Is Nora Ephron the foodiest filmmaker?

The director of "Julie & Julia" opens up about her great passion, on-screen and off: Food

Published August 5, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

Nora Ephron arrives at the premiere of "Julie and Julia" in Los Angeles on Monday, July 27, 2009.
Nora Ephron arrives at the premiere of "Julie and Julia" in Los Angeles on Monday, July 27, 2009.

"Julie & Julia," the movie written and directed by Nora Ephron, is based on two books about two cooks, one world-famous and one world-weary, and there is little question that watching it provokes a physiological response. It makes you crave hollandaise. It makes you want soufflé. It might even, briefly, make you hungry for aspic made of beef feet.

I was probably destined to swoon over "Julie & Julia," given my love for Paris, in which it is set; for food, on which it runs; for Julia Child, whose story it tells; for Meryl Streep, who embodies her with galumphing surety; and for Ephron, who binds it all together (and, with whom, in the interest of disclosure, I have become friendly in the years since I profiled her for Salon).

So take my enthusiasms knowing full well my prejudices, but watching "Julie & Julia" was like having fizzing joy injected directly into my veins. And it wasn't just about the sizzle of the sole meunière and the glisten of the oysters slurped down at Parisian market stalls.

The deeper pleasures of the movie come not from the gloss and satisfying chomp of it all, but from the empty spots, the hungers and the imperfections.

There is Child, whom we now adore, but who in the late 1940s (when her portion of the movie's split narrative begins) was searching for meaning outside her loving, sex-filled marriage. Streep's Child is outsize in every way: big and gangling in her affections for butter and for her husband, Paul, and in her frustrations with the limited options for wives in Paris, her politically conservative father, and her inability to have children.

Then there is her contemporary acolyte, cubicle drone Julie Powell, striving in 2002 to escape the grief of daily calls from family members of World Trade Center victims, to have something to say to a table full of girlfriends with expense accounts and assistants, to live up to the potential she'd once believed she had. Powell takes refuge in her food, and at the urging of her well-fed mate realizes she might make her refuge her life. As she did in life, the cinematic Powell takes her own professional future in hand by starting a Salon blog on which she chronicles cooking her way through every recipe in Child's opus "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

So yes, it's a movie about women and food, women and cooking, women and butter. It's a love story about women and men, especially men who do for their mates what women have traditionally done for theirs: provide the ballast and support that make the pursuit of professional goals more possible. And it's a romance of women and women, sisters and pen pals and muses these women may never have met, but whose written voices echo daily in their heads. Perhaps most sweetly and most rarely, it is a paean to ambition -- the drive to work, to achieve, to succeed, and to be recognized and compensated for it.

I recently sat down and spoke with Ephron, who was raised in Hollywood by screenwriter parents, about menu planning, vintage typewriters, cooking in the 1960s, chicken Marengo, Rice-A-Roni, single life and, well, mostly about food.

When you were a journalist, you chronicled the birth of "The Food Establishment," writing in the late '60s an early iteration of something that could be written today about artisanal, seasonal, local obsessions of foodies: "American men and women were cooking along with Julia Child, subscribing to the Shallot of the Month club, and learning to mince garlic instead of pushing it through a press ... Food became, for dinner-party conversations in the sixties, what abstract expressionism had been in the fifties." What do you think of how that culture has evolved?

It's such a huge business now. Just think that when I wrote about the food establishment, there were basically four main people [James Beard, Julia Child, Michael Field and Craig Claiborne]. It was such a tiny, backbiting world. Now it is a very large backbiting world. There's so much money involved! It used to be that people would lord over the tiny number of endorsements and the small number of big cookbook advances that were out there. Now it's a monster industry. And by the way, I always have the sense that people don't cook nearly as much as they used to. But they're in love with watching people cook and reading about food and gasping when the pot of chocolate is poured into a cup, you know?

It seems there are warring sensibilities, as you say, between actually cooking and watching people cook, and with regard to food culture and the economy, from Alice Waters and the White House vegetable garden ...

