You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day where nothing is sure–and when I say nothing, I mean nothing–you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.
So says Julie, the modern-day half of the heroines featured in Nora Ephron’s new comedy “Julie & Julia.” By now I’m sure you know the backstory: in 2002, then 29 year-old office drone/aspiring writer Julie Powell decided to cook her way through the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, and blog about it. Well, the blog turned into a (bestselling) book, and the book begot the movie, which charts the parallel lives of Powell and Child, both looking for something to do with their lives–and stumbling upon their calling. Of the premise, food defender Michael Pollan wrote in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine:
The movie shuttles back and forth between Julie’s year of compulsive cooking and blogging in Queens in 2002 and Julia’s decade in Paris and Provence a half-century earlier. Julia Child in 1949 was in some ways in the same boat in which Julie Powell found herself in 2002; happily married to a really nice guy, but feeling, acutely, the lack of a life project. Living in Paris, where her husband, Paul Child, was posted in the diplomatic corps, Julia (who like Julie had worked as a secretary) was at a loss as to what to do with her life until she realized that what she liked to do best was eat. So she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu and learned how to cook. As with Julia, so with Julie: cooking saved her life, giving her a project and, eventually, a path to literary success.
Granted, the argument that cooking can save a woman’s life leads to some relatively dicey territory, although I don’t think Pollan’s motives sexist (though decidedly foodist). In fact, it’s worth noting that 1963, the year Julia Child’s “The French Chef” went on the air, was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique.” Rather than arguing about who wanted whom out of–or stuck in–the kitchen, I think it’s safe to say that Julia Child became a sort of feminist trailblazer. As Kate Harding put it on Salon.com’s Broadsheet:
I love [Child] in large part because she proved that a woman could follow her bliss to succeed wildly in a male-dominated profession. I love Julia Child because her going into the kitchen helped a lot of women with different dreams and talents get out of it.
And that she did. But I think what’s most inspiring about both Child and Powell is, ironically, that their willingness to go forth without a recipe–to follow their bliss and take it as it comes–led them both to their calling.
There’s a certain, passive implication inherent in the notion of ‘finding your calling.’ It’s as though the skies will part, lightning will strike and we’ll hear a voice, calling us to whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing with ourselves. But waiting for lightning to strike seems like a pretty pointless–not to mention frustrating–endeavor. Maybe we while away our days twiddling our thumbs and pondering our navels while awaiting the great revelation; or maybe we feel somehow deficient for never hearing the great Call. Obviously, we all want to be doing something meaningful. But maybe we’ve got it backwards. Maybe the smarter recipe for this kind of fulfillment is to just set off towards something–anything–and see where it takes us.