By Cathy Huyghe
Julie Powell must certainly have considered cooking her way through volume two of Mastering the Art of French Cooking as the follow-up sequel to her wildly successful Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.
Some writers would have done just that. It would have been a predictable next move, maybe, but one that came with a fair guarantee of readership by the legions of Julia Child fans – many of whom have been Child devotees since WGBH’s groundbreaking cooking series, The French Chef.
But instead of cooking her way through Mastering (Volume Two), Powell apprenticed herself at a butcher shop in upstate New York. It was a bold, creative, and decidedly unpredictable move, and I applauded her courage and lack of orthodoxy. Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession was my book club’s March’s pick, and we met last week at Cornerstone Bookstore in Salem to discuss it in detail.
I was, I rush to say, keen to discuss Powell’s descriptions of dismembering steer and disemboweling pigs with the group, fellow food lovers all. But, if speaking honestly, it must be said that we all were more interested in what else Powell writes about.
What else she writes about is sex.
In Cleaving, Powell writes candidly and in detail about her highly charged affair with “D.” She writes about her troubled marriage in a tone that oscillates between indifference and agony. She writes revealingly about the emotional and psychological troubles of a life she complicates to the extreme.
It was a racier book than anyone in our group had anticipated. What it had to do with Julia Child – the reason at least some of us voted to read the book in the first place – was tangential at best. And as discussion within the group began, thoughts of Julia or, indeed, of butchery in general, fell quickly by the wayside.
There was a little of this at the start: “I was amazed by what it takes to cut meat.” And this: “I liked the parts where she went to other countries and connected with people over the meat.”
But the tempo of the conversation picked up considerably when we turned inevitably to the subject of sex.
“I read the whole thing,” one member volunteered immediately.
“I finished it ahead of time,” said another.
“She hooked me right at the beginning,” said a third.
Sex manages to strike those chords. Not that we spent much time on the specifics of the acts, but we did delve into what the acts meant and how we related to them.
One woman related, with startling clarity, the merits of “a love that hurts.” Another zoomed into page 22, where Powell describes her grandmother’s lifelong feeling of pointlessness, something that was passed down from generation to generation, and her mother’s “bone-deep unhappiness or discontent.”
It wasn’t a pretty story but, frankly, neither is sex nor love nor life all the time. I found Powell’s book refreshing exactly because it did not have an ending all tied up in a bow. In fact, members of our book club disagreed on what exactly the ending of the story was. We read the same last pages, but our interpretations of those pages varied widely.
I say that’s a good thing.
Because a perfect thing, a perfect, pretty thing, is boring. Powell’s story, and how it strikes chords within our own, is life. It’s complicated. It has texture, and ridges. It’s coarse. And rough. Sometimes that’s just what you want. And sometimes that’s what you get, whether you want it or not.
Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.
Julia Child: Lessons with Master Chefs