USA TODAY US Edition
Confession cut to the bone
Butchering gave Julie Powell a hook for new ‘Cleaving’
KINGSTON, N.Y. — Writer Julie Powell, the Julie of the hit book and movie Julie & Julia, looks like a butcher.
Here at Fleisher’s Grass-Fed and Organic Meats shop, she’s wearing a steel-mesh apron under a white cotton one. A heavy chain around her waist supports a metal holster containing a boning knife, a cleaver and a scimitar. She’s clutching a humongous pig leg much like a mother would carry a beloved baby.
She’s ready to get down to business.
It takes her less than 10 minutes to find the joint that connects the shank and the femur, then separate the two pieces of the leg. She bones and butterflies the shank, then tightly rolls it back up into an impressive-looking roast that fans of organic meat will pay big bucks for.
Powell, 36, comes by her butchering chops legitimately. Her new book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession (Little, Brown, $24.99), is a memoir that chronicles her apprenticeship at Fleisher’s. It goes on sale Tuesday — and also comes with a startling revelation about her marriage.
“I’m no expert butcher, but I found I really loved the work,” Powell says as she demonstrates her skills at a massive wood butchering table. “I was surprised by the extent to which I so easily fell into it.”
Some would say a lot of things have come easily to Powell.
In 2002, at 30, she gained celebrity for The Julie/Julia Project, a funny, self-deprecating blog about the year she spent making every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Powell didn’t think anyone would be interested in her cooking adventure, which she pursued at night and on weekends while toiling at a dead-end office job in Manhattan. Soon, thousands were reading the blog and offering Powell encouragement.
The blog begat Julie & Julia, the best-selling 2005 memoir.
And then, every new writer’s dream came true for Powell. Her book — along with the story of Child’s life — became the inspiration for this year’s Nora Ephron-directed movie version, starring Meryl Streep as Child and Amy Adams as Powell. Chris Messina played Eric Powell, Powell’s supportive husband of 11 years, whom she has known since high school. (The DVD arrives Dec. 8.)
Powell had little involvement with the movie. And though she and Adams look nothing alike, Adams, Powell says, “captured the drive that I felt and the reason behind the Julia project. I did have to get my head around the fact that someone so perky and sweet and lovely would be playing me, because I’m not particularly sweet.”
In Ephron’s script, Adams is “portraying a Julie Powell that Nora invented based loosely on my book,” Powell says. “It’s a rom-com (romantic comedy) version of my life.”
Unflinching details of affairs
Powell apprenticed at Fleisher’s in this small Catskills town for about seven months beginning in fall 2006. It’s about two hours north of the Powells’ home in Long Island City, Queens.
She landed here after making the rounds of New York-area butcher shops in search of an apprenticeship.
“Not surprisingly,” Powell says, “there aren’t a lot of butcher shops wanting to let some clueless chick behind their counter with sharp knives. I had to search for someone willing to teach me.”
“I was able to get to a place when I was butchering where I would sort of let go, for a little bit, of all that guilt and try to discover what I wanted and how I had changed and how to move forward. It was sort of like going to a therapist.”
— Julie Powell
Joshua Applestone, who with his wife, Jessica, opened Fleisher’s six years ago, says Powell was easy to work with. “Being female she had more to prove, and she really did it. She didn’t complain once. There was no flinching. One of the guys who help e d train her gave her a hard time at times, but she definitely stuck to it.”
Cleaving was the end result of her apprenticeship, but it’s not the stories about using a band saw to cut a pig’s head in half that readers will be talking about. Butchering is only half of it.
Shortly after she finished writing Julie & Julia, in which she speaks adoringly of her “sainted” husband, Eric, Powell and her husband both had affairs that nearly destroyed their marriage.
In Cleaving (the film rights have not been sold), she writes in graphic detail about her two-year affair with a man she refers to as “D.” She describes their sexual encounters and even having sex with a stranger as she struggled with shame and selfloathing.
Powell calls her affair “the thing I used to pull my marriage apart for a while, but I do not recommend infidelity as a way of dealing with marital problems. It did turn out to be the thing that made us examine what exactly was going on and rebuild our marriage.”
She admits her behavior was “selfish and hurtful,” and she expects many fans of Julie & Julia to condemn her.
“People are going to totally react very negatively. They’ll find me reprehensible,” she says. “But to counterbalance the negativism, I hope there will be people who empathize with my experience, who maybe feel the book addresses things they wish they could talk about more.”
Eric Steel, one of the producers of Julie & Julia and now a friend of Powell’s, says, “There is in her voice as a writer that unmistakable honesty, and people respond to that. Part of her brilliance is that connection between who she is and what she does and what she says. So few people in the world are like that.”
Butchering as therapy
Powell says she learned to be brutally honest with herself through butchering. She says it has a meditative aspect that forced her to confront and deal with the damage she was doing to her marriage. It also gave her a framework as a follow-up to Julie & Julia.
“I was able to get to a place when I was butchering where I would sort of let go, for a little bit, of all that guilt and try to discover what I wanted and how I had changed and how to move forward,” Powell says. “It was sort of like going to a therapist. I did therapy, too. Butchering was at least as helpful.”
She writes in Cleaving of her admiration for butchers: “There’s an absolute sureness to a butcher, whether he is chining lamb chops with a band saw or telling his customer just how to prepare a crown roast. He is more certain of meat than I’ve ever been about anything.”
But now, it seems, Powell knows exactly what she wants — Eric.
She and Eric, 36, an editor at Archaeology magazine, are still together. They have no children. “We talked about whether we should divorce. We were separat- ed for a while, but there was something that was essential that was still there. If that had broken for either of us, things would have turned out differently.”
She blames the “dark void” in her marriage on marrying young and, in part, on the changes that Julie & Julia and surrounding publicity brought to her life.
“D,” she says, is completely out of the picture. The woman with whom Eric had an affair is history, too.
Since the Powells’ marital problems were happening during her apprenticeship, Powell felt she needed to include them in the book. She left the final decision to Eric.
“We talked about this long and hard,” Powell says, “and I would never have published the book if Eric hadn’t given his blessing. I’m so extraordinarily lucky to be married to a man who’s so courageous and so generous to let me write about our personal lives so frankly.”
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been hard.
Eric, Powell says, has only “skimmed” Cleaving. “He knows what’s in it,” she says. “He knows there are relatively explicit passages in which I talk about sex. He’s choosing not to relive the experience. He lived years visualizing this kind of stuff to himself.” (Eric declined to be interviewed for this story.)
With her marriage on firmer ground and with Cleaving hitting stores next week, Powell is ready for a new challenge: She’s writing a novel.
“Fiction was what I always wanted to write, but it’s early days on that,” Powell says. As for the story line, “food plays a big role. It’s sort of about our various neuroses about food. My glib description of it is that it’s a postapocalyptic comedy of manners set in New York.”
She’s done with writing about herself for a while.
“I think I’m going to get out of the memoir-ing game for a little bit. Two memoirs before the age of 40 is plenty. I don’t want to go down that Augusten Burroughs route where you feel like you have to churn out a new book about yourself every two years. I’m not that interesting.”