The kitchen, that physical space which also represented the imaginary boundary where women were relegated in the past, is the center of the latest film by director Nora Ephron.
Julie and Julia: A kitchen of their own.
The film “Julie and Julia” contrasts the life of cook Julia Child in Paris in the 1950′s with that of Julie Powell of Queens, N.Y. in our days. It is paradoxical to think that even to find fulfillment in present times a woman had to go back to the place from which the English writer and feminist Virginia Woolf was advocating to avoid in the 1920’s: the kitchen. “A room of one’s own” was the English writer’s recommendation to women who wanted to pursue a career: a metaphorical as well as a physical space away from the banalities of domesticity. As she saw it, the chaos of everyday’s life and household chores were no rout to inspiration.Woolfwas particularly wary of cooking.
In spite of Woolf’s admitted helplessness in the kitchen, cuisine is culture and in the 1960’s that is what Julia Child gave to the typical suburban American housewife: a scent of a faraway place were cooking could reach the heights of an art form. More than steps to follow, and ingredients to mix, Child’s recipes were evocative of a different lifestyle, of a more sophisticated approach to living. The smell, the texture and taste ofFrancemust have seemed like a paradise next to the simple stews cooked in suburbia: as boring as the lives of their inhabitants.
Directed byNora Ephron and starring MerylStreep, as Child and AmyAdams as Powell, the movie is based on Child’s posthumous memoir “My Life inFrance” (2006) and in a blog that Powell created in 2005. In it, Powell recounted her adventures while trying to cook each of the 524 recipes that come in the book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Child’s classic, which she wrote in Paris in 1961, while she lived there with her diplomat husband. The exuberant woman dedicated the book to “the servant-less cooks of the United States” and in those words one can find the resonance that the film brings to our present day.
In her book “Mrs.Woolfand the Servants,” (2008), Alison Light reflects onWoolf’s unease (and England’s in general) with “the servant problem.” As times were changing and English society was becoming more equalitarian, it was clear that fewer girls would have to take menial jobs like house cleaning and cooking. Although as a feminist and freethinker, Woolf recognized that having domestic service was demeaning to both the women who provided it and those who received it, she acknowledged that without it she would have hardly had the time and energy required to succeed since for her household chores were the biggest detriment to creativity. Being from the upper class in a time when it was still possible to have servants without being a millionaire in Europe, Woolf realized that she owed largely to his cook and maid her freedom to devote herself to the labors of the mind. Cooking was something that intimidated her in particular and she was convinced she could not survive without a cook.
In the film (and the blog), Powell is an example that this dilemma was never fully resolved. Julie goes back to the kitchen and finds inspiration in Child’s evocative recipes. Cooking becomes an outlet for her creativity, stifled by a menial post in the government. But more than finding her story liberating, it just shows that in the U.S. middle-class, educated women like Powell are now constrained by economic pressures that force them not only to take boring jobs, but to go back home and deal with household chores as well. And the product of her work is a testament to this: what Julie writes is not great literature. Her blog is a collection of anecdotes about the travails of everyday life and the chaos of her cleaning (of which she confesses not to excel at), and cooking duties. Her appeal as a writer comes from her skill at narrating her domestic battles, not from any deep and inspiring insight. Her stories are well told perhaps, but their merit does not lie in their uniqueness; on the contrary, it lies in how common and familiar they are to so many other women like her. Women who also feel trapped by the new demands of a career and old ones of “homemaking;” women who, share with their 1960’s equivalents, the longing that Child’s recipes awoken for a different lifestyle and wealth of experiences that they seem to lack in their own.
That is the great paradox and it could very easily go unnoticed. As Woolf reckoned, with progress, democracy and a more just society, women could give up working for other women in the household. At the same time, modern women are now burden with the expectations of a successful career and with the performance of household chores. Moreover, Woolf realized that not having children also worked in her advantage as a writer: neither Powell nor Child had offspring, and much of their success can also be explained by this particular circumstance. How have things improved since the 1920’s whenWoolf was writing about these issues?
In the XXI century, the choice between professional fulfillment and family life continues to be a dilemma for women. In fact, as an article in the Atlantic Monthly (“The Nanny Wars”-March, 2004) pointed out, the Feminist Movement of the 1960’s could not have happened had women then could not have afford nannies to care for their children while they fought for their rights. It seems that the—very fortunate and necessary—liberation of women, also brought the unintended consequence of returning them to the kitchen, the very place that Woolf insisted they should abandon in order to have “a room of one’s own.” We may now very well have the right to follow our vocation outside the house, but domestic labors await us as we come back since they are the ones that, by tradition, remain our “own.”