Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: "Julie and Julia"

Julia Child lived a most fascinating life. She was the wife of a diplomat and got to travel the world, eventually finding herself in Paris. She fell in love with the cuisine, and the rest is history. About a decade after her arrival in Paris, she was back in the US and preparing for the publication of her now-seminal cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking". Shortly thereafter, Public Television gave her a cooking show, and she brought French cuisine into suburban kitchens across America.

The story of how she took on the Parisian culinary scene and joined forces with a couple of like-minded women to produce a classic cookbook is such an interesting story on its own, one wonders why Nora Ephron didn't just tell it and let audiences marvel at this fearless and engaging woman. Instead, she interposes the life of this brilliant cook with that of modern-day would-be food blogger Julie Powell.

On the surface, Powell's quest to work through Child's cookbook over the course of a year and blog about her progress seems similar to Child's quest to master French cooking and then get her cookbook published. And Ephron certainly tries to find parallels. But the story of Julie Powell and her blog just doesn't stand up to the story of Julia Child's life in France and how she learned to cook. Placing the two side by side feels like a gimmick, much the way Powell's blog may have felt like a gimmick to Child when she learned of it. Instead of a well-written movie about an exceptional individual, "Julie and Julia" feels like a gimmick within a gimmick. Powell seems shallow, self-absorbed, narcissistic in comparison to the open and adventurous Child.

Meryl Streep is wonderful as Julia Child, and Jane Lynch turns in another brilliant if brief performance as her sister. Streep even masters Child's distinct manner of speech, achieving her melodious voice without going over the top into parody. She brings an animation to her portrayal of Child that makes it one of the best characterizations of an actual person I've seen in some time.

Amy Adams should be cute as a button as Julie Powell. Instead, she comes off as shrill and unlikable. I don't think it's her fault, either. The way the character of Julie Powell is written, only 1990's Meg Ryan could make her likable. With an equally unlikable choppy bob haircut, I was left wondering of that wasn't really who Ephron had in mind when she crafted this character.

Powell's story also comes off as rushed and condensed. Instead of a young woman searching to find her voice through her genuine love of cooking, the story of Julie Powell moves from emotional crisis to emotional crisis. She comes across as obsessed with Julia Child with her husband actively supporting hr until the scene in which he suddenly changes his mind and abruptly leaves her. There is little build up to this plot turn and it feels forced. Of course, all is resolved in a few days, and Julie completes her quest, gaining the attention of the mass media and the support of her mother to boot.

Compare that to the Childs being investigated for anti-American activities under the urging of Senator McCarthy, and one wonders why Ephron could not find a sufficient story just in their life.

Toward the end of the film, Julie Powell receives a call from a representative of Julie Child and learns that Child doesn't care for her blog. She wonders aloud if perhaps Child feels somehow as if she is being used. Indeed, she and her memory are - especially by this film.

Being a food blogger, many people who know me thought I would enjoy this film. The scenes about Julia Child were wonderful and made me wish I could cook brilliant and wonderful food. I would love a full-length feature about this amazing woman. As for Julie Powell, I'm sure her blog was an interesting novelty at the time. I often think I would also gain immense recognition if only I had a catchy gimmick. Ultimately, I think neither woman was served well by this film, though. I am, however, inspired to read Child's account of her life in France and have a new and stronger respect for her.

"Julie and Julia" has been available on Netflix for some time. If you haven't seen it yet, it is worth watching if you stick with the Childs in France.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sunday Morning Banana Bread

Last week we purchased a beautiful bunch of bananas for the week and then promptly forgot about them, which means today they were perfect for banana bread. We had enough for two loaves - one for us and an extra for a grieving friend. Who doesn't feel a little better after a slice of home made banana bread?

While I have Gareth's grandmother's banana bread recipe, I opted for the recipe from The Joy of Cooking as the ancestral Dirlam recipe omits the quantity of bananas needed and how to prep them. I believe this was Edith's secret that she took to the grave with her, thus ensuring that no one else would be able to create her recipe.

The Joy of Cooking recipe is pretty straightforward and was easy to double. I'll provide the recipe for a single standard size loaf.

All ingredients need to be a room temperature. You will need:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
5 1/3 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 very ripe bananas, mashed

Move your oven rack to the bottom third of the oven and preheat to 350. Mash your bananas and set aside. Also, lightly beat your eggs with a fork and set those aside as well.

Mashed bananas

Combine your dry ingredients except the sugar, and set that aside also.

Dry ingredients

Cream together your butter and sugar like you would do for sugar cookies, using a mixer (or if you're old school, a wooden spoon). Once the butter and sugar are creamed, gently mix in your eggs.

Butter and sugar before

Butter and sugar after

Combine your wet ingredients to your dry ingredients and mix until blended. Then add your bananas and continue mixing until blended into a smooth batter. At this point, you can also fold in about 1/2 cup of nuts.


Pour the batter into a greased 8 1/2 inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 for about an hour. The best way to determine if your bread is done is the toothpick test. If a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, it's done.

Let your loaf cool on a wire rack for about 15 minutes before removing from the pan.

Banana bread