Thursday, February 04, 2010

Julie & Julia revisited: Lost in translation

Every so often I'll watch a movie that everyone hates and I absolutely love. And no, I'm not sharing those with you.

But once in a while I'll watch a movie that everyone absolutely adores that makes me go WTF?! Julie & Julia is one such movie.

J&J is based on two memoirs, which the screenplay cleverly intersects into one integrated parallel narrative. It's been done many times before but it works in an impressively well oiled way in this movie. Julie (Amy Adams) - who is a bit of a failed writer and stuck in a dead end job - cooks her way through 524 recipes from Julia Child's cookbook (Mastering the Art of French Cuisine) as a way of proving to herself that she undertake something creative AND finish it. She blogs about it (the original blog is here on Salon).


In the second interwoven story, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) moves to Paris and begins her now famous love affair with French cuisine.

There are several reasons I just didn't get into the movie. We'll leave the well accepted ones aside: lack of a propulsive plot, somewhat one-dimensional supporting characters, no real conflict. The biggest reason for my LACK of engagement was: THE FOOD!

Everyone who loved the movie loved the food in it. The first piece of food that Julia tastes in the movie is a fish swimming in butter. Hells Bells! What a perfectly good way to ruin a fish! Director Nora Ephron then drives this point home when she ladles on (so to say) the butter. Julie is shown talking about how lots of butter is essential for cooking good food. Cue heart attack inducing shots of blocks of butter melting in a pan. Let's get back to REAL food, Ephron seems to be saying, simultaneously thumbing her nose at the cageyness of modern day cuisine to embrace good wholesome fat.

For the rest of the movie I was regaled with lovingly shot recipes featuring meat slathered with butter and wrapped up in pastry wherever possible. I might have seen a vegetable or two tossed in there somewhere - but they disappeared before I could pull out my microscope. At one point Julie tries to make a jelly out of beef stew. Later she tries to stuff chicken liver back in the chicken before baking it.

Once in the entire movie I saw Julia toss some oregano in a pot. Hadn't anyone in France heard of haldi or garam masala back then? For a desi like me, cooking without spices is a crime of the highest order. By the time the final recipe made its way into the movie - a duck baked in pastry (the only spices in there - salt), I had lost my appetite for the ENTIRE WEEKEND.

During my graduate days, a friend (part Polish-part French-part German) used to admonish me for adding flavor to meat or vegetables. "What's the point?" she used to say, glaring at me "the original taste of what you are cooking is completely gone!"

I can't argue that point (I even have some relatives who won't eat a fruit unless its slices are sprinkled with chaat masala). But using spices has advantages. For one, it allows you put flavorful food on the table without having to fry it each time for big taste. Second, if used right you can incorporate the medicinal value of spices right into your plate of food. To be fair, Indian cooking has several shortcomings - the worst of which is how much we tend to overcook our food and lose most of its nutritional value. But I digress.

Back to movie: Julia Child is credited with empowering American women with the confidence to cook again. This is alluded to in Julie's story where she gains control of her life by learning cooking through Childs' cookbook. I was completely unable to connect with this emotional subtext in the story although that was not related to the food in the movie.

On the other hand, I am increasingly fascinated by the impressively burgeoning career of Amy Adams. I love the way her hair itself gives a performance in every movie (hold on to that hairstylist!). But that is a whole different post.

The movie is based on the following books:
Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell
My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'Homme

My thanks to Beth and Memsaab for helping me understand why the movie (and the iconic Child) was so loved by everyone

27 comments:

meena said...

aspi, what did you think of dame Meryl? just say meryl streep and people get all reverential like she is the last word...I havent yet seen a movie where she was not annoying.
...I think I sat through Night at the Museum only because I was fascinated by Amy's hair and makeup:)

sudipta pal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

See Aspi, even the cakes and fresh flowers do not stand up to Julia's cooking. They have to bring sarees in hopefully that will scare her!
Julia and Julie in reputable sarees, ahhh ! delectable as they say.

Aspi said...

