In Julie & Julia, Cooking Imparts Both Identity & Purpose
Image Credit: Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Julie & Julia

This column is part of Slurrp's fortnightly series, #TheSeasonedScreen, by culture writer Arshia Dhar.


IN 2019, I made my maiden trip to Paris, and even before my feet had hit Parisian ground, I was floating away on the wings of all the aromas I had imagined the city would be buzzing with—of freshly-cut flowers, the choicest perfumes on beautifully dressed people…and food. Bagels, baguettes, ratatouille, croissants, you name it; and thankfully, the city did not disappoint. I held the French capital to such high standards because Meryl Streep’s Julia Child told me to do so in Julie & Julia (2009), Nora Ephron’s final directorial venture before her untimely passing in 2012.

Much like Julie Powell—the real and the reel version (played by Amy Adams)—I, too, have Child (the reel one, mostly) to thank for my unflinching faith in the legendary and emancipatory powers of the city, and of course, its food. The fact that so much of who we are and who we wish to be is tied to the food we eat goes severely unnoticed and uncredited, and for a person like me, who splits her life squarely between the stuff she writes and the stuff she eats, I almost always find myself struggling to sound coherent on an empty stomach. Good food equals good writing for me, and that’s that.

However, this isn’t about me, this is about Julie and Julia, and their magical encounters with food, which informs their purpose in life. The fact that this film is inspired by true events reinforces my faith in the power of human will that turns our banal everydays into something extraordinary, exactly the way these women did.

From the very first scene, we learn that Julie and Julia are, for that matter, second leads in a story where food is the protagonist. It’s what lends them their identities and agency to come into their own and become well-rounded figures in a world that’s in a rush to write them off.


In the 1950s, a middle-aged American couple—Julia and Paul Child (Stanley Tucci)—find themselves settling into a largely anti-American society that speaks a tongue unwelcoming of their ways, proclaiming them as too unrefined for their taste. The wife of a diplomat, Julia is determined to build a life beyond just being her doting husband’s significant other, and wishes to do so by cooking her way to happiness.

In the present-day (2002), Julie Powell and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) are seen moving into a quaint little apartment in Manhattan that is just the right amount of dilapidated to be aesthetically pleasing—like a prototype of an aspirational New York studio flat young couples rent to live a fashionably broke life in. In both these worlds running parallel to each other, the kitchen assumes centrestage, as Julia and Julie turn their mundane, unremarkable days into life-altering adventures, one dish and culinary accident at a time.

Julie works an underwhelming job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s call centre, where she answers inquiries from families and victims of the 9/11 attacks. She gnashes her teeth and holds back her tears on failing to assuage the grief of bereaved citizens by day, only to come back home by night and write a blog that talks about the dishes she cooks to salvage her heart from sinking any further.

These dishes, however, act like a portal through time, as they are from Julia’s iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking that she had penned in 1961. “If I really wanted to learn to cook, I could just cook my way through Julia Child’s cookbook. I could blog about that,” Julie tells her husband, while wolfing down fried cold cuts with stir-fried bell peppers on toast. A moment later, we find her watching a bumbling Julia on a black-and-white telly screen (in a fictional recreation of the 1963 show The French Chef), failing at tossing a “loose mass” of food in her pan. “She changed everything. Before her, it was frozen food and can openers and marshmallows,” Julie tells Eric, without looking away from the screen. She notices how Julia wore pearls in the kitchen, and puts them around her own neck days later. As much as Julie wanted to embody Julia’s spirit by cooking her dishes and wearing her clothes, she also wished to “change everything” in her own little world, but only with some help from Julia, not as Julia.


When Julia enrolls in Le Cordon Bleu to learn French cooking, she breaks into a boys’ club that confounds even the proprietress of the school, the irascible Madame Brassart, who sets out to teach Julia how to boil an egg. On their first encounter, she asks her with deeply furrowed eyebrows, “Do you know how to bone a duck?” to which a sprightly Julia, in her singsong voice, replies, “No. But that’s exactly the sort of thing that I am very interested in learning how to do.” Her enthusiasm, though, is not enough to convince Madame Brassart of her sincerity or skills, as she snaps back with how there is only one other class, and that she “may not like it,” because “it’s for professionnel, which you will never be I am sure,” she says, dismissively.

But Julia never set out to impress a petty little Brassart. She wanted to teach Americans how to cook the French way, and do it better than them. And so she did. She chances upon culinary teachers Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey), with whom she initially teams up to train three amateurs in exchange for two dollars each. Meant for greater things, her destiny eventually leads her to co-author a six-volume cookbook with the two—the same one that immortalises her in the annals of cultural history, as one of the most influential chefs of the 20th century.

