After the success of her first memoir, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, which later became a film starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, I couldn’t help but imagine author Julie Powell living happily ever after with her perfect pot roasts and marriage. If you chuckled at her squeamishness while trying to boil a lobster, then you never would have envisioned her with a wide-brimmed hat holding a meat cleaver or watching the slaughter of a pig. And you certainly wouldn’t have expected to find her crawling across the floor of her lover’s bedroom with bites and bruises all over her body. In her new memoir, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, Julie reveals a darker, more raw side of herself as she hacks, rips, pulls, and prods her way to becoming a butcher. When her own life and marriage are fraught with uncertainty, she finds comfort in the authority of the knife. What is revealed on the page is a bloody trail of introspection—she cuts deeper than ever before to reveal flesh, heart, and bones as she struggles to get to the marrow of her desires. It’s a tasty and satisfying recipe for a delicious tale.
After the jump, Julie Powell talks with The Frisky.
The Frisky: What was the appeal of becoming a butcher? Was there something that inspired you?
Julie Powell: I’ve been fascinated by butchers since I moved to New York City, just after graduating from college. I’d been raised in Austin, Texas, and had never been exposed to a real butcher shop before, so when I discovered my first—Ottomanelli’s on Bleecker Street in the West Village—I fell in love with the sights, the smells, and especially the men behind the counter, the utter confidence and skill with which they practiced this craft, the result of decades of work. I envied their sureness.
The Frisky: What is your favorite thing about butchery? Was there a moment that you fell in love with it? What did you learn about yourself?
JP: When I started my apprenticeship at Fleisher’s, I had the same stereotypes about butchery that everyone else does; that it is about strength and violence, hacking and big cleavers. It was the brute force I envied. But what I quickly learned is that butchery is a truly delicate art. Most cutting is done with the one-inch tip end of a slender five-inch boning knife. There is a road map built into the body of beef or pork, a seam you can follow that will show you how the muscles come easily apart. That delicacy was what I fell in love with. Working at the cutting table for hours at a time is a meditative task, as much as knitting or gardening can be. Once you learn the basic skill, there is something rote about it, but it still requires all your mental and physical focus. It encourages a contemplative state. Much of what I figured out about my relationships, about what I wanted and who I was becoming, I figured out at the cutting table, or during the period of exhausted peace after.
The Frisky: You wrote very candidly about your marriage to Eric and your relationship with “D.” That was very brave of you especially after your last book. There is a scene in the book where a reader recognizes you and “D” at dinner and you lie and pretend you are with Eric. Was it difficult for you to include all the details of your affair, knowing that your readership and loved ones might be shocked and/or disappointed?
JP: Certainly I was aware in writing this book that fans of Julie & Julia would be taken aback and perhaps put off by the subject matter of Cleaving. Many people—including the woman at the restaurant (with whom I’ve recently been back in touch, actually!)—invested quite a bit in Eric’s and my marriage as a sort of paragon of perfection. It was a strong marriage and is still, though in a different way. One thing I learned during this period, the affair with “D,” Eric’s and my separation and struggle, was that no marriage is an unending paragon because no marriage is static. It shouldn’t be static. It has to move and change and even sometimes be threatened to stay resilient and vital. I’m not suggesting infidelity as a solution to marital problems, but I did have a relationship with another man, it did impact what I thought about myself and who I was and was becoming, and that was important. I thought it was important to depict how relationships can—and have to—change. I knew not everyone would want to go on that ride, but it seemed to me important to write it as honestly as I knew how.
The Frisky: Did either of the men have a reaction to what they learned after reading your book?
JP: “D” read a draft and gave his legal approval; I have not spoken to him of it—or, really, at all—since, so I don’t know what his reaction was, or what it is now that the book is finally out in the world. As for Eric … while he knows the content of the book, and we discussed it in great deal before it was published, he has at this point chosen only to skim it. He did live it after all, and is not sure that revisiting every detail is helpful to him right now. He’s been extraordinarily supportive. I am lucky that he is so courageous and generous, and understands why I needed to write the book and what is important about it to me.
The Frisky: Do you have any advice for women who are struggling through infidelity in their marriage?
JP: I like that you phrase it “struggling through infidelity,” because that’s exactly right.