The thing I am always amazed by with this whole eating local thing is that if we actually did this, all we would eat in January and February and March in New York are ramps and cabbage. I don't think people quite understand that this is really isn't going to work unless you live within driving distance of Fresno, Calif.

You also wrote about the culture of high-priced media consumption of food as being part of the new porn in the '70s. Now that food as pornography has become cliché, does it correspond to your feelings about cooking and appreciating food?

It's so unfair to call it pornography, because it has such a negative connotation. That photograph of the pizza in this week's New York magazine, it's so beautiful. So I think of it more as art than pornography. Years ago, [Ephron's sister and frequent collaborator] Delia and I were working one day and the Martha Stewart Living magazine arrived and it had a photograph of a coconut cake on the cover, and we both looked at it and gasped. It was so beautiful. By the way, the woman who styled that photograph is the woman who did all the food in "Julie & Julia," Susan Spungen. It just seems unfair to call that pornography, just because I gasped when I saw it, and it made me want it. Immediately.

When did you start cooking?

When I got out of college. My mother had an IBM Selectric typewriter that IBM had given her when she and my father wrote "The Desk Set," which had that IBM computer in it, and it was the typewriter where every letter was a different size, so if you had to backspace you had to backspace three times to eliminate the "M," two times for the "N" and once for the "I" and it was very beautiful type, and she sent me all these index cards with recipes on them. My mother was a late-in-life cook but a person who loved food, so I had all these recipes that were from just before things changed, like rumaki and chicken Marengo.

What is chicken Marengo?

It's chicken in a tomato sauce, but it is something that everyone made, and I noticed a Marengo recipe in Julia Child. And she gave me the two volumes of the Gourmet cookbook. She also did this weird thing when I was about 16. My summer job was that I had to plan all the menus in our house and then go do all the food shopping.

It was this amazing lesson in how you did menus. I had to talk it over with people in the house, including the cook, by the way, but it was a great thing in terms of understanding what a meal was, and what went with what and what didn't go with what.

So then I got out of college and entered into the derby of competitive cooking that became this hilarious subplot to the '60s. I mean, the political '60s  hadn't really begun, but things were changing. Part of the change was that the intelligent woman was cooking from Julia Child, of course. And Michael Field, and all those cookbooks that were so great, and everyone served the same things.

In waves?

Absolutely. Everyone served the beef bourguignon. And everyone served the chicken curry from Michael Field. In fact, I have friends who still serve that.

So when everyone was serving beef bourguignon, was it a competition?

Well, it sometimes got very pretentious and overreaching, but the food was really good! Nobody had caterers; no one had any money. And people really did say things like "Is this Julia?" after they tasted something, and it was men, not women, doing it. It was just part of a right of passage into New York adulthood. It included our group discovery of dim sum, and the pilgrimages to find barbecue in Queens.

You were also cooking for yourself as a single young woman.

I would cook a meal for four and eat it. Really ... By the way, I had an entire marriage that I mainly only remember Rice-A-Roni from.

Was that the first marriage?

He was insane over Rice-A-Roni. It's not too bad, by the way. Rice-A-Roni. Really.

You have written about having had long-term imaginative relationships with individual cookbook authors, and that you yourself had a Julia period.

I did, yes. But I was surprised when I made the movie, since I thought I had cooked so much in her cookbook but the truth is I'd never made a lot of things I still regard as idiotic like aspic. Why you would ever make aspic I don't know, and nobody liked it but me, so you would never serve it to anyone. And I never made quiche. I never really liked quiche.

When you cooked from her cookbook, did you follow all her many intricate nutty steps?

I did. She's such a great teacher. Because you really -- you know beurre blanc, the one with white vinegar? That is the most delicious thing in the whole world. You learn to do that stuff and then you get very calm about it, because you now understand that almost anything can be fixed, that you don't quite have to be that exact, that you don't have to be that crazy.

I am interested in the imaginative relationship that develops when you're cooking from one person's cookbook, so someone else's voice is in your head, every night in your home. There's intimacy there.

And fantasy! I have written about that, the endless fantasy that the cookbook author will come for dinner, and about the subsequent confusion about whether to serve them something in their cookbook or someone else's cookbook. At a certain point Craig Claiborne did come to my house for dinner, and it wasn't particularly successful in any way. It was a giant letdown.

