butchers are terse. If you go in without confidence, they’ll blow you off. They’re extraordinary resources; they have all this information and they’ll give it to you. Ask the stupid questions. You have to be willing to sound like a dork.”
Her goodbye present from the Fleisher’s staff is a set of knives inscribed with her name and “Loufoque,” French-butcher Pig Latin for “Crazy Lady,” a term she now has permanently tattooed across her back. Yet Powell now sounds much surer of herself than the lost woman whom we find in the early pages of Cleaving. Next up is a stab at a novel: “I’ve written quite enough memoirs for a 36-year-old.”
Rachel Kramer Bussel is the editor of Peep Show: Erotic Tales of Voyeurs and Exhibitionists, Bottoms Up and over 25 other erotica anthologies, and hosts and curates In The Flesh Reading Series.