Cooking and books, books and cooking: my Julie/Julia story

Dark Winter Night  ItsGreg

Dark Winter Night by It'sGreg.

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:

The heart is always story

Note: there are no spoilers of Six Feet Under or Water for Elephants in this post, so feel free to read it. I’m talking about them both, but I’ll be careful not to give anything away.

Over the weekend, I indulged another three episodes of Six Feet Under. In one of them, a major character suffers a surprising illness and is hospitalized. It’s sudden and shocking and doesn’t make any sense. But it is even worse when that character dies. Just dies, without fanfare or warning. I was a little bewildered and went upstairs to tell CR that I had to watch the next episode to see how they’d get out of this little pickle. But, as all of you who have watched it know, there is no redemption or meaning in any of it. The character is suddenly gone, just as happens sometimes in real life. Even as I was sobbing my eyes out (and two days later, I still had a slightly transluscent left eyelid), the writer part of my brain recognized that I was reacting exactly as I should, that the writers got it exactly right. They played with life and fiction expections and created one of the most powerful episodes of television I’ve ever seen.

But I was a wreck most of the next day. Profoundly affected.

To shake off the sense of loss, I immersed in Water for Elephants, by Sarah Gruen, which I know I am very late reading. It always amazes me that it sometimes takes me so long to get to books I will love. This one has been on bestseller lists forever, but I kept worrying that there would be terrible things happening to animals, and I’m sorry–kill humans and I’ll eventually get through it. Put cruelty to animals on the page, and I’m wrecked. (As Mary Jo Putney once told me about a book in which I was contemplating the possibility that a particular cat, a very, very, very old cat might need to pass away before the end of the book, “never, never, never kill the cat.”)

Plus, it had a cover that didn’t particularly appeal to me. It looked dark and self-conciously literary and clever and it made me feel tired to even think of reading it. I changed my mind after reading an article about the author, who is a passionate animal rights supporter, and therefore would not likely do anything too terrible. I also met a woman who loves elephants with an abiding passion, and someone sent me the NY Times article about the elephants in Africa and….well, anyway. One thing led to another and I finally bought the book.

And it is NOTHING like I expected. It is a little dark, but nothing about it is self-conscious. It’s a rip-roaring good yarn, a great story about great characters who deserve to win, and conqueor evil along the way. The animals are characters in their own right, from a scruffy little dog to a toothless lion and a giant elephant.

Last night, I was racing toward the end of the novel, fearing the worst, oh no oh no oh no, and–oh, I just can’t tell you, but it is one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in ages. It is exactly right. It is an absolutely perfect novel and you really must go read it yourself if you have not done so.

What both of these experiences made me remember is that story is everything, and it isn’t a simple or shallow or throw away thing. Story has power.

From Publishers Weekly

With its spotlight on elephants, Gruen’s romantic page-turner hinges on the human-animal bonds that drove her debut and its sequel (Riding Lessons and Flying Changes)—but without the mass appeal that horses hold.

The Namesake

10m I didn’t quite make notes on 20 scenes, but I managed to get to the end of Act One. Enough to give myself the reward.  The movie was showing at Kimball’s Twin Peaks, which used to be The Peak Theater when I was a girl.  They’ve divided it into two theaters and now serve wine and fancy coffees, but they also show great films no one else airs, and the setting is agreeably retro.   

All the words I keep coming up with to describe the movie are too pale to do justice to the pink and marigold yellow of it.  I love Mira Nair’s use of color.  I love the music she chooses.  She presents human relationships with great tenderness, vast love. 

And I love that Indian movie stars are not all perfectly perfect.  Heartrendingly beautiful at times, but all the more believable and engrossing because I believe in them as real human beings.

Go see it.  Come back and tell me you did. 

Secret favorite genres

The sun is shining.  The window guy is coming to fix the shattered window tomorrow morning so I’ll see out of the cave again.  I got out of the house yesterday and ran four miles and went to see my handsome youngest son, and figured out the main question in the MIP, which was blazingly obvious, but not to me.  Honestly, sometimes it seems like the girls have to put up blinking neon signs THEME RIGHT HERE before I get it.   Much relieved.

But to get it, I had to walk away from my computer, from my imagination, from the charts and boards and notes and pressure and look away.  I had to be in my body and run.  I had to be in the car and play music, and listen to my boy talk about his life and all the things his circle are doing.  I had to see pictures and go to a movie in my secret favorite subgenre:  teenage outsider/underdog movies.   All the better if they have music, dance, or an athletic contest in them, and this one did.  We both really liked it–STOMP THE YARD.  Stomp and battle dance and music and Underdog Makes Good.  I love these movies because they always make me feel better and I don’t care if they’re simplistic.  Sometimes that’s okay.

Anyone else have a favorite movie or book genre you keep under wraps or maybe just don’t broadcast?