When Julie Powell visited Dallas promoting the film based on her book about the year she spent methodically preparing every recipe found in Julia Child’s classic book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” she was on what she termed the “homestretch” of a grueling multi-city tour.
“I don’t know what day it is, I’m completely clueless—they point me in the right direction and I go,” Powell said. “But I did actually get to get some Mexican food here in Dallas. I’ve been eating mostly room service on the road—it’s just endless chicken club sandwiches—but I was actually able to get some tacos, so I’m happy.”
Powell spent her youth in Texas, eating a rather different cuisine from that she described preparing from Child’s book, first in a blog and then in print form. “I didn’t start cooking seriously until I’d left Texas, and it was because I’d left Texas for school in the Northeast,” she said. “And to my mind as a Texan they don’t know how to eat up there, so I started cooking to try to recapture some of the food that I was missing, everything from gumbo to chicken-fried steak up to barbecue and Mexican food. So that’s how I learned to cook—in a really ad hoc fashion.
“By the time I came to the project and Julia’s book, I felt that I’d kind of done as much as I could on my own, and of course I was coming to this point in my life where I was at this crisis—turning thirty and I was a secretary, I was unhappy. And Julia’s book kind of spoke to me as a next step—such a comprehensive book about classic French technique.”
As structured for the screen by writer-director Nora Ephron, Powell’s own story is juxtaposed with that of Child herself studying French cooking while her husband Paul was posted in Paris during the 1950s—which in turn led to the writing of her book. “The movie is scrubbed up a good little bit” in terms of her half of the script, Powell said, “and I don’t just mean the language, though certainly that is part of it. But all the kind of really dirty, nasty stuff got cut—there are no maggots in the movie, and the plumbing problems are not quite as graphically portrayed as they could have been.” But she’s more than content with that.
And with the casting. Child is impersonated, in a flamboyantly rich turn, by Meryl Streep, which still amazes Powell. “With Meryl Streep, it’s unbelievable,” she said. “And having the chance to meet her and see her play this role, and to think that I had some small part in having that come to be, is extraordinarily exciting and moving.”
Powell called seeing herself played onscreen by someone else—the talented Amy Adams—“deeply surreal. But the thing about seeing yourself portrayed in a movie—and it had been some time in coming, so I sort of prepared myself by saying ‘This is a fictional character with my name’—is that the first time you see it, of course, you kind of freak out a little. But honestly I’d come to the point where it’s true that the Julie Powell in the movie is not me, and it was, I think, a very healthy move for me to have realized that before I started watching the movie, because if you get caught up in ‘Oh, that’s not the way I did it,’ and get too worried about the fact that this person you’re watching on the screen is supposed to be you, that’s a slippery slope into—I don’t know—narcissism and possibly insanity. So I made that choice—‘I’m going to watch Amy Adams playing a character who happens to share my name.’ And that made it easier.”
The film retains a painful moment from the book, when Powell was informed by a reporter that the elderly Child had characterized her project—and blog—as disrespectful. Powell recalled the episode: “Of course it’s devastating—I’d spent a year doing something that was completely a tribute to this woman who’d been such an inspiration to me. And when the person who’s your inspiration doesn’t see your tribute as what you think it is, it’s hurtful at first. But the thing is, if anyone’s entitled to her opinion, it’s Julia Child. And I think this is a great thing about the movie—and it’s one reason I’m glad they retained that—that part of the journey is not depending on what other people think of you, even if that person is someone who is so important.
“The project wound up being a project I did for me, and I know why I did it, and I know she was an inspiration. It doesn’t have to be a mutual admiration society. But my life changed because of her. I don’t love her because she loved me; I love her because of who she is.
“But honestly, this project wound up being about me finding what my vocation was. Writing is the truest thing I do, when I do it well. It’s profoundly life-changing.
“Meryl Streep is like cake—more and more and more cake. But at the end of the day, the meal is, I think, the book.”