Tsunami Julia

by Betty Fussell

Hurricane Bill was nothing to Tsunami Julia. Julia washed over America this summer like a perfect media storm, the kind usually caused by a Sci-Fi Blockbuster. How soon will we have little action dolls in aprons and cleavers, or interactive TV games for kiddies played out with skillets and ice picks?

meryl_as_julia1

Actually, we already do and it’s called Iron Chef. But who could have predicted that real life Julia Child, that big-jawed giant of 6’2”, would morph into one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses and become an instant Hollywood star?

We all know the power of imagery but hold on — we’ve been warned by the late Michael Jackson that we ought to ask, What do we see when we look in the mirror? We also ought to ask, Who hung the mirror?

Julie & Julia set up a funhouse mirror. Now every little blogger in the country, who like real life Julie Powell (of the Julie/Julia Project) dreams by night of fame and fortune, will drown by day in oceans of butter while images of Meryl dance in her head. As she whips up one more Sabayon Mousseline and lets out her jeans, she’ll fantasize not just her big-screen career but her big-book career as a best-selling author.

The unlikely fact that Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking hit the #1 spot on The New York Times’ Bestseller List in August, after a delay of a mere 50 years, gives the fantasy some teeth.

So what’s wrong with this picture and why shouldn’t we cheer on a Julia resurgence? Because a nation deserves the fantasies it lives by, and ours have become as dangerous as Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. The bookend to the escapist fantasy of Julie & Julia is the documentary Food, Inc., which made a few ripples but not a tsunami.

How could it be otherwise? It’s not a fluffy romance about making it. It’s a monster movie about making everything Big. Who wants to see the ugliness of an industrial food chain that thrives by making people fat? Who wants to look at fat people at all? Or at billions of beheaded chickens or at characters named Diabetes and E.col. 0157? Puhleeze, give me James Bond 007.

A Stonyfields Farm truck delivering at WalMart / Food Inc.

A Stonyfields Farm truck delivering at WalMart / Food Inc.

For millions of people, the realities of the Recession are depressing enough without a bunch of talking heads undermining our faith in the American belief that cheap is good. In a culture queasy with fear, we don’t want to know where something as basic as food comes from. One of Food, Inc.’s stars, Michael Pollan, got famous by doing just that when his book In Defense of Food became a best seller last year. He made clear that what we’re eating everyday as food — fast, cheap, synthetic — is not real.

But to get really famous, Pollan would have to become a big-screen action hero played by Bruce Willis in rimless glasses. The message of today’s multiplex media is not information but escape. Neither the tsunami about Julia nor the little wave about industrial food is really about food. Both movies are about what we see in the mirror and what we want to see, and how we confuse those two images all the time.

Holding a mirror up to the nature of the American food scene is just too much for millions of us to stomach. We’d so much rather feed our hunger with images of Julia/Meryl’s joy. And while we’re watching, how about sharing that bag of Jumbo Popcorn — don’t hold the ersatz butter.

(cross-posted at Huffington Post)

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Posted on Sep 3, 2009