Never apologize. No excuses. No explanations.”
With attitude like that, why wouldn’t you spend most of a day making Veal Prince Orloff?
The summer’s foodie blockbuster Julie & Julia has, since opening locally six weeks ago, been driving a revival of French cooking. Bookstores, markets and kitchens around town are soaking in the buzz from packed showings at the Lake Theatre. Tackling the preparation of fancy dishes is proving as irresistible as Reine de Saba avec Glaçage au Chocolat – chocolate and almond cake with chocolate-butter icing.
“I saw the movie three times,” says Oak Parker Susie Cahill. “I’ve always looked at cooking dinner as an unpleasant chore at the end of the day when I’m tired. This movie made me realize that it can be fun, and rewarding, to make good things and share them with others.”
The same way that Julia Child awakened TV viewers in the 1960s – “Before her, it was frozen food and can openers and marshmallows” – now a movie about a young woman cooking and blogging her way through Child’s first cookbook is redirecting a zap-it-in-the-microwave culture:
Lip-smackin’ good fish, richly marbled red meat, and just-ripe fruits and vegetables all stand out in scene after glorious-food scene as fun stuff to play with. The prep process, with its helpings of challenges and dollops of forgiveness, is nourishment for the soul. And the finish for every recipe, of course, is both a work of art and a feast. For PBS decades ago, there were no orgasmic observations along the way. For the big screen now, you get to hear some wild commentary by Julia the hottie.
The week in early August that Julie & Julia opened at the Lake, it topped the local box-office report. Since then, it’s held the strongest and longest lead: three weeks in the second position and just a week in the third.
Julie & Julia, named after a blog-turned-book by chef wannabe Julie Powell, is the composite of two women’s introductions to French cooking. Julia Child gets hooked decades earlier and becomes the evangelist. Julie Powell is a disciple. Each woman’s story is a book. And the connection between the two stories is another book, which is part of a two-volume set. Overall, then, the movie relates to four books. So as any good French cook would do with butter, which becomes a character in all the books and the movie, let’s clarify the movie’s book connections:
Julie Powell’s book is Julie & Julia. Its subtitle as a hardcover was 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. In its 13th printing now, the subtitle of the softcover is My Year of Cooking Dangerously. It was published in 2005. It’s the story of how a woman facing her 30th birthday and knowing she’s not achieving her potential in a government office job finds a growing sense of accomplishment as she attacks recipe after recipe in Julia Child’s masterpiece cookbook. “If you add egg to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. And that, at the end of a work day, is a comfort,” Julie tells her husband.
The Julia Child memoir that Powell’s book reflects is My Life in France. It covers how clueless the host of PBS’s The French Chef was, years earlier, to French food and French cooking by showing us how she arrived in Paris as a diplomat’s wife and went about, at midlife, trying to find something engaging to do. The translation of French cooking techniques that she ended up developing for American housewives – the lot without servants, as she calls her audience – became an eight-year project. Rejected by the first U.S. publishing house to review the manuscript, it turned into the culinary arts bible known as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which spawned a second volume.
Nora Ephron blended the two memoirs into a screenplay and directed the movie, too. Though about women and by women, it’s no chick flick. Each character finds her passion, her power and herself through adventures in a kitchen and with the support of a loving and witty husband. Meryl Streep plays Julia Child, nailing her every move. Amy Adams plays Julie Powell.
Even before the movie opened, local reaction was serious. At The Perfect Dinner, the commercial kitchen on South Boulevard in Oak Park that specializes in full-prep meals for family-scale takeout and delivery, a movie poster on the storefront for all of August announced a 15 percent savings on all orders that month with presentation of a Lake Theatre stub from Julie & Julia. At Marion Street Cheese Market, the chef had prepared a limited-time menu with Julia Child’s recipes.
Since the movie opened, people have been pulling out their copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, now in its 39th printing. If one’s not in reach, they’re investing in a $40 hardcover. The current price – according to what Child’s editor, Judith Jones, told The New York Times recently – buys you more Julia. Jones said that in overseeing revisions over the years, she tucked in nuggets from Child that in previous editions had been pushed out by work of her two French collaborators, whose difficulties as contributors surface in the movie. Almost 50 years old, Child’s first cookbook only made The New York Times bestseller list last month.
At The Book Table in Oak Park, Julia Child has topped sales since the movie came out. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 1 has been our overall bestselling hardcover every week since the movie’s release,” reports owner Rachel Weaver. “My Life in France has been our bestselling nonfiction paperback. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 2 has enjoyed renewed sales as well.”
Once set with directions, people just finding or rediscovering their inner French chef are seeking out produce, meats, cheeses and butter. At Marion Street Cheese Market, Carla Gini, a lifelong village resident, is seeing people’s intensity and observing their thoroughness as “so Oak Park.” Gini, whose shifts cover weekend evenings, says she sees people coming in straight from the movie at the Lake and buying passionately, particularly butter – which Marion Street Cheese Market has the largest local range of, from a Vermont cultured butter ($4.99 a pound) to goat butter from the United Kingdom for $9.99 a half pound, to $29 for several ounces of truffle butter from Italy. There also are little $9.99 tubs of D’Artagnan Duck Fat, “the ‘butter’ that will make a gourmet chef out of you.”
For Gini, whose mother was a French teacher, Julia Child reigns away from work, too. “I was an early Julia Child enthusiast, making Boeuf Bourguignon,” says Mary Ann DeBruin, Gini’s mom, who’s been reaching back for her Julia Child cookbooks since seeing the movie. Don DeBruin, Gini’s dad, agrees that the movie draws you in. He liked the portrayal of Paul Child, Julia’s loving supportive diplomat husband. Gini, one of the tall members of the cheese market staff, is, like her parents, a Julia fan, but has her own reason for cheering on Meryl Streep’s character. “She was 6-2. … I love her height, her sense of humor, and her love of adventure!”
Just as she had in the ’60s, the woman who cooked wearing a strand of pearls is inspiring new waves of dinner parties. Ray Johnson, an Oak Park village trustee, is invited to a French-themed dinner, for which everyone’s making a Julia recipe. He’s on for the chocolate and almond cake with chocolate-butter icing, the dessert that Julie and her husband playfully devoured in the movie.
Oak Parker Tom Gull, a sales consultant for a church bulletin company, is no recruit to Julia Child’s influence. The man who drives around town with SAUTE vanity plates watched The French Chef as a kid, finding Julia much more interesting, he says, than Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. As a teen, he made his first recipe from her book: chocolate éclairs. After a trip to Paris at 26, he really got into French cooking. Recently, he decided to share what he knows with friends over show-and-tell cooking sessions. No matter how challenging the recipe, he doesn’t sweat:
“If you cook with love, it will always turn out.”