“Julie and Julia”

This afternoon I finished reading the book Julie and Julia, which is quite unlike the movie. At least, the book is unlike what I remember of the movie, and I remember enjoying it (when I saw it in theaters. Years ago. Okay, confession: I don’t remember much of the film. But I do like Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, so it’s a safe bet that I liked it).

The book follows author and protagonist Julie Powell through her adventure to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a single year. She and her husband take on Julia in their kitchen in Long Island, blah blah blah insert various kitchen meltdowns to comprise the bulk of the book, and she finds “happiness” in the end.

I enjoyed reading the book, but in ways not as obvious I had hoped. (Just keep reading and this will turn into more than a book review, I promise.) I wanted to love it unabashedly, but I just couldn’t. Powell herself is funny but almost too honest and irreverent at times. She is, of course, (annoyingly) melodramatic, yet – to anyone who has ever attempted to reach self-actualization via cooking/baking – she is also superbly relatable.

But my real problem is that I wasn’t hooked on the book until Powell and her husband travel to D.C., which is a shame because that only happens in the last 15 pages. After the “Project,” as she calls it, is complete, Powell travels to D.C. to pay homage to Child’s kitchen, which is housed at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and place a pound of butter at Child’s metaphorical feet.

She writes:

The vicinity of the Mall in Washington, for those of you who’ve never been there, is a good place to go for big gray government buildings and statues of presidents, and bookstores, but don’t try to get any grocery shopping done there. I asked the manager of Harry’s restaurant if I could buy a stick of butter off him. …He couldn’t fix me up because Harry’s uses no butter. … He did say, though, that I could probably find some at the CVS three blocks down. Which indeed we did.

The sheer truth encapsulated in this entire paragraph was enough to make me squeal aloud (albeit quietly, but it was deafening in my own mind) with joy – the joy of knowing exactly where she was in D.C. The joy of having, in fact, stayed at the Hotel Harrington, located directly above Harry’s Restaurant (the lobby of which smells like a pet store, popcorn, and the 1970s, if I had to put my finger on the exact scent). The joy of having been in that exact CVS many times, although (now that I think of it) never for any planned reason.

It was the joy of just having been there, knowing that my D.C. – the one I treasure in my head – is, in at least some way, the real D.C., because someone else had obviously been there, too. It was reassuring to have my experience validated, even if only by a passing mention, because there are days when everything seems to remind me of D.C., of something or someone now so far away.

Yet, I’m not entirely convinced that Powell really ever entered Harry’s Restaurant.  She writes nothing about its aroma, which is a lot of what I remember about it, and it’s pretty hard to overlook. I am not even slightly exaggerating when I say that I held my breath every time I walked through the lobby. Why didn’t she mention the smell?

Maybe it’s okay that Powell didn’t mention the unforgettable smell. That’s my own memory; that’s my D.C. And I came to this particular revelation while reading the book’s final 14 pages, because it occurred before I read the last page, on which Powell writes:

At least that’s what the Julia in my head thinks. There are thousands and thousands of her around, in brains all over the world, but this Julia is mine.

The woman stole my insight, but I won’t begrudge her that, because it’s a good one: There are thousands and thousands of D.C.s  around, in brains and pictures and memories all over the world, but this D.C. is mine, pet-store-and-70s odor and all.

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