While Julia powered through Paul’s constant reassignments, his interrogation for his supposed “un-American activities” on French turf, and even Louisette’s convenient headaches that bailed her out of teamwork, she was adamant on never losing the joy that cooking infused into her life. Her ambitions could never stand in the way of this happiness, as the latter not only exceeded the former, but also facilitated it. When she shows her students how to flip a soufflé perfectly onto the plate, she claps her hands in childlike delight and exclaims: “Perfection! And even if it isn't, never apologise!” And she stands by those words; Julia never apologises for her brilliance, as she bares her soul through the food she cooks, eats, and feeds others.

When she reunites with her sister Dorothy (Jane Lynch), Julia confesses that she even dreams about food in her sleep; when she subsequently learns about Dorothy’s pregnancy, Julia breaks into Paul’s arms, crying—as the couple was unable to conceive a child—but whipping fluffy mayonnaise all the while. She meets her closest confidante, her pen-friend Avis, through letters written about food (a trope the film shares with Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which I wrote about in a previous column). It is Avis who ultimately leads Julia to a publisher who agrees to print her recipes, after she faces several initial rejections. Julia’s food isn’t simply her identity—it is the life force that propels her towards greatness, and most importantly, goodness.


The 30-year-old Julie, on the other hand, cooks for purpose—the kind she lacks in her secretarial job that her friends are sorry she has to do. And with purpose comes the burden of perfection, an exacting task she sets for herself to inch closer to the Julia she thinks she knows. Julia, as we know, never aimed for perfection. But Julie does, and misses the mark every time one of the 524 dishes she sets out to cook in 365 days encounters a mishap. After a floppy aspic, a burnt beef bourguignon, and a raspberry Bavarian cream that falls through a torn paper bag onto the pavement, Julie’s domestic life comes to a head when on a rainy night her star guest fails to show up for dinner. “It’s Judith Jones, the editor who’s responsible for getting Julia’s cookbook published way back when. The woman who recognised history in an onionskin manuscript,” she blogs and announces to her small, but now dedicated audience.

However, when Jones takes a rain check, Julie is gutted to miss the opportunity of giving her audience what she thinks they want to read. “Somehow, your readers will live,” says an irate Eric as he doggedly sprinkles salt on his food, leaving Julie even more distraught. She accuses him of almost letting her serve bland beef bourguignon to the legend. He blames her for being narcissistic and a self-absorbed wreck “who writes this stuff for a bunch of complete strangers,” who now seem to hold more sway over her than their marriage does. He then storms out of the flat and does not turn back.

The following night, Julie returns to an empty home and blogs: “I’ve been thinking about me and Julia. She was a secretary for a government agency, and I am too. A really nice guy married her; a really nice guy married me. Both of us were lost, and both of us were saved by food some way or other. So, major overlaps. But, let’s face it. I am not Julia Child. Julia Child never lost her temper just because something boiled over, or collapsed in the oven, or just plain fell through. And she was never horrible to her husband, I am sure. She never behaved like, ‘Who has time to be married?’, which is how I behave sometimes, I’m sorry to say. I wish I were more like her. She deserved her husband, and I don’t. That’s the truth. Well, anyway, that’s the truth for now. Yoghurt for dinner.”


Eric reads the entry, and they reconcile in the moment Julie remembers why she writes about the food she cooks in the first place—it’s for her love for the craft, which is among the many, if not the most important similarities she forgot she shares with Julia.

But their similitudes don’t just end there; much like her hero, Julie too lands a book deal and becomes a writer after being interviewed by a New York Times reporter. The feature results in her phone ringing incessantly for weeks to come, as journalists, publishers and TV-showmakers start to chase her, until that one fated call—which informs her that Julia doesn’t quite appreciate her endeavours—makes Julie question everything for a moment. “I’m never gonna meet her,” she says, holding back a tear and plopping onto the bed. “But you already know her,” Eric responds to gently remind his wife that to know someone’s cooking, is to know someone intimately, from the inside-out.

The film ends with Julie taking a picture in front of a reimagined dummy of Julia’s kitchen at New York’s Smithsonian Institution, in whose real-life counterpart the chef is seen receiving the first print edition of her cookbook from her husband. It is in this moment that their worlds finally coalesce over their shared passion for food that is free from the yoke of perfection, as food was never meant to be perfect. It is meant for a wholesome goodness that feeds the mouth and the soul, so at the end of every meal one can always say “Bon appetit!” just the way Julia Child taught us to.