Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession
By Julie Powell
Little, Brown and Company
The operative word being used to describe Julie Powell’s follow-up book to her 2005 best seller Julie & Julia is “squeamish.” It seems the reviewers are a tad weirded-out by her brand of abattoir-lit. Yes, there have been other books in the genre like Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation, in part, about the design of slaughterhouses. And there are cookbooks like the San Francisco designer/butcher Bruce Aidell’s Complete Sausage Book, which instructs on all things sausage. There are even several new tomes about loving bacon—Bacon: A Love Story, by Heather Lauer and Seduced by Bacon, by Joanna Pruess—apparently the cured meat with heartstrings. But Powell’s memoir is a bit more…graphic. In fact, many of the passages read like detailed journal entries from an agricultural extension program—one that sheds many an animal’s blood—and for that you need to brace yourself.
The Julie Powell in her follow up book is not Amy Adams, the cuddly on-screen wife who cooked her way through a year’s worth of Julia Child’s recipes. In that story there were smashing rooftop dinner parties and plenty of skillets wafting irresistible aromas into the nostrils of her cute husband Eric. This new book is the mirror image. It’s about the evisceration of meat and of a marriage. Both require exceptional knife skills.
Whatever the critics say in the end about Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, they will unanimously agree that the publisher got the subtitle right. This is no caveat emptor. This book is compulsively detailed—with line drawings at the chapter heads—about the right cuts and slashes to gut cows, pigs, poultry, and sheep. It’s about the presumably tastier parts of an animal that the author craves and devourers, parts many of us probably avoid, like beef tongue and sheep testicles. It’s also about her long-term affair, while married, with the urbane D, where the encounters often leave Julie physically bruised but always wanting to return to his bed. With great verisimilitude, Julie Powell writes obsessively about apprenticing at an upstate butcher shop where she learns, among many things, to sever a pig’s skull in two on the band saw and fillet its cheeks into perfect, menu-worthy medallions and boil the remains for headcheese. As Ms. Powell learns to butcher, she also dissects what is wrong with her ten-year marriage and why she yearns for another man.
So why would a nice girl like Julie “Amy Adams” Powell talk so openly about chopping and trysting? The author lays it out when she makes a cohesive study of her magnetic attraction to butchery and her kinky, two-year affair with D (identified at the book’s end as Damien):
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about D, about the desolation I feel without him. I wake up with him in my head, go to sleep with him still there, drink and drink to try to make him go away. Even the butchery, that blessed distraction, that way I can take a knife and do something new, break something apart to make something else beautiful, understand something, a body, its parts, the logic of it—even that chases the memory of my old lover, the longing for him, to the far edges of my mind, but not away.
There you have it. This may startle innocent Julie groupies who think of her as the affable, stew-making, earnest gal from the movie. And the book will attract many who only know her via the film and did not read her blog or book. It will only take the reader a few pages into Cleaving, however, to find that the author is a person, and neither a concept from the first book—say, the embodiment of the Cinderella story cum first-time-author-finds-fame media juggernaut—nor a cinematic creation. This Julie Powell has many imperfections, from sexual liaisons and overdrinking to texting while driving. She is unapologetic, even downright brash in recounting her peccadilloes: “I glide down the thruway, keeping the speedometer at just under eighty. My iPod is plugged in playing Old 97’s, as I busily thumb-type away on the BlackBerry. (It is going to be really embarrassing if I wind up dying by careening off the road whist texting, though I suppose I wouldn’t be the first.)”
It was one thing to over-share her angst and recipe feats and defeats in the first book. But in book two this openness is OTT (over the top). The self-portraits are not flattering and neither is her ability to temper her emotions and actions. This list includes her hook-ups with D, and strangers, in order to bring herself back from the haze of her marriage. “After two years, two years, kissing him still leaves me breathless; it seems worth both the harrowing guilt over Eric and the nasty little holes of self-contempt that my neediness for D open up in me over and again.”
Julie Powell needed a distraction once she had cooked her way through a tome of Americanized French recipes. Her passion, odd as it may be for a book concept, became butchery. She worked as an unpaid intern at Fleisher’s, a butcher shop in Kingston, New York, run by an ex-vegan who has a vision for slaughtered animals in the way Michelangelo did for blank plaster. From stem to stern, Fleisher’s makes great use of each animal, and Julie Powell provides a docent’s report of every aspect of the filleting process, even if along the way you witness—dare I say— squeamish amounts of consumed innards like beef hearts, thymus glands (sweetbreads), stomach linings (tripe), liver, and other such organs. When you think about it, there really shouldn’t be any difference between eating these morsels and eating an animal’s ribs or flank, leg or wing. But somehow there is. The cutting scenes at Fleisher’s consistently jolt the reader.
