One Christmas season, I was at loose ends. I was finally, officially divorced after a fairly long marriage. My sons were working and traveling, or out with their friends. There was a man I’d been seeing, but he was traveling, too, and anyway, he was never going to be My Guy and I knew it.
I was alone. A lot. And Christmas was bearing down on me with all the traditions I would not be indulging this year. No vats of cookies or Christmas morning bread. Not much shopping. So I wrote journals and surfed the Internet, and focused on mainly just getting through this boring, lonely Christmas.
One night, I stumbled over the Julie/Julia Project. It’s hard to remember now exactly where I entered the whole thing. I opened it at random somewhere around the middle, led by some link from somewhere else. She had already finished it, but being a reader who wants the whole story, undisturbed, I waded my way back to the beginning and started to read from Day One. I read until my eyes gave out that night, in my dead-quiet living room.
And I came back the next night, and the next, and the next and the next, reading and reading and laughing at her misadventures, thinking, “If any editor on the planet has read this, surely she has a book deal by now.” (And of course, by the end of the blog, she did land a book deal. A very good deal. Just as Julia did, with Mastering the Art of French Cooking.)
I didn’t suddenly start cooking as I read. There was a pretty big wound in my kitchen, waiting to devour me. I hadn’t cooked much in a couple of years because cooking was family and my family was all in pieces. Also, my ex had fancied himself to be THE cook in the family, so I was relegated to making great cookies and loaves of bread, and the workaday meals everyone could eat five days a week. These days, there was almost never anyone home at dinner, so I ate Cheerios and Lean Cuisine and sometimes nothing else.
That hushed season, Julie Powell’s bad language and ineptness and moxie and honesty kicked my heart awake, and I told me mother I thought I might buy a copy of Mastering the Art of French cooking. To, you know, just mess around. I don’t know that I really intended to do it. But my mother (who has always seen me much too clearly for my comfort) beat me to it: she gave it to me for Christmas.
It’s a luscious book. It’s impossible for a cook at any level to resist the kitchen once she starts to read, so I found myself cooking again. Not the breads and cookies and meals I made as mother/wife. Now I explored Julia Child–starting with vegetables, mostly, because no one in my family had ever really liked them, and I do; and eggs, and chicken breasts. All through the dark days of winter, while things devolved more and showed me that I wasn’t dating the right person or living in the right place, or maybe even writing the right books, I cooked. I cooked and wrote, wrote and cooked.
It turns out, I am not terribly interested in the French method. There are things I enjoy about it–who doesn’t like mushrooms sauteed in butter, or chicken breasts cooked in wine?–but I began to see that I was already an excellent cook with a clearly defined method of my own. My ingredients are chiles and fresh tomatoes and avocados and spinach. My style is more California than Paris; I’m not a huge meat eater (though I’ve failed at repeated attempts to become vegetarian, too); prefer olive oil to butter and fresh lemons to Hollandaise.
During those long dark days of winter, cooking, I finally heard my own preferences and desires and voice. Cook spinach, it said. Write about tamales. Move to Colorado Springs.
Yesterday, I went to see Julie/Julia and absolutely adored it. It’s a very rich story with brilliant acting and wonderful visuals and a great storyline about how wonderful cooking is, but it’s also the story of two women falling in love with their work, finding themselves in words and cooking, cooking and words.
I had not expected that I would remember that lonely winter, but as I cheered Julia in her pursuit of her cooking and cookbook, and cheered Julie in her pursuit of the year of cooking, I found I was also cheering myself, that woman pursuing herself with bravado and then calm. Because I, too, cooked with Julia and Julie, and cooked up myself and wrote a book which became THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS. That circle, Julia to Julie to me, me to you, each of them to millions of others–seemed so lovely that I came home and cooked. I made sauteed mushrooms in honor of Julia, and I cooked the chicken breasts in wine, but I also added grilled lemons to the mix, because I love them, and served them with steamed yellow squash which is fresh and particularly perfect right now.
I think Julie and Julia would approve.
If you’re interested, the Julie/Julia Project is still online. Here is a link to the first page, which has a lot of comments, but if you go to the next few days, you can see that nobody read her blog for ages. It’s fun to watch the evolution, see the backstory: http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2002/08/25.html