"Slipping away quietly in her sleep late last week may have been the only unspectacular thing Julia Child ever did," I wrote in August 2004 in NEWSWEEK. But I was wrong. Julia Child is not dead. Not as long as Meryl Streep inhabits her big-boned, 6-foot-2 frame; fills her size 12 shoes; sets the corners of her eyes in a permanent crinkle; and causes her voice—that voice!—to bubble up from some sweet, deep place in her soul. In Nora Ephron's film Julie & Julia, which opens this week, you're convinced that Julia Child is still here. This is reassuring stuff for those of us who learned to cook from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Watching the determined Julia slip a piece of carbon paper (carbon paper!) between two sheets of onionskin and roll them into her typewriter for the first time is quietly thrilling—like being there at the creation. "French people eat French food every single day! I can't get over it," Julia/Meryl says as she begins her midlife culinary adventure. Julia's (and Meryl's) diphthonging way of talking makes us laugh. Hell, her very laughter make us laugh.
The story of Julie & Julia is essentially a two-memoir mashup: Julia Child's own My Life in France and Julie & Julia, Julie Powell's 2005 book about spending a year cooking her way through the 524 recipes in the first volume of Mastering and blogging about it from her loft in Long Island City, Queens. It's kind of Julia squared, a double-edged story of food and love, cooking and redemption. The movie ping-pongs in time and place—Julia among the idle rich in '50s Paris, Julie (Amy Adams) in working-class 21st-century New York—but both characters are essentially on the same path. They're searching for themselves—"I decided I had three main weaknesses," Julia says in her memoir. "I was confused ... I had a lack of confidence …c I was overly emotional"—and food shows them the way. Surrounded by all that (then affordable) copper cookware, Julia confides to a friend as she lowers a whole fish wrapped in cheesecloth into a pot of poaching liquid: "I'm in heaven here? ... I've been looking for a career all my life and I've found it." Julie—secretary by day, food blogger by night—cooks with Julia's voice in her kitchen and in her head, "always chortling quietly to herself, like a roosting pigeon in its cote," Julie says. "I was drowning and she pulled me out of the ocean. She saved me. Both of us were saved by food."
Ephron herself learned to cook by angsting over Mastering—her meatloaf is legendary in certain New York circles—and her love of the book wafts through the movie. Each time its food-stained pages flash across the screen and we see that elegant Granjon type and those fine-line drawings made from Paul Child's photographs of Julia's step-by-step process, we remember how there never was such a cookbook before. The recipes are as full of narrative as a short story. Boeuf bourguignon, whose recipe stretches across three pages in Mastering, becomes a character in the film (made in that iconic flame-colored Le Creuset casserole I have to this day). When the twice-rejected manuscript of Mastering happens across the desk of Judith Jones, a New York book editor who in the late '40s discovered the French manuscript of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, she takes it home and cooks the bourguignon. Julia gets her book deal. Flash forward 50 years, and a reporter calls to talk about Julie's blog and to say she'd like to bring Judith Jones over for dinner. Julie cooks—the bourguignon. In fact, she cooks it twice. She burns the first pot (she falls asleep) and eats the second alone (it rains and Jones cancels). But the stew is still a lucky charm: Powell got her book deal.
Ephron knows all about the comfort of food in the midst of heartbreak. In Heartburn, her 1983 novel about the breakup of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, she puts cooking in the same redemptive role. After all, Rachel, the main character, is a food writer, and the book is dotted with recipes. "I've written about cooking and marriage dozens of times," Rachel says, "and I'm very smart on the subject, I'm very smart about how complicated things get when food and love become hopelessly tangled." Heartburn became a kind of classic of the genre that spawned Julie Powell's much raunchier book: "I discovered that in the physical act of cooking ... dwelled unsuspected reservoirs of arousal, both gastronomic and sexual ... offering someone gustatory delights in order to win pleasures of another sort." Both are far better than chick lit. Call them chicken lit.
The most delicious thing about Julie & Julia—after Streep, of course—may be how it shifts the culinary spotlight back to our own kitchens, and away from the heat and glitz of the restaurant kitchen where only the strong survive. We need reservations for chefs' food, and we should have plenty about cooking food as complicated as theirs. While we've spent the last decades fetishizing celebrity chefs, seeking excitement in intense and expensive restaurant experiences, both these difficult times and this film suggest that we may have missed the point. Chefs are performance artists. Like athletes, they lead a physically demanding existence. They must run their businesses like CEOs and plate their food like esthetes, down to the last sprig of chervil. It is right to revere them; it is folly to attempt to emulate them.
Julia Child becomes a cook, not a chef, and, through her, so does Julie Powell. In their very human successes and failures, they are like us in a way chefs will never be. Perhaps the satisfaction we seek was lurking at home on the range all this time. At the end of her book, Julie writes: "I thought I was using the Book to learn to cook French food, but really I was learning to sniff out the secret doors of possibility." Perhaps Julie & Julia will lead us to find the home kitchen exciting again. And not just Betty Crocker, or three-ingredients-in-30-minutes, exciting. Ephron paraphrases her character in Heartburn when she has Julie say: "You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day where nothing is sure ... you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It's such a comfort." That's what you might call the real joy of cooking.