Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Mastering art, cooking, and life...

This is two book reviews, a movie review and a cookbook review all in one post. A few nights ago we watched the movie Julie & Julia, which is based on Julia Child's life. Julia Child died a few years ago, but she was the person that popularized French cooking in home kitchens in America in the 1960s and onwards. She had a TV show, very barebones and very loved, and a personality that I would call 'sprudlande' in Swedish. I don't know how to translate that - maybe like an overjoyed fountain. She LOVED food. In France she went to cooking school, and went from someone that like to eat to someone that could make food you fall in love with. I imagine this at least, since I never tasted anything she cooked... I can't think of any Swedish chef that is as famous in Sweden as Julia Child is in the US.

Mixed in with the story in the movie Julie & Julia is another story about (and by) Julie Powell in post-9/11 New York, who in 2002 decides to start a blog called Julie/Julia Project (nearly the same title as the movie, and nearly the same title as the book published from the blog) about her attempt to cook all recipes in Julia Child's cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking (hereafter MAFC) in one year. That is 524 recipes. She succeeds, but not without lots of marriage and cooking troubles, some that are shown in the movie. Her current blog is here. (Julia Child didn't like the blog project either.)

I have read the blog book by Powell and her original blog, the biography My Life in France about Julia Child's years there in the 1950s, and now seen the movie. But I had never cooked anything out of the classic MAFC cookbook until yesterday when I took PP's mom's copy from 1967 [good vintage] out of the bookshelf and looked up French Onion Soup, which is what we then had for dinner. The soup was great. The recipe was supereasy. But the best part of the cookbook (from the two parts I read) is the foreword. It is wonderfully and uniquely written. Here are some examples (but get your hands on a copy and read the whole thing! and remember this was written in 1961):

This is a book for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children's meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat. Cooking is not a particularly difficult art, and the more you cook and learn about cooking, the more sense it makes. But like any art it requires practice and experience. The most important ingredient you can bring to it is love of cooking for its own sake.

So here are my reviews:

The cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Based on the Foreword and one French Onion Soup recipe, this is a wonderful book. I want to tackle the deboning of a whole duck at some point, but maybe I should start with something simpler first, like roasted duck with orange sauce on page 276. [grade A]

The book, My Life in France: I could have sworn I had reviewed this wonderful biography here in the blog but I am glad I didn't swear on it, because it appears I never did. This is a great book, based on letters and stories. I loved it, and many scenes from this book make it into the movie. You don't have to be a food freak to love this book. It also wonderfully describes the very loving marriage between Paul and Julia Child. [grade A+]

The book, Julie & Julia: This book was also not reviewed on the blog, and I know exactly why. I read the book (which is based on her blog), but I didn't like it too much. A 20-ish woman blogs and whines about everyday life and miseries and successes in her tiny kitchen. The attitude was so different from Julia's attitude to life. I have sympathy, it is just that I didn't think it was great literature or very interesting. (Sorry Julie, if you are reading this... but I don't like swear words in print.] Her husband at the time must have been a very patient and understanding person (and is a great character in the movie). I actually didn't keep the book, I gave it away and I remember forcing my way through some pages. But it lead to something good, the movie... [grade C]

The movie, Julie & Julia: Meryl Streep plays Julia Child and is the best I have ever seen her. Incredible. Just see the movie to see her! Julia's husband Paul, is a wonderful person and done by a great actor. The actress that plays Julie Powell, the blogger, got criticized for being 'too nasty and grumpy' in the movie, but they actually toned her down compared with the book. There are many other great actors as well, so the acting is outstanding. Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, remember that one?), was the director and she is also a former food journalist, and also had part in meshing the two stories together in the script. It works OK, but not great, to move back and forth between France in the 1950s and New York in 2002, and when you are in the New York scenes you just want to get back to France. But I would say New York is rather accurately depicted, after living there myself. The food looks amazing in the movie, it is nearly so you can smell it.

After seeing the movie, I slept bad the night after and woke up repeatedly with yummy images of giant whisks with whipped cream, tarte tatin, and sole in lemon butter... mmmmmm... However, some parts of the movie story made no sense, and were disconnected from the rest of the story, such as the government 'are you a communist'-interview in Washington DC of Paul Child, and the wedding of Julia Child's sister. But overall, it is a great movie, and the married men of both couples are wonderful, wonderful husbands. There is a lot of love in the movie, and not just love of food. Nora Ephron manage to show life and love and the art of living and cooking all at once. So rent it, it is gorgeous.

Grade A for the movie, would have been A+ if not for the lobsters that had to be put in misty cold water (looking like hot water) and "off camera representatives from the American Humane Association monitored the creatures’ health" - come on, guys, there is death and dying of seafood in every restaurant, why does this matter in a movie?! And to all you vegetarians, did you know that plants scream when we cut and cook them too? We just can't hear them. I am all for humane treatments of animals, but not being allowed to throw a lobster in boiling water in a movie is a bit too much. These people should worry more about pink slime in hamburgers. New York Times review here

Real Julia Child (left) and Meryl Streep as Julia Child (right).

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