Monday, August 17, 2009

"Julie and Julia": Guess Who's (Not) Coming to Dinner

So, Steve and I went two Saturdays ago to see “Julie and Julia.” And ever since, I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel as if I have something stuck in my craw.

The movie was a delightful, even toothsome, confection. How could it not be, with its loving recreation of the persona of that batty culinary slapstick artist par excellence, Julia Child, played with such obvious relish by one of the most accomplished actresses on the screen today, Meryl Streep?

But as I began to digest it the evening after we watched it, something tannic began to pick away at me, like a tiny piece of pecan shell lurking inside one of those delicious Mexican wedding cookies, or cocoons some folks call them, that we love at Christmastime in the South. Like a piece of pecan shell lodged in my craw after I’ve eaten a handful of luscious cocoons.

And I now think I’ve figured out what it is, what bothered me about the movie. It is the total absence of gay folks in either the world inhabited by Julia and Paul Child or by Julia’s devotee, Julie Powell, on whose Child-inspired cooking exploits the movie also focuses. It’s the invisibility of gay people in a world in which I suspect they have always featured prominently—and are often deliberately made invisible by those who pull the strings of power in that world.

For those who haven’t seen the movie (and I don’t think this will really be a spoiler if you haven’t), it offers parallel glimpses into two worlds set apart in time, but connected in multiple ways by shared aspirations, shared love of food, shared quests to find one’s niche in the world. “Julie and Julia” is based on a book by food writer Julie Powell, who began maintaining a food blog in the post-9/11 period while working as a secretary at an organization in New York assisting those affected by the 9/11 disaster.

As she floundered with a day job far removed from her educational background and dreams, she hit on the idea of cooking through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year’s time. 365 days, 524 recipes. Her goal was to blog about the experience as she did so. And cooked faithfully, even stolidly, through recipe after recipe, sparing her readers no details of her failures as well as her triumphs.

The venture made her famous. Her blog became a hit in blogworld, food writers contacted her for interviews, and she found herself with a book contract. I’ve read the book, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I like Julie Powell—the Julie I know as she herself came to know Julia Child, entirely in the world of imagination informed by the written word. I was as exhilarated by her success in the movie as I had been when I read her book.

With Julia, I have a more complex relationship. I can’t say I share Julie Powell’s infatuation with her. I’ve always suspected that she actually never learned French cooking (let alone French itself) as well as she gave readers to believe she did. In fact, I suspect she wasn’t really much of a cook at all, truth be told.

I’ll grant that she was a food entertainer. She pioneered what has become a standard American television trope now being imitated around the world, the food star who tells us how it really should be done while we take notes and look longingly at confections we can only dream of approximating in our challenged little home kitchens. With those quavery, indeterminate sliding vowels, the high-pitched delirium of her voice, and those antic, kinetic kitchen moves over which she seemed to have dangerously little control, she was fascinating to watch as she performed. And cooked, or tried to do so.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that she may not have been so fascinating to be around if one happened to be gay—and especially a gay man. It hasn’t surprised me, really, to learn that she used terms like “homovipers” to describe gay men she encountered in the culinary world, and that she was notoriously homophobic.

Granted, homophobia was in the air people breathed during Julia’s heyday, and I can’t really fault her for being a person of her time. Part of what I think does bother me, though—what sticks in my craw as I read her food memoirs or recipe books—is that she seemed to go out of her way to assure that her world was homo-free.

When it clearly wasn’t. Because gay men are a dime a dozen in food circles. We do cook. And we do cook well, if I say so, myself.

So that the seemingly exercised determination of many food shows and much of the culinary world to keep gay men invisible strikes me as a bit more malicious, a bit more intentional, than the homophobia of society itself. We’re talking about a field in which the presence of gays is well-known, is strong, and yet is simply passed over in silence—still—by television shows focusing on great chefs and their culinary feats, and by many food writers. There is—still—a nasty edge of homophobia, of a specifically anti-gay male homophobia, among many food writers, despite the significant contributions of gay men to the culinary world anyplace people regard cooking as an art form.