Meryl is my least favorite actress - but she's hard to knock because she is the last hold out of a style of acting that I really like. I was working on a post there which I abandoned about how the top actresses in Hollywood tend to act. Maybe some day.

Anon, I think I need to start posting some awesome man movie reviews - like Max Payne or Gamer or something. Then - no more sarees and flowers.

Anonymous said...

I think I understand what you mean about Meryl, I do not like her, but she takes on the roles beautifully.

As for Julie and Julia, you are correct, this was a 'real food' lovers movie. But, again you have few of those come along, the last I remember was Chocolat...
As for Indian cooking, most people do not know what authentic Indian food is. And, no it wasn't the way my mom or my amma made it. They found a way to get thru it. If made right, the garam masala is never over-powering only adds to enhance the flavor of food. And, hence do not use garam masala on everything, pleeeeaseee.
It would good to know you don't cook much.

Aspi said...

True, what is authentic is questionable just about anywhere because food, like any other pracheen pratha, has a history and evolution.

What might be considered authentic Indian food is just a point in time in the evolution of that food.

Deep said...

lets not knock garam masala now. its saved the life of many a desi graduate student.

memsaab said...

Mmmmm....butter.

That is all.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with you memsaab.
Aspi, FYI, butter is 20% water by volume. Ghee or as they call here clarified butter, is 100% BAD FAT by volume.
I think your heart will be strangled with ghee covered roti's before the butter dipped fish.

Aspi said...

memsaab, :)

anon, wow you know a lot about grease.

Anonymous said...

yeah I know a lot about phaltu stuff.

Aspi said...

what about lard then. How does that stack up?! :)

Mind Rush said...

One thing I enjoyed dissecting in the movie were the marital relationships. The two women had very supportive husbands, and this was a refreshing change. While both women were engrossed in traditionally female pursuits they would not have succeeded to the extent that they did without that spousal support.

Anonymous said...

clarified butter, shortening, lard==pork fat, are all same content of fat and cholesterol.
But, if you were frying, do not fry with ghee or clarified butter cannot maintain high temperatures without having a burnt taste, use LARD.
So, in short when heated to high temperatures ghee 'melts down' lard keeps up its strength of strangling the heart.

Anonymous said...

Butter makes better!
Ghee adds glee!
Drift you are being daft!

Aspi said...

Wow all this is inspiring me to do a post on ghee, lard and other cooking fats.

Anonymous said...

हाँ आपका इस विषय पर अध्ययन करना व्यर्थ नहीं है /

Anonymous said...

WOw, I am hungry for some deep fried....anything!

Kokilaben said...

Fafda-jalebi just wouldn't be the same if they were steamed....

Bolly boy said...

I challenge you to name one Indian dish that does not taste better with added fat!

Anonymous said...

Aaaah, I knew I did this for a reason, the simplest of all Indian dishes, dahi chawal(curd rice), rasam (lentil soup south indian style). Of course, these are supposed to be opposites of 'fried milk fat' or as some people call it 'paneer' but they are yummy too!!

Aspi said...

Macher jol! Tastes like crap with added fat.

How about idlis?

I do see Indians cooking with lots of fat. Its totally unnecessary if you ask me.

Aspi said...

And I have another bone to pick with expensive sea food places. Why all that added butter? Can't cook seafood properly or what? I've been boycotting them steadily.

Anonymous said...

This is coming from someone who does not eat anything with a face. Basics of a fish, Aspi. Has a lot of water since it is in water, has protein that breaks down easily. So, cooking fish in butter does 2 things, first basic technique, osmosis (expensive restaurants regulate this by maintaining the temperature and hence the best results), water is replaced by butter. Second, butter is 20% water, so when cooked the fat portion acts as insulation to the protein and hence the freshness is maintained, the water in butter becomes air bubbles, hence the crispness/flakiness, like in a pastry.
So, if using fat with fish use butter, not oil or ghee because it won't provide that glee to your taste buds.

Anonymous said...

Is it me or does any one think that Our Bebo would look like Meryl Streeo when she is 80 years old ?

Anonymous said...

Amul, zindabaad!

Aspi said...

Bebo would look like meryl streep? Is it because of the severe ponytails?