clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“Food Is Love”: Remembering Nora Ephron and ‘Julie & Julia’

Home cooking is often seen as ordinary, but in Ephron’s world, it was high art. Her final film, 2009’s ‘Julie & Julia,’ is both a testament to that passion and a summation of a long, storied, and frequently food-focused career.

Getty Images/Columbia Pictures/Ringer illustration

Nora Ephron wanted you to know that you can never have too much butter. She believed her meatloaf, which had Lipton onion soup mix in it, felt like home. She wouldn’t serve fish at a dinner party because it’s too easy to eat, and “fish and I’m sorry to say this but it’s true—is no fun.” Her signature food trait, she’s said in interviews, was cooking slightly too much.

We know all this because Ephron made food, and everything that revolves around food, her business. For more than 30 years, her musings on cooking, eating, and dining slipped into columns, essays, interviews, and the voices of characters in books and movies: It’s Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally... ordering pie with strawberry ice cream on the side, or fresh whip (but if it’s not fresh, then nothing); Annie Reed in Sleepless in Seattle absentmindedly skinning an apple in almost one long peel; Rachel Samstat in Heartburn giving the reader a recipe for vinaigrette as her marriage falls to pieces.

Ephron’s oeuvre is filled with conversations and asides about how exactly to prepare a really good omelette (two whole eggs and one extra yolk—“and by the way, the same goes for scrambled eggs”) or how to serve caviar at a party (as a garnish!). But her ultimate tribute to food as food itself came in 2009, with the release of Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and the most loving food shots imaginable. The film tells the parallel stories of Julie Powell, a call center operator who blogs about cooking the 524 recipes that make up Julia Child’s seminal 1961 cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Child, the culinary legend and a personal hero of Ephron’s. “There will never be anyone like Julia Child,” she once said.

Julie & Julia, which Ephron wrote and directed, would be her final film before she died in 2012. Child and Powell, though separated by decades, find common ground in the kitchen and in their (mostly) loving marriages, just as Ephron did. Home cooking is often seen as ordinary, but in Julie & Julia, it’s high art. In the years after her death, her closest friends and family would point to the film as her most personal, a tribute to two of her greatest loves.“This is the movie which is about her love of food and her love of her husband, Nick,” said Delia Ephron, Nora’s sister and frequent writing partner. “Julie & Julia was her passion movie.”

Ephron had theories about everything. Delia suspects that she was not into appetizers because she thought it would be better if you sat down hungry. “She thought everyone had to sit at a round table. That’s the best way to have conversations,” Delia said. Even at a young age, the dinner table at the Ephron household was a place where creative impulses were encouraged. But they also ate well. In interviews, Ephron recalled the family having a Southern cook who made fried chicken, jambalaya, and the greatest pie crust. “We grew up in a very food-focused family,” Delia said.

By all accounts, that focus on food stuck with Ephron throughout her life. “She knew the best cookies in New York City, the best place to get cherries in Washington,” said Erin Carlson, author of I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy. There was a widely held opinion among Manhattan’s highest echelons—or at least at its paper of record—that, when it came to food, Ephron knew best. Take New York Times food editor Sam Sifton’s anxiety over making Ephron’s famous meatloaf for a potluck in her honor or former food critic Frank Bruni’s deference to her passionate entreaty to order the New York strip steak at Minetta Tavern. If she ever called and asked where you wanted to eat dinner that night, “you knew not to answer the question,” Delia said. “She knew where she wanted to eat. She probably already knew what she was going to order,” she said. “And if you foolishly answered the question, you would find out that we were going to eat somewhere else.”

Ephron loved being in the kitchen and sharing food with those she loved; she even gifted a cookbook of her own recipes to friends and family, though unsurprisingly, she did things her own way. Pie crusts were bought from the store, and despite Julia Child’s obsession with perfecting her own mayonnaise recipe in the movie, Ephron believed there was nothing better than Hellmann’s. Her table was always beautifully laid and there was always something to eat at her home. “Probably the first thing I did when I went there is open the refrigerator,” Delia said.

