By Amal Singh Aug. 08, 2019
Four years ago, I was inspired to become a better cook after watching Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia. That quest for improvement turned out to be never-ending and all-encompassing. Here’s the story of a life, told in three recipes.
For most Nora Ephron is the queen of rom-coms who gave us timeless gems such as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. But two years before she passed away, she gifted us a film, her last, about cooking, writing, and life – Julie & Julia – and that’s my Bible. The movie encapsulated all the anxieties of a creative life, by deftly portraying two biopics in one — of Julie Powell and Julia Child. I think Nora knew her storytelling touched many lives, mine included. For the writer in me, everything is an act, but the cook in me sees that act as a recipe. Here’s a part of that act, told in three recipes.
French Onion Soup
Traditional Ingredients: Onions, Beef Stock, Red Wine, Parmesan Cheese
Your Ingredients: Red Onions, Vegetable Stock, Amul Sliced Cheese, Feni, and a dash of insecurity and unguided ambition.
Date of Prep: November, 2013, two years before watching Julie & Julia
Steps: Come home after a long night shift, and instead of going to sleep, get inspired by an old black-and-white video of an old, wizened woman making French Onion Soup. Her voice is caramel laced with a hint of coriander. It’s warm and comforting.
Think you’re God’s gift to the Indian kitchen despite only having made palak paneer before. Then saute onions until they caramelise. Burn the bottom of the pan and fret over your own inadequacies as a cook, writer, person. Look around for a wooden spatula because you can’t keep stirring with a spoon. Ask Mom for spatula. Get scolded for messing up the kitchen counter with “pyaz ke chilke”
Pray to Meryl Streep at the altar of acting. And thank Nora Ephron every time you open Netflix. Wish she was still alive making movies. Columbia Pictures/ Netflix
Pray to Meryl Streep at the altar of acting. And thank Nora Ephron every time you open Netflix. Wish she was still alive making movies.
Columbia Pictures/ Netflix
Call friend up and ask, “French Onion Soup piyega?” despite knowing fully well that the concoction you’ll end up making is nothing more than a brown, unappetising liquid with chunks of onions swimming around like eels in sea.
Boil leftover veggies in water until they resemble “stock”. Fret over your inadequacies as a cook, writer, person. Dump said stock in onions. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and some cumin and coriander as well because… fuck the French. Rub your eyes because you’re drowsy and decide not to go to sleep but massacre a perfectly good kitchen. Scream because your fingers are laced with spices. Go to answer the door with tears streaming down your cheeks while Mom snidely suggests, “Beta, bread-butter kha kar so jao.”
Ignore Mom’s snide remarks because pride. Welcome friend.
“Bhai taste to wine se hi ayega.” Heed friend’s advice. Fret over the absence of good alcohol in the house. Get excited at a feasible workaround, and then cast a mournful glance at the bottle of Feni your Dad brought from Goa.
Commit the extreme sacrilege of ruining a French dish which asked for wine with Feni. Realise you should have used Feni to deglaze the pan first. But the wise woman said, “In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” That attitude keeps you going.
Top the brown concoction with those square Amul abominations called cheese, instead of Parmesan.
Traditional Ingredients: Chicken, Peppers, Mushroom, Butter, and other usual suspects.
Your Ingredients: Same as above, with a teaspoonful of dedication and honesty.
Date of Prep: July, 2015, two days after watching Julie & Julia
Steps: Get inspired by watching Nora Ephron’s modern masterpiece, Julie & Julia. Realise that the French Onion Soup woman was none other than Julia Child. Slowly begin to find hints of Julie Powell in yourself — she was answering calls of 9/11 survivors with PTSD, and you are fielding calls from frustrated hotel front desk staff who couldn’t operate their own hotel’s software. Julie Powell had had enough with her job and needed an out. She needed a deadline. You just keep screaming to yourself, “Tera khoon kab khaulega, Faizal?”
Julie wrote a blog. You’ve quit writing one because it’s too much commitment. It’s all better on paper, honestly. But Julie is on the clock and is dedicated. And so are you, when it comes to thinking up stories.
