Movie Chat: Julie & Julia

Fans of Julia Child would love the new film, Julie and Julia, as the director, Nora Ephron, depicted post-WWII Paris in bright, sunny colors and without reference to deprivations, electrical shortages or municipal strikes.  While I agree with A.O. Scott, the NYTimes film critic, that the cards were stacked against Amy Adams who plays the young memoirist, Julie Powell—the best scenes had Meryl Streep in it, naturally— Adams gave a fine, credible performance.  The director had eliminated the unpleasant parts of Powell’s memoir— the gratuitous cursing and the gossip about her friends’ love and sex lives— giving us a sweeter, cuter, slimmer Amy Adams-embodiment of Ms. Powell.  And 21st century New York City is unfairly  represented by industrial Queens (which does have some lovely neighborhoods after all), although there was a witty juxtaposition of an American water tower compared to the Eiffel Tower.

Meryl Streep continues to amaze and delight her fans with her ability to work her way into a character.  With the aid of cleverly placed camera angles, carpentry (Child’s size-12 feet do not fit on a French bed), a wig (?), and heels, she gives a convincing portrayal of a cultural icon, whom Americans of a certain age remember and love.

The husbands, played by Stanley Tucci (his best role yet!) and Chris Messina, were lovingly supportive, except for one made-up scene in which Eric Powell spitefully spikes his bowl of boeuf bourguignon with salt, then storms out of their apartment after she’s devastated by the last-minute no-show appearance by the renown Child-editor, Judith Jones.  My husband wonders, how supportive a spouse is he, when he lets down his wife when she’s vulnerable?

One of the funniest lines does not come from Child’s memoir:  having failed her examination for a diploma from the Le Cordon Bleu, Child informs the director that she intends to teach French cooking to the American people.  The haughty and spiteful director retorts: you cannot cook, you would never be able to cook, but your American audience would never know the difference.  In actuality, Child did flunk the exam, but only because it asked about housewifely dishes that Child had ignored in her quest to become a real, professional cook. After many appeals, including a faked reference to the disappointment of the American ambassador, Child won another chance to demonstrate her by-then formidable skills and she passed with flying colors.  By the time she met her future collaborators, she had become a certified graduate of an authentic French institution.

One of the most poignant scenes did not dwell fully on the full text of Child’s memoir: after Julia and her sister, Dorothy, had gotten dressed in their best dresses, chicest hats and spiffiest shoes (in sizes hard to find in Paris), they regard their reflections and declaim: nice but not nice enough (for the French).  The film also made much more of the Childs’ childlessness than Julia ever displayed in her memoir, although she did dote on her nieces and nephews.  Her memoir was written with the help of her grand-nephew.

My father-in-law asked if the film left us hungry and I replied that it wasn’t food we would eat anyway— meat and seafood prepared in butter and cream sauces.  No one cooks much in the classic French way anymore, not even the French.

I’d predicted that there wouldn’t be anyone under age 30 at the film and I wasn’t wrong, but we were both surprised by the number of very old patrons, including several in walkers and wheelchairs.  I guess these are the fans of Julia Child, who’d had taught them to appreciate French food.

The cinema we’d visited had been rescued from demolition and restored as an art institute.  It houses a coffee shop that touts its organic, local, and sustainable food, with 80% sourced from within 20 miles around.  My husband scoffed at this, as coffee and tea are not grown here in the Middle Atlantic states, but I said that they’re not counting beverages in their claim.

The sad truth is that Julie Powell never met her spiritual mentor, who died in 2004 at the age of 91.  In both her memoir as well as the film, a reporter calls for an interview, relaying the news that Child regards her blog as “disrespectful and not serious.”  I do not believe this could be fully accurate.  In an interview with Terry Gross, Child was asked if she knew that Dan Aykroyd had made a skit about her–  a crude and bloody one– for Saturday Night Live and Child chuckled and commented, yes and I have a tape of it.  Julia Child loved life and food and good humor, so I do not believe it is possible that she could be mean to an acolyte.  I bet she had not read Powell’s blog and did not realize the extent of Powell’s idolization.  True, one year cooking and blogging does not compare to eight years of recipe testing and writing–  not to mention the years before, in learning French and cooking– but Powell had anointed Julia Child as her lodestar and spiritual guide to what is right and good and just about life, love, and food.  We should all have such a mentor.

Book Review: Fortune Cookie Chronicles

The expression often cited to demonstrate patriotism is “as American as apple pie” but when was the last time you ate apple pie? Now compare that with your most recent meal of Chinese food.