Ephron poured this fascination into her writing too. Her 1983 novel Heartburn is, in addition to being a thinly veiled autobiographical account of the downfall of her marriage to famed Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein, also a cookbook of sorts. Rachel Samstat, a food writer and stand-in for Ephron, is seven months pregnant when she finds out her husband, Mark Feldman, is having an affair. As she describes Mark’s relationship with paramour Thelma Rice—“never mind her feet, which are sort of splayed”—Ephron weaves in recipes for four-minute eggs and bread pudding, among others.

About three-quarters through the novel, after Rachel has temporarily forgiven Mark and gone back to Washington, D.C., with him, the story pauses to talk about potatoes. Potatoes, she says, evolve through the beginning, middle, and end of all her relationships. “I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them,” she wrote. There’s early relationship potatoes, almost always crisp and painfully laborious to get right. The middle of the relationship is when the potatoes you’ve purchased go bad and you’re forced to turn to pasta, and ultimately your partner tells you they no longer eat carbs or fat or salt. Finally, in the end, there is only mashed potatoes. “The problem with mashed potatoes, though, is that they require almost as much hard work as crisp potatoes, and when you’re feeling blue the last thing you feel like is hard work.”

It’s Ephron’s sleight of hand at her best. She wanted the reader to think about love and loss and coping, about food as an unfailing, ever-present part of life. But she also wanted to share—to declare, really— the best way to make potatoes Anna (cut into 1/16th-inch rounds. Line in a cast-iron skillet and dribble with clarified butter).

Her romantic comedies are filled with food advice too. In Sleepless in Seattle, when a reporter pitches Rosie O’Donnell’s Becky a story about a man “who sells the greatest soup you have ever eaten, and he is the meanest man in America”—two years before the Seinfeld Soup Nazi episode, by the way—that’s Ephron. In You’ve Got Mail, when Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) face off in the Zabar’s checkout line, that’s Ephron too. Her characters meet, fight, and fall in love in diners and kitchens, at cocktail parties and potlucks. They believe ordering takeout could change your life, and use cans of olive oil to insult each other. They seldom skip a meal. And, like Ephron, they generally believe you can never have too much butter.

In August 2003, Julie Powell was within reaching distance of completing her goal of cooking and blogging through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Amanda Hesser, a former reporter for The New York Times, profiled Powell for the newspaper. Powell published her book, Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously in 2005, and not long after, Hollywood came knocking.

Julie & Julia is not remembered for being the best Nora Ephron movie, and we’re not here to adjudicate what that might be. (It’s You’ve Got Mail, don’t @ me). While the 2009 film includes the wit and enviable interiors of Ephron’s classic rom-coms, it belongs to a different genre. There’s no meet-cute, no sparks, no final kiss before the camera cuts away, and we assume that both characters live happily ever after, with coconut cake, chocolate sauce on the side. If When Harry Met Sally is about food and falling in love, and Heartburn is about food and divorce, then Julie & Julia is about food and marriage—a successful one, this time.

The film is told with two parallel story lines, though 10 years later, the Julie Powell half is not remembered quite as fondly. (“Half of a Really Good Julia Child Biopic is Now on Netflix,” GQ wrote in 2018). Perhaps that’s a product of going toe-to-toe with Streep, a tall order for any actor, even one as celebrated as Adams. But maybe it’s because of Child and her journey to U.S. culinary fame. Born and raised in Pasadena, California, Child studied at Smith College on the East Coast. She was hired as a typist for the U.S. Information Agency in D.C., before joining the Office of Strategic Services and eventually being posted to erstwhile Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and later Kunming, China. In the midst of her work, she met and fell in love with her husband, Paul Child. The movie begins post–World War II with Julia and Paul moving to Paris, where he has been assigned as part of his work for the U.S. Foreign Service. At almost 40, Child now had to find “something to do,” Streep drawls in the film. “Wives don’t do anything here. That’s not me.”