That is a powerful part of the film -- Powell hearing through another source what Child thinks of her project, and getting terribly let down. If that had happened to me, I would have quit!

It's lucky it happened at the end of her project. Because her imagined Julia had to have been such an animating thing as she became more and more obsessed. Because it is an obsession to do something like that. I mean, it was also ambitious in every sense of the word, and all of them good. She really did see this as a way to dream, a way to become a writer, and it worked! But yes, oh, it would be terrible if the person you wanted to essentially sleep with said, "No way."

I always think that that relationship of someone who meets their idol has a built-in shelf life. Julia Child, I have to say, may have been an exception to all of this, in that I think that when most people met her they continued to love her. Everybody wants to tell you about how charming she was. Most of the people I know who knew her, like my editor Bob Gottlieb, who was the head of Knopf at the time, said that she was like a giant Christmas tree. She had this generosity of spirit that was so irresistible.

You never met her yourself?

No, I never met her. Maybe it's just as well, who knows. I always felt when we were [writing] "Silkwood" that if I had ever met Karen Silkwood, it would have been -- not to equate the two of them except that I've written movies about both of them -- that she was so problematical that it would have gotten in the way of writing about her.

How much of the movie food got eaten?

Enormous amounts. We built this huge kitchen on the soundstage and everything that's in the movie we had to have eight of, and therefore there were always unbelievable leftovers. Everyone on the set watched Chris Messina [as Powell's husband] eat, which was one of the great treats for me of the movie. I had made it so clear to everyone that there had to be real eating in the movie. So everyone was watching the lust that people were bringing to the eating, and then we got to eat it all.

Everyone is kvelling about how the Julia in Paris portion of the film is an incredibly lush fantasy of mid-century Paris and a romantic marriage and a larger-than-life cook. But it's also about the time before she was Julia Child, when she was a little aimless, wasn't sure what she was going to do, couldn't have kids.

And now everyone thinks she was a spy during World War II, when in fact she was a clerk. She did have a very romantic marriage to a husband who was making about $3,200 a year and couldn't catch a break. He was essentially a failure, and the movie deals with that explicitly. And yet, the thing I can never get over is that she became Julia Child at the age of 49. That is so amazing to me, this thing that we only get a glimpse of at the end of this movie. She was a Smith girl who had made what was to her a thrilling marriage, because I don't think she ever expected to get married, but to her family it was a disappointing marriage. After Europe, they thought their life was sort of over, and they were just going to live on their pensions and her trust fund -- we must not leave that out -- in this little house in Cambridge. And then, a miracle.

Julie and Julia's stories seem more parallel, less aspirational, than the Parisian-fantasy element would initially suggest. These were women who had good things in life and hard things in life, but for whom food was a window to something better.

One of the great things about food is if you have no field of expertise, which a huge number of us don't, it's one of the easiest things to become an expert in, even if just from the point of view of eating it. Don't you feel terrible for people who don't love food? I feel tragic about it.

Food has brought me joy in times when there wasn't love or work or sex or money. It's something that brings you pleasure even when you have little control over the lack of other pleasures. You can bring food into your home; when you're a single girl who doesn't have plans in the evening you can make yourself dinner for four.

And feel that you are not sad, because you're not eating yogurt. And then if you're having a good life, it adds something wonderful. I have friends who really do not understand why I would drive 40 miles for this cheese thing that we once drove 40 miles for in Italy, and I just feel terrible for them. What's wrong with them? Uphill, also. On a winding road.

What was the cheese thing?

It was in this little town near Portovenere, this little hill town that has a festival. In the main square is a gigantic copper pan hanging on the side of some building and every year in July they have a fritto misto festival and they heat up the oil in this 16-feet-across pan and they fry fish in it. Meanwhile, in this tiny little bakery off the main street is this cheese and crust thing. It was one of those things where you say, "Oh, I've just eaten the greatest thing of my life, which happens to me about five times a year." I know there are people who would drive that long to see a painting. I would never do that. Never. But I feel bad for the people who wouldn't drive for the cheese thing.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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