As I say, I can’t fault the movie for showing Julia’s world as gay-free, though I suspect there was more than one nelly queen lurking inside the skin of those swaggering macho males who sat quaffing fine wine and relishing foie gras around Julia and Paul’s table in Paris and all the other places the state department sent them. I have no doubt that those nelly queens were, as they often had to be, closeted and even married in Julia’s day.

But they were still there. And part of the vicious homophobia of the food world, in its higher echelons, has always been what a friend of mine calls the “noisy heterosexuality” of worlds that are traditionally male-bonded. Those worlds need to act out a noisy heterosexuality to prove that they aren’t gay, precisely because the male bonding that goes on them is so intense. And so erotic.

My friend uses the term to refer particularly to the army, the police, the priesthood. I think it applies, too, to the foodie world, where, if we believe the food shows and the glossy food magazines, there are no gay men at all in the kitchen. Only swaggering, big straight men ordering other people around like military officers or policemen, as they oversee the concoction of delicious multi-course meals with eye-popping presentation and luscious flavors. You know, the kind of thing straight men love to do all the time—decorating plates and talking about the sensuality of food.

So I’m not especially surprised to find that Julia’s world, per “Julie and Julia,” just didn’t contain any gays at all—none of those homovipers that haunted her attempts to learn haute cuisine and then to share the culinary wealth with her food-challenged compatriots. I am surprised, though, to discover that the world of Julie Powell and her husband Eric was also gay-free.

At least, that’s the strong impression “Julie and Julia” gives me, though I also strongly suspect that this aspect of the movie is not an accurate depiction of the “real” life of Julie Powell. In fact, I had the decided sense as I read her book that she has good gay friends and enjoys their company.

Which makes their absence from this movie—a movie about food and enjoyment of food, for God’s sake—all the more curious. And lamentable.

Because, you see, I think the parallels the movie draws between the world of Julia and of Julie are meant to be not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive. This is a movie about a world of the past that connects to the world of the present as a model, as a script for how it should be done. And the perhaps understandable (if inexcusable) invisibilization of gays in that world of the past is continued in the script for the present. As though it should be that way.

There are a number of ways to read this movie. At one level, it’s, of course, about the search for meaning when life seems to be closing in—Julia’s search for something to do with her life when she felt like just another ornamental trophy wife in the world of espionage and public service; Julie’s similar search in her dead-end secretarial job.

The movie is about people’s—women’s, in particular—ability to triumph over circumstances that close like a trap around them. And it’s about the sensuality of food and of the act of eating, a sensuality always in danger of being lost sight of in Puritanical cultures that want to ignore frank sensuality and to punish those who give themselves too wholeheartedly to the sensual.

It’s also about the recurring and even spasmodic search for joie de vivre in a country given to predicable and powerful fits of soul-deadening moralism that seeks to restrict and control joys that don’t turn an immediate profit. Here, the movie makes a political statement, if you will. There’s a sly, enjoyable little subtext running through it about the occasional obtrusion of Democratic decadence into a history dominated in the latter half of the 20th century by Republican dreariness.

And in those moments of obtrusion, the movie suggests, we keep rediscovering food. And sex. And oh how the two go together, for the writers of “Julie and Julia.” Lip-smacking, sticky-fingers sensuality at the table, followed by free, unfettered romps in the bedroom. Or the kitchen. Or wherever the spirit moves us. The movie suggests that the recovery of table sensuality is intrinsically connected to the recovery of erotic delight in the bedroom.

And that’s not a bad message, all things considered, though my Anglo Puritan sensibility found much of the table behavior frankly more appalling than the sensual turn-on it was obviously designed to be. It’s not a bad message, I say, the need to keep celebrating the sensual in a culture given to politically-scripted hypocritical denial of the sensual. Except that the message this movie gives me is that all that lip-smacking and all those rolls in the hay are not really about me and the world I inhabit, at all.

The message the movie gives me is that we may be in for a new Democratic round of 1960s-style celebration of heterosexual erotic liberation, after a dreary cycle of moralizing Republican rule. For straight folks, that is.

And what’s really new in that message, I wonder? Isn’t it what we’ve been doing all along? It feels to me as if the same old folks are still gathered around the table celebrating sensuality, and the same invisible, unacknowledged others are still in the kitchen cooking the food, peeking through the door as the entitled feast and play.