Julie & Julia: Women Excelling at Work

Katha Pollitt's new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House.

There were many things I loved about Nora Ephron's clever and affectionate Julie & Julia, the feel-good hit of the summer for foodies and nonfoodies alike. Meryl Streep radiated warmth, excitement and cheer as Julia Child, learning to cook and writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1950s Paris. Amy Adams was vulnerable and endearing as Julie Powell, the drifting secretary-hipster who finds a purpose in life (and fame and fortune) when she spends a year cooking all 524 recipes from The Book and blogging about it. I loved that the most violent moment was the boning of a duck, that the only technological gizmos were pots and pans and kitchen knives and that the proper slicing of a sackful of onions served as a hilarious plot point. I enjoyed the American-in-Paris hokeyness of the Julia episodes: Ephron's Paris is a Francophile fantasy, all high-ceilinged nineteenth-century apartments, lovable shopkeepers and one fantastic meal after another. You would never know that only four years before Julia and Paul Child arrived in France, World War II was in full swing, Nazi occupation, roundups of Jews and all. I enjoyed, although somewhat less, Julie's up-to-date New York, in which she swings between her crummy apartment over a pizzeria, her job answering phones at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and chic Cobb salads with sleek, successful, obnoxious former classmates.

What I loved most of all, though, was that Julie & Julia is that very rare thing, a movie centered on adult women, and that even rarer thing, a movie about women's struggle to express their gifts through work. Not a boyfriend, a fabulous wedding, a baby, a gay best friend, a better marriage, escape from a serial killer, the perfect work-family balance, another baby. Real life is full of women for whom work is at the center, who crave creative challenge, who are miserable until they find a way to make a mark on the world. But in the movies, women with big ambitions tend to be Prada-wearing devils or uptight thirtysomethings who relax when they find a slacker boyfriend or inherit an adorable orphan. Among recent films, Seraphine, Martin Provost's biopic about an early-twentieth-century French cleaning woman and self-taught painter, is practically unique in its curiosity about a woman's creative drive. More usually, a woman's cinematic function is to forward, thwart, complicate or decorate the story of a man. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt's elusive girlfriend in (500) Days of Summer, Zooey Deschanel has all the external trappings of individuality -- aloofness, a sly smile, vintage clothes and indie tastes -- but she has no more inner life than Petrarch's Laura. She's there to break the hero's heart and rekindle his ambitions. What will she become? Someone else's wife.

Julia Child taught Americans how to find good food at the supermarket, how to cook, how to eat and how to enjoy. True, she taught the first two items mostly to women of means: her book was directed to "the servantless American cook." As food historian Laura Shapiro observes, Child managed to dislike feminists as well as the suburban "housewife chauffeur" who didn't care how food tasted as long as it was quick and easy to make. In her smart and shrewd memoir, My Kitchen Wars, Betty Fussell recalled the wave of competitive cooking that swept through academia in the wake of Julia Child: "Our dinner parties were baroquely elaborated gifts, like the human embroidery of weeping willows and cenotaphs that validated the gentility of Victorian hands." Elaborate cuisine involving many Le Creuset pots and many hours producing the perfect blanquette de veau was the rare area in which wives could express their thwarted need to excel without challenging their husbands' amour-propre. Child's recipe for her signature boeuf bourguignon is three pages long and took as much effort and concentration as preparing a lecture -- maybe more. But it earned no money and commanded no real respect or reordering of the domestic order; it was basically a hobby for ladies of leisure.

Did the vogue for haute cuisine set off by Child keep middle-class American women in the kitchen longer? This was the 1960s, after all -- the women's movement was just around the corner. Even today, with most women employed, cooking, like domesticity in general, is laden with moral implications. It's still women's work -- 87 percent of meals are prepared by women -- and it's still both part of the definition of proper womanhood and a demonstration of love. When domestic standards are raised without a concomitant rise in domestic equality, women tend to end up frazzled, guilty and jealous of one another. The love-hate relationship so many women have with Martha Stewart shows that this dynamic is still with us.

Convenience, to say nothing of health concerns, has long trumped Child's labor-intensive marvels of butter and cream, a fact recently mourned by Michael Pollan in The New York Times Magazine. This seems inevitable: Julie Powell came home from a full day's work and still turned out feasts in her tiny kitchen -- at 10 o'clock at night. Most people aren't going to do that -- even Powell did it mostly to have something to write about. But I'm more sanguine than Pollan about home cooking in general. It need not be difficult or time-consuming -- or only a woman's job (ahem!) -- to cook a healthy, delicious meal from scratch: catfish baked with olive oil and lemon, pasta with sautéed vegetables, a nice roast chicken with rice pilaf. It isn't duck à l'orange, but it's not rocket science either. Think of it this way: child-rearing standards have been raised so ridiculously high, a woman can spend her whole life socializing one or two small people and still feel like a failure. At least with cooking, chances are if you use fresh ingredients and follow the recipe, dinner will be delicious, and if you drop it on the floor, you can just pile it back on the platter. As Julia used to remind her viewers, in that swooping, thrilling voice of hers, "If you're alone in the kitchen, whoooo is going to see?"

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