The only advice I can give is just to try to be as honest as you can be with yourself and with your partners, try not causing unnecessary pain, and also be kind to yourself. You are where you are for a reason, and that reason is not, at the end of the day, because you’re a “skanky ho,” though that might be a seemingly easy answer. You’re searching. I’m not giving carte blanche to cheat—not at all. But examining the motives behind infidelity is important. And remember, you’re not as alone as you think. Women often feel isolated when they’ve committed adultery in a way that I don’t think many men do.
The Frisky: Do you believe in the concept of monogamy? Do you think a marriage can survive infidelity?
JP: I believe that monogamy is a viable option, but not the only one. I’ve become a bit of a skeptic about the convention of contemporary marriage, the idea that one person is meant to be your partner, lover, friend, all things to you always, and if he isn’t that’s necessarily some failure on your or his part. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. But I think the “All Things All The Time” clause is a lot to put on another person. I do think a marriage can survive infidelity. I’m living in one that has. Every marriage is—has to be—different, and for some infidelity is a line that can’t be crossed. I haven’t found it to be so for me.
The Frisky: You’ve tried all kinds of different parts of different animals all over the world. What is your very favorite kind of meat to eat and why? Can you share a recipe?
JP: I couldn’t possibly name one favorite kind of meat. I love it all. But I will say there is nothing quite like a beautifully prepared Berkshire pork chop, simply seasoned, with a blush of pink still in the center. One thing I’ve learned is that truly great meat needs almost no special treatment at all. Let sit out for an hour or so to bring it close to room temperature, pat it dry and season it with salt and pepper. Heat a bit of oil in an ovenproof pan, preferably cast iron, over very high heat. Brown the chop quickly on each side, until it’s good and golden brown, then stick in a 375-degree oven for just a few minutes, maybe five, depending on the thickness, until a meat thermometer reads 125 degrees. Let rest for five minutes, with a pat of butter to melt atop it if you’re really feeling like gilding the lily.
The Frisky: What do you think about all of the books about vegetarianism that have been coming out lately, like for instance Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals?
JP: It’s funny, Jonathan and I have never met, but Little Brown publishes us both, and I have been amusing myself by fabricating a totally false grudge match between us. The truth is that he and I are interested in exactly the same thing; knowing where our food comes from and understanding what we can and cannot live with eating. I really think that this interest in artisanal butchery that’s popped up in recent years is actually part and parcel with the resurgence in vegetarianism—it all comes out of the same urge to understand, accept, and participate in the process of getting your meal from the pasture to the table. People want transparency and ethics, more and more—Michael Pollan, of course, brought this conversation to the mainstream with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but it’s been an increasingly important issue to many people for years now. JSF and I are united in many things—against industrial farming, for the ethical treatment of animals. The only difference between him and me is that if we were to both to witness the humane slaughter of a healthily raised pig, we’d both appreciate it, but I’d eat the pork chop after. Oh … and I’d totally take him in a cage match.
The Frisky: Were there any scenes that shocked or surprised you in the film version of “Julie & Julia”?
JP: Shocked? Nora Ephron isn’t really about “shocked.” Sure, there were things that sort of made my eyes pop out of my head. There was the unnerving set design. I kept going, “How did they KNOW we had metro shelving/that particular lamp/a red cowboy hat?”
The Frisky: How much like Amy Adams are you? How surreal was it seeing you and your life portrayed on the big screen?
JP: Amy Adams is red-headed, tiny, adorable, and an amazing actress. I am none of those things. She did an amazing job, but her “Julie Powell” is considerably less crass and sweeter than I am. How surreal? On a scale of one to ten? I’m going to go conservative and call it a 7.5. You never know what’s coming next, after all.
The Frisky: Speaking of what’s coming next … will there be a Cleaving movie?
JP: I have no idea. But I’m certain that if there is, Nora Ephron won’t be directing it. It wouldn’t fit in the “romantic comedy” genre.
The Frisky: Can you tell us what’s next for you on the culinary front? The writing front?
JP: As far as the culinary front, my main goal is simply to keep myself and my family fed in a fairly interesting fashion. Writing-wise, I’m thinking novel. I am done, done, done with memoirs for the moment.