The XX Factor

Knives, Meat, and Adultery: A Q&A With Julie

Hi, everybody. Julie Powell here. I’m out on tour right now for my second book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession . Knives, meat and adultery, oh my. Anyway, DoubleX has asked me to keep you apprised of how things go on the road-there are sure to be some interesting times ahead.

To get started, the lovely and talented Hanna Rosin here at DoubleX thought a little Q&A might be in order, to introduce the basic conundrum at hand, which is, in a nutshell: Why does a writer of a best-selling, sweet-as-sugar memoir (turned Nora Ephron movie ) follow up with a book about hacking up animals and almost wrecking her marriage? And what happens when she does? I think the below will at least set the stage. And then I’m off. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride …

Hanna Rosin: What got you interested in butchery in the first place?

Julie Powell: The first proper butcher shop I ever came to know was Ottomanelli’s, on Bleecker Street in the West Village. I was raised in Austin, TX, where all my family’s meat came from supermarkets, wrapped in cellophane, so the notion of a real, Old New York sort of butcher shop seemed exotic and even dangerous, like something out of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or The Godfather . I’d probably have been too intimidated to even go into one by myself, but then I began a job as a nanny for a writer and his wife, and the wife took me around to all the area stores where she preferred I buy food for their two boys. I fell in love with Ottomanelli’s the first time I walked in. The gleaming white tile and steel, the tang of aging beef, the abundant cases of meat of all kinds, and especially the men behind the counters, jovial yet deadly serious about their work, which they’d been doing for decades upon decades until the craft of cutting up meat seemed as natural to them as breathing. I’ve never been a very capable person, physically-I was always the last person picked for the softball team, the girl who couldn’t make it up the rope in gym class. I envied these guys in their white coats their sureness, both in their bodies and their knowledge. I wanted that.

This book is partially about your experience as a butcher, but also partially about your relationships with your husband Eric and your lover, D. Why did you decide to fit the two into the same book? Is butchering the metaphor, or do you hate food metaphors for life?

Well, I’m wary of food metaphors in general, though it’s certainly true that metaphor lies thick on the ground when it comes to butchery, and is almost unavoidable, even more than I’d imagined when I began. But I think I’d rather think of the butchering apprenticeship in Cleaving as a prism through which I was able to look at my marriage, and myself and who I wanted to be, in a new way. My original working title, when I was writing my proposal, was The Dying Art: A Story of Meat and Marriage. I was obviously in a much rawer and less optimistic place then, because the links I saw between marriage and butcher shops were that: 1) Both were struggling, perhaps indeed dying institutions. 2) A sort of dying, whether actual or spiritual, seemed an inherent facet of both. But as I began to do the work, I realized there was something beautiful about the delicate process of ushering a dead animal into something else that was nourishing and beautiful. That seemed to speak to me, to be telling me something about how to look at my relationships with these men, what they meant, how the pieces of them fit together and could come apart. I’m now glad that I didn’t go with The Dying Art , as appropriate as it seemed to me at the time. For one thing, the craft of artisanal butchery is on the rise; for another, marriage or any other relationship, I’ve found, doesn’t have to be a suffocating box-it’s something that changes and grows and flows on, in one way or another.

Were you nervous about writing such a confessional book?

You know, I don’t think I really let myself think about it too much. I just knew I had to write it. I had to do it for myself, to work through this very dark time, through what was going on in me that led me to make all the choices I did, many of them hurtful and downright dangerous. But I also felt a responsibility to write as truthful account of what had happened to this “perfect marriage” that so many people had invested so much in after Julie & Julia . Not to tear it down or to expose any falsehood or inauthenticity in the first book, but simply to observe what I had learned, that we are all of us, married or not, more complicated and troubled and uncertain than I’d given credence to. In a way it’s in deference to marriage, to see it as the thorny, constantly changing and threatened, resilient thing that it is.

I’ve never much minded exposing myself as a jackass, so that helped.

Your “character” in this book is so much darker than in Julie & Julia . Were you nervous that your readers would react badly?

