Friday, August 14, 2009

On "Julie & Julia" and the act of food blogging

I went to see Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia this afternoon during a matinee. As many of you know, the film is adapted from Julie Powell's memoir of the same name and the book My Life in France by Child & Alex Prud'homme. It's a movie that shows the lives of the two women at seminal moments in their lives - Julia in 1949 and the decade after learning how to master the art of French cooking - and translating that for an American audience, Julie over a period of 12 months from 2002 to 2003 learning how to master the art of French cooking - and disseminating that experience in a new online format known as a "blog" (what's a "blog" anyway?).

Mrs. Child, with fish, taken by husband Paul

It's charming and much, much funnier than I expected it to be. It also has a few surprises, such as how utterly Meryl Streep transforms herself into Julia Child, and how Amy Adams only once reminded me of her Disney princess character from Enchanted, and how Powell's husband Eric worked for Archaeology Magazine (the issue blown up in the background in his office? I bought a copy of that issue).

Ms. Powell, with book, from 2005

The movie also made me hungry - not only that, but also made me want to get the damn cookbook and try this myself. I'm not going to do that, of course. It's already been done, and I don't have the time or money to do this anyway. But I will have to get a copy for my own cookbook library. That tattered little copy of The French Chef I found at the Book Thing doesn't stay open by itself anyway. At the very least, I want to make the boeuf bourgignon that partly inspired Powell to love food the way she does (did I interpret that correctly?), and that ended up getting Child's book published by Alfred Knopf in the first place. I might even try to debone a duck!

I don't have a whole lot else to say about the movie at this point. But I did take some time both before and afterwards to read Julie Powell's reflection on the movie itself, in a brief article she wrote for The Atlantic Monthly. She notes that the "Julie Powell" in the movie isn't exactly like the Julie Powell in real life. She's grateful - after all, how many people can say that their first book was made into a movie? All the same, she marvels at the self-awareness of it all. This passage from her article (no I haven't read her book) resonates with me the most:
I like to think I was more self-aware--just as narcissistic, maybe, but at least conscious of my narcissism and able to poke fun at it. In my experience--even if many contemporary bloggers might take issue with this--the blogging was, at least in part, an exercise in self-involvement. Cooking through Mastering changed my life on many levels. It made me a better cook and a more confident person.
I have to agree: I think the very act, er, art of blogging is a narcissistic act in and of itself. Why else would most of us be writing these blogs anyway? Certainly we wouldn't bother unless we just wanted to. Heaven knows there have been times I was just tired of doing this, and other times where I just had no time and literally had to scale back. But I always came back to it because I enjoyed it.

But then Powell turns it back around, and mentions some of the other things it gave her. To avoid quoting the whole piece, I'll specifically mention the "intoxication" she felt from reading her comments (including the deflation at her first-ever commenter being her mother). As she says in her article:
On the one hand, it gave me readers--passionate readers, involved readers, almost insanely devoted readers--who encouraged, cajoled, prodded, and harassed me into both completing the project and developing my voice as a writer.
Some of us have more commenters than others (I might have more if I was better at keeping up on reading more blogs!). But there's the rub: I know I don't just speak for myself, or just paraphrase Julie Powell even, when I say that writing this blog has also been an act of both narcissism and devotion to my readership. When I published my very first post in '06, I certainly didn't think I would have a book deal. Mind you, I still don't expect to, unless I give myself one through one of those self-publishing outfits.

A blog really is the end result of a desire to talk about yourself and what you enjoy. I would not have enjoyed writing about my crazy life - I'm too frazzled there as it is. But writing about food has focused me and given me sort of a place to stand out there and reveal myself. And yet, would I have ever finished that Beltway Snacking series had people not read it? (Still getting comments on that, by the way.) In a big way, I both did it and put so much detail into it for myself, but also for my readers. The comments were more than just gravy; they were the motivation to keep on doing it. To clarify, I don't mean the comments in and of themselves, but the interaction from readers sharing their own perspectives.

Powell also notes how the whole project is indeed a tribute to Julia Child, perhaps one of the main themes of the film (watch this hit home when she visits the Julia Child kitchen exhibit at the Smithsonian at the end of the film). For me, blogging is obviously not a tribute to anyone in particular - I haven't done anything particularly "gimmicky" except for that Beltway Snacking thing. But it's not fair to call it "gimmicky" and that sounds worse than it is. Nothing wrong with a gimmick - it's just a modus operandi.

The poster

Perhaps the fact that this post about Julie & Julia has turned into a post about this blog is the best testament to the fact that blogging is indeed a narcissistic venture. Well, thank you, Julie Powell, for motivating me to reflect on that. I dedicate this post to you.


Dan said...

Great post John and I couldn't agree more. Chris and I saw the flick last night at a PACKED showing in Hunt Valley (so packed we had to sit in the front row and crane our necks up to see) but I found the flick charming and delightful. I could have watched four hours of Streep and Tucci and their touching love story. As for the "Julie" part of the equation I love Adams but wasn't crazy about the Julie character... she comes off like a narcissistic, obsessive bitch but hey, I guess it comes with the territory.

Lisa Stone said...

I love Meryl Streep, can't wait to see the movie.

strawberriesinparis said...

Great post John!