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Food for the Body and Soul

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Back in the spring my daughter plunked a book down on the kitchen cabinet as I was making coconut cream pie. “Can’t stay, but I had to drop by to bring you this. Read it, you’re going to love it.”

I put the book in my To Read pile and sort of forgot about it. Julie and Julia just sat around the house with me for a couple of months before I found time for the two of them, but once I started, we stayed up late together. Although they were separated by generations, they shared a desire to write, a love of good food, an interest in being a good cook, and a belief that of life was what you make of it. As I read, I felt that I might be the missing generational link in this sisterhood of cooks, writers and eaters who are at times frustrated, but who are trying to make meaning of their lives.

I felt rather protective toward Julie Powell and Julia Child as I waited anxiously for the movie to come out, pleased to see that they both had good actresses playing them. I was hoping a really good book wouldn’t turn into a really silly movie. It didn’t. To say one is touched by a movie that's about a book that's about a blog that's about a cookbook may sound a little overwrought, but there were times when I came close to tears. After all, Julie and Julia and I have a lot in common.

You can’t, or at least shouldn’t, teach food preparation without being familiar with Julia Child. She really did transform cooking in America from a practical skill to a personal expression. I knew the story of her “secretarial work” for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. But I find it interesting that critics, both professional and social, are quick to say, “I loved her show because she was really fun, but who would have ever guessed that she was a critical link in a huge undercover intelligence operation?”

Yes, imagine! A mind that is capable of analyzing international events being intrigued by food preparation. Cooking, after all, is so basic, so commonplace, so domestic. I’m no Julia Child, but I can relate to not being taken very seriously. A school administrator once said, “I always knew you were nice, but I had no idea you were intelligent.” I think she thought I would perceive that as a compliment.

Then there is Julie Powell, the blogger and aspiring author. Of Julia Julia, she writes "She started [learning to cook] because she didn’t know what else to do.” Julie was in the same place when she began the blog. In an interview she says of herself,

“…for me, the project was at least as much about finding my vocation as a writer....It meant so much more to me than learning to cook. It taught me a great deal about what I was capable of, how I could turn my life around.”

Julie Powell's avocation for cooking provided a way to realize a career as a writer. She cooked so she could be a better writer. I write so I can be a better teacher. Like Julie, I've found that a blog provides a sort of literary discipline that benefits a would-be writer. Someone said that we don't really know what we think until we write it down. Writing requires that I take time to update my knowledge, justify my opinions, and reflect on my practice.

While teaching requires constant human interaction, writing is a solitary pursuit. Like Julie, I sit alone in the wee hours of the morning trying to be insightful, informative, inspirational and also clever and witty. Like her, I sometimes wonder if anyone but my mother reads what I write. While every writer wants to be read, the odd thing is that, when a reader leaves a comment, or links to my blog, or quotes me, or walks up and says, “Hey, I read what you wrote the other day!” I find it slightly unsettling.

When I'm sitting there alone in the glow of my computer screen, writing my heart out, I sometimes forget that I have invited colleagues, critics and the randomly curious to peek in on my life and work and thoughts. Julie acknowledges that sense of feeling both exhilarated and exposed when she discovers she has a cadre of readers. I guess it's called lurking for a reason!

The power and the responsibility of impacting the thinking of other people are shared experiences of writers and teachers. Julie always perceived herself as a writer. Teaching is my vocation, but I suppose writing has always been an avocation. However, I never really imagined that tomorrow someone would be reading what I’m sitting here in my pajamas writing tonight. It didn't seem possible, but to become a real live writer at a point in life where I might just be counting the days down to retirement is pretty exciting. It makes me wonder what else might become of me.

On the day Julia Child passed away, Julie Powell wrote: “I would not have done it without Julia to tell me – 'Go ahead – What could happen?' There’s so much I would not have done. Because it would not have been there for me to do.”

In two weeks, once again, it will be my first day of school, and for the 28th time, I'll have the back to school jitters. On that first day, when I ask my students what they most want to do in my class, the vast majority of them will say, “Cook and eat!” During the year, among a lot of other things, we’ll talk about food, we’ll learn to cook, and yes, we’ll eat. But at the end of the day, my primary concern is not what I’ve taught them about food history, or table manners, or food preparation, or even healthy eating.

What I care about most is how well I’ve prepared them to teach themselves to live intentionally. I hope I can convey the lesson Julie learned from Julia as she mastered cooking and the lesson I’ve learned as I’ve attempted to become a writer.

“Go ahead — What could happen?”

5 Comments

Loved the movie, love your blog, especially the ending message. I've got the book sitting on top of my "to read" pile, and my two best friends and I have formed a J&J Friday Night bi-monthly cooking club. We'll follow Julie Powell's model of "cooking our way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Here's hoping that our cooking adventures inspire us to be adventurous in our teaching, as well!

Oh, Susan, what a lovely post! What you are really teaching students, through example and in your writing, is care of the soul--body and soul. Last night I attended a Buddhist meditation class about living fearlessly, and your work as a teacher--"Go ahead--what could happen!" echoes the messages of our meditations last night perfectly. Thanks for this delicious coconut cream pie of a post.

Bravo! I also loved the book, and I can hardly wait until the date with my husband next week to see the movie. On the top of my "to read" pile is Julia Child's "My Life in France" and I'm looking forward to learning more from her about living intentionally. Thank you for pointing out Julie and Julia's bold and brave message of, "Go ahead - what could happen?" Have a great school year, and thank you for your work for so many years as a dedicated teacher!

Thanks for giving me the courage to see the movie. I must admit I was HORRIFIED to hear that Meryl Streep was daring to play my hero. I have avoided any thought of seeing the film, disparaged Nora Ephron for making it, and I felt betrayed by Julie Powell for selling the rights. Your blog post gives me hope. I may not pay to go to the theater to see the movie, but I will watch it (probably on Netflix -- my husband is not as supportive of my Julia Child fixation as Sharon's). Thanks for your inspiration. (I am a faithful reader of your writing.)

Dear Susan,
While I was disappointed with the movie, I love the idea of the movie.

More than the movie, I love your blog and that you've transformed into a writer. It is daring to offer a viewpoint and take a stance on something.

You know that discovery almost flies in the face of living intentionally...but then if you consider that trying something and being willing for the "flip to end up on the floor", putting it back in the pan and continuing right on as if nothing happened...well, that is an intention. So what if the destination wasn't necessarily where you thought you'd end up or where you were aiming.

It's a place that fits...as your writing demonstrates and I'm sure your students will learn by being in your classroom. Best wishes for a great year.

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