Julie and Julia and Remembrance of Things Past

Posted August 28th, 2009

We just got back from seeing “Julie and Julia.” I howled much of the way through. At moments I made sure my Dear One did not see me crying. It was a wonderful film, not perfect perhaps in structure, but pitch-perfect in tone.

I see that Mastering the Art of French Cooking is back on the best-seller list. It is hard to imagine, save for the agitation of the lipophobic, any reason why it ever should have left that list. My mother had a copy. In my mind I imagine it parked next to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique on our bookshelf and Julia Child sprawls in a seat next to a peripatetic spinster godmother, an artist aunt, a canny headmistress, and the other goddesses in my personal pantheon. And, of course, my mother. My mother relied on Julia’s recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon and for my 21st birthday, that was the dish I requested.

I love Julia Child. I watched her on television. I listened to my grandparents’ reminisce about a dinner they enjoyed at her home. Her mantra, more or less, that flavor is all and that restraint should be exercised only in portion control is for me a credo.

What really struck me about the film was the subtext of shared pleasures. The robust lust of Paul and Julia Child, the rare moments of domestic tranquility between Julie and Eric Powell, include food: preparation, anticipation, gustatory pleasure, and Proustian memory.

Food was the epicenter of my parents’ lives, back in the financially strapped 1950s and early 1960s. Parties were about dinner rather than drinks. Family events were enacted around meals. For that matter, everything that mattered in my family took place between the stove and the dining room table. Ballot choices were hammered out in conversations in the pantry. Celebrations began with menus. Disagreements were aired and ideas explored over dinner. Food was reward and panacea; independence was culinary competence.

While I would be the last person to diminish the allure of gourmandise, I think that food selected, prepared and shared is most important for the way it expands the present moment. In Bergsonian terms, food is all about duration, about the sensations inherent in the now that focus our attention and connect us most completely to others. Too much focus on the future, too much angst about the past, and you end up with a burnt entrée, curdled sauce and collapsed cakes.

Tonight we had planned on chilled gazpacho and corn off the cob creamed with half-and-half and butter. We were late getting home from the movie, though, so we set the tomatoes aside for tomorrow and made hotdogs to go with the corn. (In the meantime I blanched green peppers, stuffed them with leftover lamb and rice, and set them aside for tomorrow’s dinner.) The question I face now is whether the remains of the peach crumble I baked yesterday will survive until tomorrow.

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