Sunday, October 18, 2009

Julie and Julia. And a story about a girl and a duck....

For a generation of post World War II Americans, Julia Child brought French cuisine into their kitchens and changed the way they would see food forever. She is also credited with being the first real television chef, long before Delia, Nigella, Jamie or Gordon ever came into our living rooms. Her 1961 cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is still considered a classic over 40 years later and her culinary influence on generations of home cooks cannot be overstated.

Nora Ephron's new film "Julie and Julia" is the true story of two women for whom the love of food is not only a source of great joy but also a creative outlet, an expression of love, a test of mettle and ultimately a means of  personal liberation. The film parallels the lives of Julia Child - culinary icon and Julie Powell, disillusioned office worker from Queens who in 2002 decided to attempt to cook every recipe in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in one year and blog about it. Julie's blog developed a cult following and resulted in the book on which the film is based - "Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment".

In 1948, Julia (Meryl Streep) and her diplomat husband Paul (played by the wonderful Stanley Tucci) were posted in Paris and this led to what was for Julia, a culinary epiphany. We see this in an early scene where she tastes Sole Meuniere for the first time - her excitement and all consuming appetite gains momentum from here and just never lets you go. I don't blame her - the on-screen dish had me salivating (I actually sighed)

Well, Julia fell in love with French food and her passion for it led her to study at the illustrious Cordon Bleu School in Paris and to writing the famous book. The scenes at the cooking school as she deals with xenophobia, sexism and mountains of onions are hilarious. I laughed so much I snorted! We see her as she hones her skills and brings her own eccentric passion to everything she does, including to her marriage to Paul. Meryl Streep turns in a wonderful performance as the free spirited Julia and it is impossible not be drawn in to her world and her kitchen.

Meanwhile, decades later we see Julie Powell (Amy Adams) trying to escape the soul destroying grind of her day job and her growing feeling of general malaise by retreating to her tiny kitchen in Queens to cook the recipes of a woman she idolises. Although Julie and Julia never meet, they are linked by their passion for food and the personal transformation that their culinary journey brings.

There are some of us for whom cooking is more than just making food. It is part of who we are. It is chemistry and alchemy and art all rolled into one. It is theraputic - we head to the kitchen when we are down and don't know how to bear it and we head to the kitchen when we need clarity and comfort. The act of making food and of sharing it is an ongoing conversation with those we love. If, like me you are one of those people, you will find this film incredibly moving and very inspiring. The film will also make you want eat your bodyweight in butter, but that's a whole other thing! I give Julie and Julia the big thumbs up.

I really related to Julie's character as a fellow food blogger, her obsession with making things just right and cooking in her tiny kitchen. One particular scene involving a crying Julie lying on the kitchen floor after a failed attempt to debone and stuff a duck (hilarious) reminded me of a "moment" in my own culinary education.

In my early 20's I sold most of my worldly possessions, including my 70's Holden Gemini (Beige with orange and chocolate brown racing stripes up the side - coooool!) packed my things into 2 suitcases and moved from Perth on the west coast of Australia to the big smoke - Sydney on the east. I rented a tiny bedsit on the edge of  Kings Cross (for those non Australian readers, this is a notorious red light district in Sydney) with an even tinier "kitchen". (think cockroaches, bar fridge and about 40cm of bench space!) I spent the first couple of years in the city being very, very broke, so for entertainment I joined the Kings Cross Public Library. I decided if I couldn't afford to go out, at least I could read.

Imagine my excitement when I discovered that they had a treasure trove of cookbooks and food magazines. I worked my way through all of them, reading and making my own notes and waiting for the day when I could actually afford to buy ingredients to cook with! I read tomes of Margaret Fulton and I took out books on every cuisine from Scandanavian to Italian to Kosher. Then came the day that would influence the way I would cook forever - on the overstuffed shelves I found a copy of Larousse Gastronomique, the famous French culinary encyclopdia, first published in 1938. I swear I renewed it every month for about 6 months. It was so full of instructions and information! Ingredients I had never heard of, let alone tasted, recipies and produce and utensils. I was mesmerised and entertained and as I sat on my tiny balcony drinking bad instant coffee and rationing my cigarettes I also started to learn a little about cooking.

So, after studying Larousse, I decided that it was time for me to learn how to debone a duck.

Now, this is all well and good but for a gal living in the dodgy part of town with no cash, purchasing a duck and other duck-stuffing ingredients was not straight forward. Money had to be squirrelled away and sacrifices made and this took time. Eventually though the day came - ingredients purchased, workspace prepared, knife sharpened, Larousse at the ready (I had to put it on a chair next to me because it would have taken up the only bench space I had)

I began. Slowly, slowly..... very, very slowly. Hands shaking slightly, slicing though the thick pale skin of the duck to the ruby coloured flesh underneath. Being scared and excited at the same time. Reading and re-reading the instructions over and over. The thrill of seeing the picture in the book look like what I was looking at on the chopping board. 45 minutes later, I was almost there. The final cut - the moment where the bones are all removed and the only thing standing between you and a perfect deboned duck is some skin fused to backbone. One long slice along the bone and it is a done deal. I was already heady with success. I had done it! I had done it! But as you may already sense dear readers, the dark shadow of kitchen disasters was about to settle over that little bedsit in the Cross.

With cheffy zeal and a flourish of my knife (take that Monsieur Canard!) I made the final cut, slicing through the flesh like butter. And then the horror. I had the cut the duck into two pieces. I had cut far too close to the bone and instead of one whole duck, I was left with two pieces. Boneless, yes. But duck a deux!

I was overwhelmed by self loathing and feelings of failure. I was no cook, I was just an inept butcherer of expensive poultry. So I did what any mature young woman in that situation would do. I sat on the floor with my boning knife and I cried. I cried until snot ran out of my nose and my mascara ran. It was a good few hours before I could bring myself to revisit the site of the carnage and to look at that stupid bloody duck again! I cursed my own sub standard knife skills, the cavallier attitude that led me to fail at the crucial moment and purveyors of duck everywhere!

A month or so later I had the nerve (and the cash) to try again. And this time, the kitchen goddesses smiled upon me. A perfectly deboned duck. A wonder to behold and a skill learned for life.

And you know what? I didn't even cry. :)



  1. Classic!!

    My "Julia & Julia" moments usually have to do with blogging. I have often caught myself wondering, "Geez, am I really so attention-starved that I have to do this?" and then in the same instant, "I hope everyone likes my spicy ginger brownies and that I get a lot of comments today!"

  2. Ha!Ha! I've often thought the same thing :)
    It is a strange thing to put yourself and your cooking out there and to have complete strangers seeing it and chatting about it. One one level, a very public act and on another a very personal one.