Sunday, August 16, 2009

Julia Child and an Ode to Trout Meunière

A week ago I went to see Julie and Julia. It's a very entertaining movie. Before I went, I was told that Meryl Streep does a fantastic job in the role of Julia Child, and it's certainly true. Yes, everyone can do a Julia Child voice, but it takes real talent to actually convey a whole range of emotion without coming across as ridiculously goofy and over the top. This is not to say that Mrs. Streep doesn't sometime stretch Child's mannerisms to comedic lengths, but such moments come across as the result of a certain joie de vivre of playing the character, rather than as mere mockery. Stanley Tucci also comes out to wonderful effect playing Paul. The combination of Tucci and Streep really bring the movie to a new level. I was less happy with the Julie duo. Chris Messina and Amy Adams' roles are also played well, although their hum-drum 30 something lives with Sex-in-the-City-style voice-overs are clearly overshadowed by the other larger than life play. But such overshadowing is not entirely irredeemable: the dialogue between Julie and Eric occasionally provides a useful counterbalance to the Childs, and provide brief moments of rest as the plot develops.

The contrast between Julie and Julia is the main motif of the movie, and it leads a viewer to consider the similarities and differences between these two worlds, and to possibly make judgments between them. I should lay my cards on the table here: if there is a conflict between Julie Powell and Julia Child, I'll certainly side with Julia. Not only was she a chef of the very first rank, but she has had a remarkable influence over American cooking. I think it's safe to say that no chef in the middle part of the last century can claim to have the kind of influence over the world that Julia Child had when she came on the scene. Yes, there were arguably more famous chefs throughout the period: chefs who perhaps are more creative and who develop more complicated recipes: Alain Chapel comes to mind, as does Ferran Adrià, and Alain Ducasse. But what marked Julia as unique and especially compelling is that her cuisine was not meant to be appreciated by the few and the wealthy, but to be genuinely available to everyone who would take the time to learn how to properly cut carrots, and to pay attention to the sounds of the frying pan.

For me the disorienting thing about this film was the role of Julie Powell: the movie emphasizes the similarities between her life and Julia's. Both women were uncertain what to do with their time, and found solace and happiness through cooking. The movie makes a big deal about this connection, and there is an effort to coordinate the two story lines, and to show a real connection between the two women. But as I watched the movie, a more critical comparison was evident from the very beginning. The truth of the matter is that Julie and Julia were very different people, and it's entirely possible that, had they met, they would not get along at all. It's either a testimony to the writer's and director's care, or to their neglect that this alternate storyline manages to emerge so forcefully alongside the main narrative. Julia, after all, was a perfectionist who attended the best cooking school in the world, and then spent her time studying with the greatest chefs, collaborating on many cookbooks, and transforming American cooking. Julie merely cooked 524 recipes from a cookbook in the course of a year, and ended up writing a successful blog and book as a result. Amy Adams attempts to do a convincing version of Julie, and actually manages to develop a very believable character. But the further question of what the character of Julie adds to the narrative remains.

For better or worse, I don't think the movie ever really comes to terms with this question. You can see this result as either avoiding an obvious issue, or intentionally ending with an open question. The movie does play with the gimmick of the contrast between being Julia and being a blogger writing about Julia, but does little to explain why Julia was unhappy with Powell's blog. Yet, there are some obvious reasons one can think of for Julia's dissatisfaction: in the end Julia Child was an extremely good chef who had to work hard over the course of years to attain her success, and here was an amateur cook getting a lot of attention because she could merely simulate the outward appearance of these efforts by following a book of recipes. The movie essentially punts on this question by having Eric tell Julie that Julia's opinion doesn't matter.

But perhaps it does. One can argue that there is an even deeper distortion at play in the way the movie portrays Julie. Throughout the movie, Julia Child's recipes are portrayed as gourmet cooking challenges: difficult recipes that Julie Powell manages to conquer. But this haute cuisine portrayal distorts an essential aspect of Julia Child's approach to cooking: it's inherently practical. For a sense of this practical nature, consider what Julia Child writes in her introduction to The Way to Cook:
Even if you're working all day, why buy Chinese take-out food, or frozen dinners, or eat at a fast-food joint when you can make a fresh, informal home-cooked meal even in a minuscule kitchen — and you will know exactly what you are eating. Pour out a glass of wine, and while you're gossiping about the day and trimming the fish fillets, a big pot of water can be set to boil for skinning the tomatoes and blanching the green beans. Perhaps you'll get some help snapping the ends of those beans and preparing the salad greens, too. While the fish has its short sojourn in the oven, you're all but ready for dinner and everyone is refreshed and happy. Dessert can be cheese and fruit, or ice cream or sherbet from the freezer, and you've an easy, satisfying meal.
Provided that one reads this paragraph with adequate respect for Chinese cooking, this is exactly the right attitude to have to transform cooking into an enjoyable activity. The idea that Julia's recipes are some sort of esoteric challenge loses this fundamental philosophy. Unlike Ducasse, Trotter, or Keller, everything Julia did was eminently practical. If she gives a recipe for a complicated dish like the de-boned duck that Julie finishes her year with, it's a complicated recipe, but you can be assured that it's the simplest, most practical version of that recipe out there, with just enough flourish to make it tasty. I think this is something that Julia Child learned better than many of her successors: French cooking is at its heart not an esoteric, complicated sort of cuisine, but it's in fact the product of a few centuries of very practically-minded chefs making the most of what was available to them. One might even argue that the heart of French cooking is poor people's food: the reason French cooking produced such elaborate dishes with aspics and roasted innards, and dishes with blood as a key ingredient is that these were precisely the ingredients that poor people could afford. (Cf. Anthony Bourdain's episode of No Reservations on France "Why the French Don't Suck.") Hence, there is this continuum of French cooking that I think much of American cooking after the advance of fast-food has come to lack. (There are interesting exceptions, of course, like pockets of the Appalachia and the Bayou.) To me this sort of practical cooking is at the very heart of what is best about French cuisine. This is what Lulu Peyraud was all about, and I think this is what Julia Child is all about too.

Lest this e-mail sound too serious, I finish with an ode. Julia Child in many places talks about how perfect a trout or sole meunière is (Interestingly, in The Way to Cook they both fall under the same master recipe), and the movie makes a point of showing this realization in one of the very first scenes. Hence, after watching the movie I had to cook the classic dish following Julia's recipe. The experience, and the above reflections on practical cooking, leads me to write the following poem.

Ode to Trout Meunière.

If you are hungry, have no fear,
Look only to the noble trout meunière.
For the price of a burger or a Happy Meal,
It offers the prospect of a much bigger thrill,
One part flour, and many parts fish,
clarified butter is the only twist;
Add some parsley, pepper and salt,
And your dinner has instant clout.
And if your fish is extra fine,
Even a lemon is a waste of time;
Not the most complicated dish, I confess,
But many a king has been fed on less.

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