This is also where Ms. Powell’s writing shines. She puts the reader inside Fleisher’s and brings the shop to life. At Fleisher’s there is blood everywhere, literally buckets of the stuff. By day’s end the stench of meat has permeated Julie’s clothes, hair and skin. As the reader, you can smell all that fresh meat. You feel the salt on the smooth butcher block. You smile alongside the butchers as they work and shoot-off jokes, goof around, plug in their playlists on the sound system, and encourage Julie to do different things with her life, such as moving upstate from New York City (which she does as a renter). Fleisher’s is a modern day Dickensian olde shoppe with lots of back stories, broken hearts, tears, and the rushing to one another’s side when things go awry or just get so confusing the gang can’t tell which way is up.
Cleaving also has the trendy editorial device of scattering recipes throughout the book, although I’m not sure this adds anything for the reader. Some recipes are Ms. Powell’s, some are from Fleisher’s butchers like Josh, and a few are approximations from the dishes she dined on during her travels in the second half of the book. Maybe someday I’ll try her short ribs, but three-pounds of Josh’s Liverwurst? And I’m not sure how the recipe for Matambre a la Pizza, from Buenos Aires, made it past her editor: “1 matambre, about 5 pounds (This is going to be nearly impossible for you to find. Call Josh, as I did, or use flank steak. Which isn’t really the same thing, and won’t really be the same thing at all.)”
Part II of Cleaving is Julie’s solo trip to Argentina, Italy, Kiev, Tanzania and other long-dreamed of ports. The purpose of the trip is not only to expand her cook’s knowledge of cuisine and her butcher’s curiosity about how others prepare meat, but also to be alone. The trip is her first solo voyage ever and is really another way the author proves she is not afraid to grow and to move on with her life. Her message seems to be that she plans on ironing out all her kinks in spite of her emotions and passion, as misguided as they may be at times. Ms. Powell is not promoting any of her whims or vises, merely saying this is an honest account of her life. Her internal dialogue repeats the mantra that she needs to test the boundaries of her marriage—how will she know if she truly loves Eric or has learned the trade of butchering if there is no comparison? When asked to remove the eyes from an animal’s mutilated skull, she does not even flinch. Julie Powell wants to be fearless.
It’s easy to cringe at several points in Cleaving, especially when the going gets too rough. I felt sad for Eric, who gets tossed in the figurative back seat for the length of the book. I wished for the “less is more” modicum when the author chronicled sex with D in base terms. And even though I eat meat, frequently I had one eye closed when the cleaver came down at Fleisher’s. This is a writer who introduced herself to the public through great obsession and passion, for food and men, and irrespective of the topic she remains true to her needs.
Readers will not find the same humorous tone from Julie & Julia in Cleaving. They may not understand, as I did not, the many references from the popular TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which is one of the few ongoing touchstones, along with their dog Robert, between her and Eric. But the reader, if he or she relaxes (and is not a member of PETA) will appreciate how Julie Powell goes directly to the source. Love to cook? Learn to carve. She commands herself to descend the food chain and witness where the bourguignon comes from. She gets into the grain of every animal she carves and strikes a triumphant pose at each well-done butcher’s task she completes in order to create the perfect steak, roast, chop, or loin. She finds joy in mastering this art and is downright proud when she learns to tie a roast with efficiency—the same note of pride repeated when she navigates her solo trip. There is even rejoicing over the headcheese section. And Julie does the same with her relationships. She tests her marriage by having an affair. Then, she tests her affair by having sex with a stranger. Ms. Powell is living on her own terms and living out loud. There is something commendable about that. It’s raw, like the memoirs of Mary Karr and Kathryn Harrison, but without the writing mastery found in their books.
In the end, what has Julie Powell learned? Who is she when all is chopped and done? She certainly learns that she can wrangle a carcass with the best of them. She teaches herself to sort things out with her husband. As a new member of the “fooderati” she garners the confidence to be seen in blood-covered overalls amid other foodies who merely fawn over bejeweled fruits and vegetables and status-grain breads. Mostly, she is a bit like Dorothy Gale, the Kansas kid who learned that the only way to value what you have is to leave it (or cleave it) and see which parts you miss or which missing parts hurt the most. But no matter what, she learned you’re always going to need dinner.
P.E. Logan is communications professional and a writer in New York. She has worked at various adult trade publishing houses including Random House, Putnam, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster for almost three decades. She now works at The New York Times. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and other periodicals.