I knew some readers would react badly. Hell, some people reacted badly to Julie & Julia , and that book is basically a soufflé of a book, albeit one studded with the odd crunchy curse word and a heavy dusting of anti-Republican fairydust. It’s hard for me to see the “character” Julie Powell as so very different in the two books, since of course she’s me in both. Just me at two very different moments in life. Not all folks are going to like what I have to say, and I don’t go out of my way in Cleaving to make myself or my actions particularly likable. Some will identify and some will not, and I get both reactions.

We must ask this, because everyone who reads it will wonder about it - how is your husband reacting?

Eric is naturally treading very carefully in the world right about now. We talked a lot about me writing this book, and I would never have published it without his blessing; couldn’t have, legally, even if I were so callous as to choose to. Eric is a naturally reserved person in the best of times. He’s also an extremely courageous and generous man. He’s not exactly tripping through the daisies this week, but he is understanding enough to know what this book means to me, and what about it is important.

Do you think your marriage is unusual?

I think all marriages are unusual. Unique, in fact.

When you sat down to write, were your feelings about the affair pretty much resolved, or did you exorcise them through the writing?

I was still in a pretty raw place when I began writing, no doubt. To be honest, to this day, I have twinges of pain when I think of those years. But the book got me through, was part of how I found the distance to see the affair for what it was, and what it wasn’t, just as importantly.

Was it awkward to write sex scenes about your own life?

I don’t know that I’ve ever written a sex scene that wasn’t about my own life, in one way or another, so I don’t think I could say, relatively speaking, whether it was more awkward than some so-called “fictional” scenario. But honestly, I didn’t find the writing of it awkward at all. Sometimes having them be read is a little squirm-inducing. People seem to be quite shocked by some of what I portray, but it all seems fairly tame to me, compared to what you read a lot of male authors write about. Though the opening of Chapter Eight is when I always find myself saying, “And THIS is why my mother cannot read this book.”

Has anyone reacted badly to their portrayal in this book?

Shockingly, not really. Eric has only skimmed the book, though he knows the content. D. read it and signed a consent form; that was all very civil. Everybody at Fleisher’s [where I apprenticed] is happy, I think. The only person I could think of who’d get upset is my mother, but then, as I said, she’s solved that problem by refusing to read the book.

Why did you decide to travel? What did you learn?

I think of my apprenticeship at Fleisher’s as an incubation period, and my travels as my first experimental flights upon emerging. Eric and I have been together since we were 18 years old, and one of the upshots of that fact is that I’d never truly been to a foreign country on my own. I’d never challenged myself to navigate in truly unfamiliar surroundings and had never had the opportunity to see and interpret a place with my own two eyes without looking through the lens of Eric’s perspective. I did want to meet people from around the world who knew butchery and meat, but I also just wanted to meet people from around the world and introduce myself to them as a woman on her own, taking care of herself (more or less.)

Are you still butchering? Cooking?

I would call myself a hobbyist butcher-I still get up to Fleisher’s whenever I can, but if you’re not doing it every day you do lose the strength and also, to some extent, the muscle-level certainty. I’m hoping that once this tour is done and the holidays are over, I can get to it more regularly. As for cooking, sure. Eric and I cook at home probably at least four nights a week, usually eating leftovers on the other days.

Did you end up feeling that butchering is a man’s world to some extent? Is the girl butcher the next girl rocker?

Butchery is definitely a man’s world-it’s part of what attracted me to it. I’ve always aspired to being one of the guys, to shed my femininity for a while and be valued for, say, my ability to wield a knife or tell a dirty joke. I will say, though, that it’s becoming less so as butchery becomes the hot new thing on the culinary map. Which is a silly thing, to a certain extent-the Rock Star Butcher phenom-but it is underlaid by a pretty cool motivation that more and more people are feeling, to become a part of the process that brings their meals from the pasture to their table. It’s definitely a tough girl thing, though, like being in the roller derby or something.

Photograph of Julie Powell by Kelly Campbell.