Elevate Difference

Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession

Julie Powell wrote a blog called the Julie/Julia Project, which was turned into a book entitled Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, and last summer Julie & Julia hit the big screen as a movie featuring Meryl Streep. Admittedly, Julie & Julia was a heartwarming, sticky sweet account of Powell’s mission to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The blog/book/movie led us to believe that Powell was a somewhat quirky woman who loved to cook, occasionally cursed, and had a ridiculously lovely marriage.

In Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, we learn that the public image Powell carefully crafted wasn’t true to form. Cleaving will surely smash any goody two shoes image fans may have had of Julie Powell. Though it does feature a few recipes and go into great detail about butchery, these things are more of an afterthought; Powell’s fucked up marriage and obsessive extramarital affair take center stage.

Out of the blue Powell decides to take up butchering and because she’s a go-getter, she sets out to obtain an apprenticeship at a butcher shop to the great confusion of her husband. Apparently it’s just a strong compulsion she feels. I call bullshit on that. It’s obvious to me that this would make an unlikely, though interesting second book idea. Perhaps her editors were breathing down her neck, or maybe Powell needed some kind of food-related slant to pacify her foodie fans while still being able to dissect her marriage in print. But it seems unlikely that it doesn’t just suddenly occur to a thirty-three-year-old to be a butcher. This is the same woman who famously dreaded boning a duck for months, after all.

During the months leading up to her apprenticeship, Powell’s marriage to her long-time husband Eric is falling apart thanks to a torrid love affair with a man she calls D. She cheated on Eric once before with D. while in college and when he calls her sometime after her Julie & Julia fame, the two pick up where they left and thus begin the meat metaphors. While hacking away at some animal, Powell will force a metaphor out of the skin and bones and sinew. Did you know that when “one has eaten a beautiful dry-aged steak, one remembers it, longs for it? That longing doesn’t stop. At least, it hasn’t yet and it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere.” Is she talking about the steak or D.? Oh Julie Powell, you’re clever.

In certain areas of her life Powell boasts that she’s tough as nails; she’s just “one of the guys.” She won’t ask for help in the butcher shop, won’t admit she’s afraid of using tools that could slice off arms or decapitate her. Julie Powell is a warrior, except when it comes to D. If he doesn’t respond to a text or e-mail, Powell goes off the deep end; sobbing, going through two bottles of wine a night, writing and calling him obsessively, even stalking him. These situations don’t illustrate the fragility of Powell, but rather her need for serious medication and therapy.

Powell’s portrayal of herself and her marriage aims to be complex, but it’s just perplexing. Her husband knows of her affair, but it’s never really discussed. She never really expresses guilt; she actually rubs her husband’s nose in it; bruises from D. cover her body and e-mails and “sexts” are left in plain view. When Eric begins an affair of his own, Powell seems happy for him. Despite all of this neither considers divorce. A divorce, Powell explains, is not a “clean break” like cracking open a joint with one “delicious pop.” It’s more like snapping a bone, which requires hacking, sawing, and destroying. I’d argue that a divorce couldn’t be any worse than what she’s already done to her marriage, but that’s just my opinion.

Powell is defined by the men in her life; she lets them shape and mold her into different women, whichever fits their needs. With Eric she is the asexual wife; cuddling, drinking wine in front of the television and making dinner together is enough and supposedly illustrates their intimacy. With D., she is the sex kitten, wanting to be taken, more than happy to submit to him and his every whim.

Powell wants to have her meat and eat it too, and for some reason, the people in her world allow her to carry on like this while remaining in her life. I’ll never know who the real Julie Powell is, but if she’s anything like the character in Cleaving, I wish her luck and something in the way of self-esteem.

Written by: Tina Vasquez, January 20th 2010

you hit the nail on the head. good review!

Very nice review.

I NEVER really thought about what you said about how the men in her life define her.

VERY INTERESTING POINT. I hate fact that I didn't think of it [grin].


Wow. Great review. I will never understand why people hold their relationships out for public consumption, either.