Julie is making one dish a day. You’re writing a story a day. You’re still putting words on a page, despite the shifts, despite the red in the whites of your eyes, despite the black under them.
Write story. Finish story. Edit story. Submit.
Check mail. “We’d like to use your story in an upcoming issue of our magazine.”
Realise you’re an adequate writer after all. Jump in joy and scratch the itch in your palm which says, “Aaj kuchh special banana jaaye.” Call the same friend over, “Story published. Chicken Stroganoff khayega?”
“French Onion Soup jaisa banayega toh nahi,” he says.
“Better,” you say with barely disguised confidence. This time, you remember to deglaze the pan which holds onions and mushrooms with a hint of whiskey, even though the original asks for cognac. Because you’ve learned to experiment like Julie, and as Julia Child said, “Cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn.”
Because you’ve learned to experiment like Julie, and as Julia Child said, “Cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn.”
You learn that some improvisations end up with better taste but still fret over your inadequacy as a cook.
Cook the chicken with mushroom and bell peppers and bury it under loads of butter. Because, as the French say, there is no such thing as too much butter.
Pour fresh cream. Stir.
Serve hot with rice.
Traditional Ingredients: Flour, eggs, chocolate, vanilla extract, the whole shebang.
Your ingredients: Same as above.
Date of prep: March, 2019, four years after watching Julie & Julia for the first time
Steps: Turn 30. Realise you’re the same age as Julie Powell was in the movie. You’ve achieved so much while she was just starting out. 30 is the new 20, you remember a line from the movie. Thank Amy Adams for that anxious, vulnerable, brilliant portrayal, because you’ve been Julie Powell at various stages of your life. Pray to Meryl Streep at the altar of acting. And thank Nora Ephron every time you open Netflix. Wish she was still alive making movies. Dream about writing your own Sleepless in Sion or You’ve Got Mail.
Maybe you’ll end up writing Trisha and Tarla, inspiring a writer, a baker, or a person somewhere, someday.
Thank Amy Adams for that anxious, vulnerable, brilliant portrayal, because you’ve been Julie Powell at various stages of your life. Columbia Pictures/ Netflix
Thank Amy Adams for that anxious, vulnerable, brilliant portrayal, because you’ve been Julie Powell at various stages of your life.
Columbia Pictures/ Netflix
Write a scene. Marvel over how good you’ve gotten over the years. Keep the nagging fear of failure at bay by creating art, all day, every day. Burnout fears you.
Find love. Lose love.
Celebrate your little inadequacies by making Babka, one of the toughest things to bake, because hell yeah.
Get wheat flour instead of maida because gluten. Get 85 per cent dark chocolate. Get yeast. Get to work.
Wait. In baking, patience is key. And if years of obsessively watching Julie & Julia, banging your head at a perfect sentence, and burning endless onions have taught you one thing, it’s this — patience is the virtue of gods.
Wait. Let the bread rise.
Fret over the absence of a good oven in your bachelor pad. Improvise. Use a pressure cooker instead.
Now, bake. And wait again.
Call your friend and ask him if he’s okay. He is. Only that he hasn’t tasted your latest masterpiece yet. Too bad he is away sailing, eating sea ‘glop. Listen to him and empathise with him, just like Julie tried to do in her job. Over the years, you’ve learned this too. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice.
Smell a delicious, warm aroma wafting your way from the kitchen. Say goodbye. Open the cooker.
Wait. Let the bread cool down. Patience.
Take out the bread. Slice a chunk and serve it to your roommates. Marvel at your newfound brilliance as a cook.
Only occasionally fret over your inadequacy as a person, because, let’s face it, doesn’t everyone?
But then I think of the two women whom I’ve fallen for over the years – Julie & Julia – and remind myself that if you get to do what you love, even momentarily, then that counts for something.
Amal is a screenwriter, bookworm, and a cinephile constantly in search of meaning in life and failing. He drowns his worries in copious amounts of tea. He tweets at @jerun_onto.