‘Julie and Julia’ and the legacy of food in film

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 - 7:54pm

Julie and Julia

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Columbia Pictures

After every movie, without fail, I will watch the credits. This originally started because I was waiting for those surprise Marvel endings, but now it’s more about looking for random people in the cast like the interns and the other background people who helped bring the movie to life. Looking back, though, one key cast member is always missing: the food. Maybe this is because food isn’t a person or, more likely, it’s because the movie credits the prop or set designer under which the responsibility of food falls. The thing is, food is always in movies and always makes an appearance. It’s an A-list star that gets less attention than the intern making coffee runs.

“Julie and Julia” is a movie that emphasizes the role of food in our lives in an extreme way, yet never actually acknowledges its part in building the movie. It starts with Julie Powell (Amy Adams, “Enchanted”) deciding to cook all 542 recipes in Julia Child’s (Meryl Streep, “The Post”) “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Not only does the food serve as a catalyst in Julie’s life, but it’s also the thread that holds the whole film together. Without it, there is no connection between Julie and Julia, and there is no movie. “Julie and Julia” also carries the distinct air of a romantic comedy, but both characters have already found their “one.” So what gives? It could be the fact that “Julie and Julia” is a Nora Ephron movie, but I think it’s because we are still watching two characters fall in love — just with food instead of a person.

Another part of food that “Julie and Julia” captures beautifully is its dynamic relationship with someone. Turning something as simple as a piece of beef into beef bourguignon or killing a live lobster is an intimate process that brings Julie closer to food and, subsequently, the audience. Together, we go through the same emotional turmoil when the stew is ruined, or a freshly murdered lobster is slathered in butter for our enjoyment. Not only that, but food is also used as a tool of empowerment for Julia. As a woman in 1950s Paris trying to break into the cooking world, a mostly male-dominated profession, she has her work ahead of her, but food doesn’t discriminate. Food, instead, is Julia’s key to a life that is more than just being a diplomat’s housewife.  

Julia Child and food also have a unique relationship: Before her, food wasn’t recognized as widely in the media as it is today. There were no “cooking shows” or Food Network. So, while we may owe our enjoyment of media to food, food owes its own media legacy to Julia Child.

It could be argued that the way food gets used is up to the directors and producers, but that is true for all actors. In the same way that an actor’s talent can get lost in a director’s vision, so too can the essence of food. We can see in reality television shows like “The Kardashians” that food isn’t so much of an art as it is a spark for drama. Heated arguments are made over Waldorf salads while family announcements occur at a backyard dinner. One of the more iconic dramatizations of food is a drink thrown in anger, frustration or even just plain fun.

Other times, food’s role as a character (like in “Julie and Julia”) isn’t as important as its place in a character’s personality. Take “Gilmore Girls,” for instance. Lorelai (Lauren Graham, “Parenthood”) and Rory (Alexis Bledel, “Handmaid’s Tale”) are known for their voracious appetites, and much of the show’s plot occurs either at Luke’s diner over a hamburger or Friday night dinners with Emily (Kelly Bishop, “Bunheads) and Richard (Edward Herrmann, “American Dad”). Food is present throughout the entire show, and not once has anyone stopped to consider just how critical it is to the success of the characters — it makes them relatable and quirky and brings the audience closer to the Gilmore family.  

Whether it’s the main sticking point for a movie or a defining characteristic for a lovable TV personality, the best part of food in film and television is the fact that there is no drama. Food doesn’t, and will never, care that Hollywood has never given it any recognition. All it really wants is to be there for us when family drama comes to a head during a holiday romantic comedy or a character needs some kind of quirky hobby. The least we can do is appreciate the steam curling up from a soup or the satisfying first taste of a new dish, both in film and in life.