Food News

Child’s play

Julia Child introduced French cuisine to ’60s America, and now – thanks to Hollywood’s Nora Ephron – her home-cooking ethos is as influential as ever, writes Cerentha Harris.

Nora Ephron wants something sweet. The writer-director-producer of foodie flick Julie & Julia is doing press for her new film and she’s beat. We’re at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills and a woman produces some wine-soaked strawberries and a couple of worn-looking friands. After seeing the film, you wonder if Ephron is going to be satisfied with these wan morsels.

Julie & Julia is a celebration of food seen through a particularly luscious lens. Meryl Streep plays the much-loved American cook and author Julia Child, and Amy Adams is Julie Powell – a would-be writer who sets herself the task of cooking her way through the 524 recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in just 365 days. We follow as both women turn their passion for cooking into something bigger.

Child, with her odd falsetto and her passion for French cuisine, burst into American kitchens in 1961 with Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The creation of this book, which is now in its 49th edition, forms the backbone of Ephron’s film. It was this 734-page blockbuster, plus her television show, The French Chef, that launched Child into the American consciousness at the ripe old age of 50.

Ephron’s relationship with Child mirrors that of Powell’s: neither actually met Child, who died in 2004. Ephron, who is 68, began her writing career as a magazine journalist in the ’60s and wrote a piece about Child. “It was in 1968 and I got a letter from her afterwards, a charming letter that said, ‘If you are ever in Boston, come to lunch’,” says Ephron. “But you know, I was never in Boston so I never met her. I feel bad. I feel as if she would have been worth meeting, she would not have been a disappointment in any way.”

Like many Americans, including Powell, Ephron felt a connection with Child that bordered on obsession. “I cooked from her cookbook in 1963 and ’64 when I was learning to cook,” says Ephron. “I had a very substantial imaginary relationship with her. I would think about her and wonder if she ever came to dinner what I should cook for her. Do I cook one of her recipes or one of mine? But back then, I had no recipes. Except for my mother’s barbecue sauce, which was mostly ketchup.” Ephron still cooks Child’s chicken with cream and mushrooms. “I made it last week and it is unbelievably delicious. I make the lamb stew and I never use anyone else’s recipe for that.”

The film will make you want to go home and cook – something, anything. Part of the charm of Julie & Julia is watching Powell, played by the wonderful Adams, make her way through more than 500 recipes. Powell works for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation offering support to people who were victims of the attacks on September 11. Her day job is exhausting and emotionally draining. At night, she comes home, shops, cooks and then blogs about the experience. Her blog attracted the attention of Amanda Hesser at The New York Times. And it was Hesser’s story in the Times that initially drew Ephron in. It is Powell’s book, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, and Child’s memoir, My Life in France, that Ephron adapted for the screenplay.

Ephron’s treatment of food in this film has been compared to director Martin Scorsese’s superb handling of bar fights. “I was hoping someone would say that!” says Ephron, who’s best known for screenplays that include When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless In Seattle. “The day we shot the sole being boned, I went home to my husband [Nicholas Pileggi], who wrote Goodfellas, and said, ‘Move over Martin Scorsese!’ I had done the equivalent of one of Marty’s nine-minute Steadicam shots. It was the moment in [Julia’s] life where everything changed and I wanted the audiences to go, ‘Oh, my god’.”

There’s more than one of those OMG moments in the film. Watch out for the bruschetta scene, and the beef Bourguignon. Part of what makes the scenes work so well is you feel you are witnessing genuine pleasure. “An actor sometimes doesn’t want to commit to eating because they may be doing a scene over 10 or 12 hours. But we didn’t have that problem,” says Ephron with a smile. “Meryl likes to eat, Stanley [Tucci, who plays Child’s husband] likes to eat and Chris Messina [who plays Powell’s husband] is a genius at eating.”

The food looks great. It’s not perfect or slick, and it looks real and really delicious. The film’s food consultant, Susan Spungen, the founding editorial director of Martha Stewart Living, was on the set, cooking, for every food scene. “She was brilliant,” says Ephron. “I had called Amanda Hesser and said I needed a food person, a stylist who will know how to make real food, and Susan was the only person she mentioned. Then it turned out Susan had styled one of my favourite food shots ever, which was the cover of Martha Stewart Living about 10 years ago of a coconut cake. I thought it was one of the most mouth-watering things I had ever seen.”

Food played just as big a role off-screen. “We had the usual film food and it was pretty good, but it wasn’t… you know. We like to fly a lot in. We flew in frozen custard from Wisconsin and the world’s greatest hot dogs from Nate ’n Al in Beverly Hills. We tried to keep everybody perked up. I do believe that making movies is sort of like having a party for 12 weeks and you want to keep people happy. The crew gained a lot of weight.”

Ephron and Streep are both great home cooks. In fact, Ephron’s friend Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair editor, has included a meatloaf on the menu at his restaurant Monkey Bar that he attributes to her. “It’s very good meatloaf, but in fact, my meatloaf is different from that, completely,” Ephron says. “It has Italian sausage, ground pork and – don’t die – a package of Lipton soup mix.”

Julie & Julia is released in Australian cinemas 8 October.

This article is from the October 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.