Julie Powell is a New York nobody, with claim to little more than a secretarial job, a run-down apartment and a shelf full of dog-eared Julia Child cookbooks. Sure, she’s married, and yes, she has cats, but at 30, Powell is literally starving for a better life. She finds it in what seems like a ridiculous assignment — preparing all 536 recipes of Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, and blogging about it.
Powell’s story is a true one. Two book deals and a feature film later — Julie & Julia (2009), starring Amy Adams as Powell and Meryl Streep as Child — the project doesn’t seem so absurd. Instead, it’s mouthwatering and at times endearing.
Who can help but laugh ner-vously at Powell’s squeamish dissection of a live lobster for Homard à l’américaine, or clap at Child’s perfect execution of the exercise amid a host of professional chefs? From vichyssoise to orange Bavarians, every triumph or bust of a dish Powell sets on the table is in pursuit of the life lived with gusto that Child makes look so easy. The recipes test her commitment (dinners are rarely served till late), risk her relationships (time and patience with loved ones is lost) and ultimately instil a sense of purpose and confidence in Powell she didn’t know she had — even when the sauce tartare is falling apart.
At a time when celebrity chefs rake in millions for scripted cooking shows, and onscreen personalities trump the meals themselves, it’s comforting to know that film has been treating food as the main star for years. Food as an act of love, healing and personal achievement has been something we can’t seem to get enough of in movies.
In the case of the 1981 Danish hit Babette’s Feast, the meal is as much a character in the film as the bickering diners themselves. Though the members of a dwindling Christian sect share a history of austere rules and disagreements, all are brought together for one lavish dinner prepared by their grateful housekeeper. Seeing epicurean indulgence as sinful, the members resolve to take no pleasure in what they are about to eat. But as course after course of the achingly delicious and lovingly prepared dishes is served, not only are their plans foiled but old wounds of love affairs, theft and lies are reopened and healed amid the savoury broths and rich desserts.
Not forgetting where our food comes from, Ang Lee opens Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) with a scene as messy as the lives of its protagonists: the gutting of a live fish. Chu, a widowed chef who has lost his sense of taste, cooks elaborate meals every Sunday for his three daughters. He has few other ways to relate to them, or to tell if the duck soup is too salty. Each at a different stage in her life — the mature single daughter, the businesswoman, the wayward teen — Jia-Jen, Jia-Chen and Jia-Ning grow up, meal by meal, through weekly expressions of love their father can’t himself enjoy.
In Big Night (1996), Primo and Secondo are immigrant brothers looking to bring real Italian fare to a 1950s America already stuffed on spaghetti and meatballs. Pascal, a local rival, offers the squabbling siblings a chance to save their ailing restaurant: one night to cook for big-band legend Louis Prima, and maybe hook some customers.
As preparations for the event take place, havoc ensues. Ingredients are lost, girlfriends cheated on, and though the meal is fantastic, Prima doesn’t show up. The night ends in a fistfight between the brothers, and what looks like the end of their business. The unlikely heroes? A couple of eggs and some olive oil. In probably the best food scene on film, Primo cooks a simple omelette shared between his brother and the restaurant waiter the morning after the big night. Words aren’t needed to know what’s going on as bread is broken and the two siblings pat each other on the back, eating in total silence. It’s enough to make me want to break an egg for a loved one myself.
There’s something about these films that does more than please the eye and make mouths water. Rather than teach us the technique for a perfect vinaigrette, they reveal something about the role food plays in our lives, the places it can feed us that we might otherwise miss. Just don’t watch them on an empty stomach.
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