Food in Nora Ephron’s writing and filmmaking is nearly impossible to sum up in a short essay, as the love of food, pleasure, and the senses infused a great deal of Ephron’s work. As they say in Julie & Julia: “You can never have too much butter.” What’s admirable about it is that Nora was singular: I wonder, in all honestly, whether a woman writing today writing about food in the way that Ephron did would generally be shunted to the side as only a food writer, doyenne of the feminine and frilly. Ephron had it all — she was a serious writer and she took on topics that could be dismissed as frilly with her formidable intelligence.
A crucial topic in Ephron’s writing, food was, by all admissions, her obsession. It first took flight in her 1968 New York Magazine piece, “Critics in the World of the Rising Souffle (or Is It the Rising Meringue?),” a juicy expose of in-fighting amongst the food world community over the Time-Life Cookbooks. Ephron’s details sing, as gossipy in-fighting amongst small communities is ever-relevant (you may relate, whatever your interest): “People who seem to be friends are not. People who admire each other call each other Old Lemonface and Cranky Craig behind backs. People who tell you they love Julia Child will add in the next breath that, of course, her husband is a Republican, and her orange Bavarian cream recipe just doesn’t work.” Meanwhile, Ephron is building the case of what food culture was in America, side by side with all this gossip: how Julia Child’s cook book change the world, how people moved on to more and more generalized cookbooks, all in an effort to create an American cuisine. It’s a sharp, funny piece, immersed in the world of weirdo obsessives who create something beautiful, fascinated with the details of souffles and the Frenchiest of foods.
From there, Ephron would address food in all forms and fashions. We all remember, of course, that heartbroken Rachel from Heartburn was a cookbook writer. The book featured ruminations about mashed potatoes and recipes, and suggested that the best way to get back at Carl Bernstein is to throw a key lime pie in his face — which is life advice, if you think about it. The part in When Harry Met Sally that we’ll quote for the rest of eternity, is set at Katz’s Deli, a perfect setting for a great grand joke about women, orgasms, and food. But what Ephron was fantastic at was seeing just how food plays a role in our lives, how the making of, eating of, and thinking about had something to say about pleasure, purpose, and being a human being.
Ephron’s food apex may just have been her final film, 2009’s Julie & Julia, the charming adaptation of the blog where a young woman decided to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking, finding herself along the way (or something). We see women united by food, how taking care of yourself with the meals that you eat can lead to a life full of pleasure and care, in relationships and in vocation. Watching Meryl Streep’s peerless Julia Child finding herself blooming in Paris, with love and a passion for cooking, leading to her besotted husband, Paul telling her that “Someone is going to publish your book. Someone is going to read your book, and realize what you’ve done. Because YOUR BOOK is amazing. YOUR BOOK is a work of genius. YOUR BOOK is going to change the world.”
We see, if only through the eyes of Amy Adams’ mousy-turned-womanly Julie Powell, that Child did change the world, if only in the case of this one young lady. What’s funny is that the film is a big turnaround — early on in Ephron’s career, she’s discussing Child as part of the Food Establishment, and ending her career celebrating the depth and breath of Child’s work, work that shows how women can discover new talents and obsessions deep into their lives, that they don’t shrivel up and die once they’re not the wronged ingenue, cooking to save her sanity. It’s great wisdom, and it’s Ephron’s food obsession in a nutshell: food is love and life, and in Nora Ephron’s world, food was loaded with meaning in the lives of girls and women.