For an immigrant group that was despised and feared from its earliest arrival on these shores (to date, the only group meriting a dedicated act by Congress, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882), the Chinese has made tremendous in-roads into the American society. Americans, and especially the Jews, have embraced Chinese food, both as takeout comfort meals as well as for celebratory occasions. But the beloved foods known as chop suey (now considered passé, but wildly popular in the years after World War II), fortune cookies, and General Tso’s chicken are as American-born as apple pie. In fact, an ill-fated endeavor to introduce fortune cookies to China in the 1990’s was met with abysmal failure, because the treat was considered “too American.” The tastes that Americans love— intensely sweet, crispy, deep-fried, and —are just not authentic Chinese ones.

The Powerball scandal of 2005 when 110 lottery winners nationwide all claimed to have obtained their winning sequences from a fortune cookie lead Jennifer 8. Lee to an journalistic investigation, from which she proceeded to write an intrigue-filled book on Chinese assimilation through the prism of food, titled The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. Ms. Lee is a reporter for the New York Times, a graduate of Harvard with degrees in applied mathematics and economics, and an American-born Chinese.

One chapter in her book is devoted to answering why have Jews embraced Chinese food? I learned from Ms. Lee’s book that there are academic treatises written on this subject, including a paper written by Gary Tuchman and Harry G. Levine called “Safe Treyf” (treyf being the Yiddish word for non-kosher food) in which they propose that of all the foods encountered in America, Chinese food was the most foreign, the most “un-Jewish.” Yet, writes Ms. Lee, “Jews defined this particular foreignness not as forbidding but as appealing, attractive, and desirable. Indeed, many Jews saw eating in Chinese restaurants as an antidote for Jewish parochialism, for the exclusive and overweening emphasis on the culture of the Jews as it had been.”

Hanna R. Miller in her paper, “Identity Takeout: How American Jews Made Chinese Food Their Ethnic Cuisine,” cited the geographic proximity between these two immigrant groups in New York City’s Lower East Side (ignoring the third ethnic group living in nearby Little Italy). Other scholars note the absence of dairy in Chinese cuisine, which makes it more easily compatible with kashrut (laws on kosher food preparation, specifically the forbidden mixing of meat and dairy ingredients) than Italian or French cuisine.

Ms. Lee even sought out a literary angle, quoting Philip Roth’s character, Portnoy, on his perspective on Chinese food: “Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are just so much fried rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white—and maybe even Anglo Saxon. Imagine!”

Finally, the author traveled to China to seek someone who could speak with authority about both Chinese and Jewish cultures. There she met an 81-year-old Chinese woman who lived on Jiaojing Hutong or “Teaching Scriptures Alley” in Kaifeng, where the Jewish faith was known as “the religion which removes the sinew.” (The Jewish community of Kaifeng thrived from 1163 until the 1860s.) The author hoped that “she, being one of the rare Chinese Jews in the world today, would be able to shed light on a question that had vexed academics, bolstered comedy routines and intrigued Portnoy.

‘“Why,” I asked, “do Jews in America like Chinese food so much?”

With a glint in her eye, she slapped the wooden table.

She knew.

I leaned in. This was the insight for which I had traveled thousands of miles, walked along a highway at midnight, and scoured alleyways.

Her Buddhist koan-like response was profound in its simplicity:

“Because Chinese food tastes good.”’

Another chapter introduced the soy sauce trade dispute in which the Japanese delegation petitioned to the international trade regulatory organization to set standards for soy sauce, as the French has done for champagne, the Italians for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and the Koreans for kimchee. However, these latter are known and consumed by few connoisseurs in comparison to the worldwide market for soy sauce. The version of “soy sauce” consumed by most Americans (most often served in little plastic packets distributed by Kari-Out, owned by the Epstein family of Westchester, NY) is not made from actual soybeans. Instead, its list of ingredients are: water, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, caramel coloring and corn syrup—essentially, thick, brown salty water. This is not an atypical story of the American alteration and mass-processing of foods from around the world, including beer, chocolate, and cheese (to the dismay and frustration of their original compatriots). After several years of hardball lobbying by the Americans, the Japanese quietly withdrew their petition in 2005. The Americans had won: soy sauce does not have to be made from whole soybeans.

There are other chapters with fascinating insights on how Chinese immigration has impacted American society. To find out the real deal on fortune cookies, check out Jennifer 8. Lee’s new book.

Photo credit: Rasa Malaysia