Sunday, August 9, 2009

Love and Butter

Walking into the Carmike Theatre last night, I was surprised to find a long line spiralling in a rather aimless way between the concession stand and the ticket-taker. “Well, that Harry Potter certainly has legs,” I thought to myself. Then I noticed that the line contained a lot of women, many of whom were, like me, “of a certain age.” "Well maybe they're here for that 3-D movie about the guinea pigs," I thought. They were, of course, waiting for Julie and Julia as I was.

Well, I shouldn’t have been so surprised at the size of the crowd. Charlottesville is a foodie town after all and the commercials for the movie have been irresistable, with Meryl Streep capturing the awkward and endearing Julia Child in the older black-and white segments of The French Chef. Oh the guilty pleasure my mother and I used to experience when we would see Julia Child mess up a dish ! (It really wasn’t until I started teaching art classes in which I had to demonstrate techniques that I realized it’s not so funny when it happens you )

I was fascinated by Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Julia Child. I would not say that she dissolved into the role. Rather, she was somehow simultaneously Meryl and Julia. It was a little bit like a dream in which your aunt suddenly turns into Ethel Merman but it’s your aunt and Ethel Merman at the same time. (Well, my Aunt Blossom was the Sophie Tucker of the North Side of Chicago so maybe it wasn’t such a stretch after all. Now if my Uncle Bill turned into Ethel Merman that would be weird. He just didn’t have her vocal range.)

One of the things I learned from reading Julie and Julia was that Veal Prince Orloff, which is central to that classic Mary Tyler Moore episode in which she throws a small dinner party for a congresswoman, (the one where Mr. Grant takes half the platter of food), was a featured dish in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It was almost like a “final exam” dish, a showstopper. It is a veal roast au gratin with mushrooms and I believe there is also a cream sauce. I considered making it recently, maybe with a Mary Tyler Moore themed party, but the idea of veal and cheese made me feel nauseated.

Seeing all those people in line for the movie made me think of how each of them had his or her own memory of watching The French Chef or being influenced by her books, or being the beneficiaries of somebody who cooked from her books. Last night after the movie I remembered a special and indirect influence. In 1988 I went to Italy for a six-month stay. My mother accompanied me on the flight and we travelled together for two weeks. Having seen a PBS show in which Julia strode through Parma’s wonderful food markets, my mother suggested that we spend a few days there and so we did. What I remember most about Parma is my first encounter with the passeggiata, the ritual of the evening stroll in which couples and groups of young people walk around the central square. On our first night we were wondering if there was some kind of festival going on. Where was everyone going ? After seeing the same groups circling again and again we realized that they were not going anywhere. They were out to see and be seen. Nevertheless, we were surprised to see the same thing the following night. I still don’t know when we finally learned what the ritual was called and that it was a nightly occurrence. One of us must have found the appropriate entry in the Fodor’s or Frommer’s when we got back in the hotel room. The passeggiata became something that we looked forward to, an incentive (as if one were really needed) to find a table with a view and to have a glass of wine. Or maybe I was still sticking with Campari and soda before I realized that I loved the color but hated the taste.

So, while others may owe Paris to Julia, I owe her Parma. It seems only right that I should follow Julie Powell’s lead in leaving a tribute at the Smithsonian reconstruction of Julia’s kitchen. But it won’t be butter; it will be a block of Parmesan cheese.

1 comment:

Eric Riback said...

I was in Ofena, Italy in 1986, staying with my father-in-law, Berardino's, father.

Barney, Berardino's American nickname, had gown up there and left in his 20s to find his fortune in America. At age 29, he returned to find a wife, which he did in the neighboring town of Capestrano, and brought her back to America.

Barney has always been a man of few words. Very few words.

When he was growing up in the 1920s, Ofena was a town of 2500. Now it was a town of under 1000.

He took me out one evening for what I later learned was the passeggiata, and as we strolled he pointed out houses and other buildings, introduced me to paisanos, and spoke wistfully of people he once knew and what Ofena was like years ago.

It was the most I heard him speak in more than 20 years of marriage to his daughter.