That “something to do” led to cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu, a providential meeting with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, their own small cooking school for U.S. women, and finally moving back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the publication of her now-iconic book. “She was the first real celebrity chef,” said Alex Prud’homme, who cowrote Child’s memoir, My Life in France, on which the film is based. And after she began cooking on television for her show The French Chef, her fame only grew. “I think it was this combination of sparkling, humorous personality, with a deep knowledge of her material and a real sense of empathy for her audience.”

In the movie, Julie Powell describes Child as a “great big good fairy” watching over her in the kitchen, an invisible hand who guided legions of homecooks, and who guides Powell through a process of self-discovery (and also aspics). Ephron and Streep’s Julia Child is a jovial, bon vivant, even amid the hardest times, of which the Childs had their fair share. “The way [Ephron] described it to me was that the Julia Child in the movie wasn’t the real Julia. It’s a kind of fantasy. It’s Julie Powell’s fantasy version of Julia,” said Prud’homme, who was Child’s grand-nephew.

Food in Julia & Julia is a character on its own (and one that’s capable of shining next to Streep). Consider the bruschetta, buttery slices of toasted bread piled high with fresh tomatoes and herbs; Streep’s inhaling the butter-filled aroma of sole meunière soon after her arrival in France; a raspberry Bavarian cream splattered on the sidewalk. One of the better Julie Powell scenes comes early in the movie, when she stirs butter and chocolate together to make a decadent chocolate cream pie. “You know what I love about cooking?” she says. “I love that after a day when nothing is sure, and I mean nothing, you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick.” Food is notoriously hard to film: Sitting under hot overheard lights for hours can lead to an unappetizing spread, not to mention the impracticalities of an actor having to eat with gusto over multiple takes. But the meals in Julie & Julia are aspirational and beautifully presented. “The pleasure of food, of cooking, eating, and serving it to people that you care about—there’s a really vibrant, emotional presentation of that in the movie that we don’t normally see,” said Jeanine Basinger, a film professor at Wesleyan University.

Ephron, so adept in the kitchen, knew homecooking was no easy feat, and that sometimes you burned the beef bourguignon or you failed at poaching eggs because nothing ever really works out the first time you try it. She also once dedicated an entire column to bidding farewell to her Teflon-coated cooking set, so if your eye was drawn to the cookware in Julia Child’s basket as she meandered through a Parisian shop, idly picking up copper-bottom pans, it wasn’t a coincidence. If nothing else, Julie & Julia could spark a curiosity in cooking. Darra Goldstein, the founding editor of Gastronomica and adviser to the Julia Child Foundation, recalled that after watching the movie with her family, her daughter, who was 18 at the time, pulled out a copy of Goldstein’s Mastering the Art and spent all weekend cooking its advanced recipes. “The movie opened the floodgates,” she said. “I think the movie was inspiring to young people because they saw someone closer to their generation who was enthralled [by Child].”

Julie & Julia was Ephron’s final film. The story of Julia and Paul Child gave her a chance to write about another loving marriage, her own to Nick Pileggi, which spanned 25 years. “The reason Julia Child is such a perfect subject for [Ephron] is that she had this wonderful marriage, and Nora could write about that as well as folding all the food into it,” Delia said, “because food is love, as we all know.”

In one scene, while Julia’s sister, Dorothy, played by Jane Lynch, is visiting Paris, Paul asks Dorothy whether she’s tried the brie—a creamy, rich cheese that Dorothy promptly scoops onto the tip of her finger and into her mouth. “Mmm,” she murmurs, but her heart isn’t quite in it. Streep, as Julia, leans forward with earnest seriousness to ask whether it was the most wonderful cheese she had ever had. She goes on to discuss her latest project in the kitchen, beurre blanc, and tries to describe its captivating flavor, but words fail. Paul interjects and says, “There’s a tanginess.” Julia looks over at her husband, and her face shows her love of butter mingled with a love for her husband for understanding her love of butter. “I thought she was writing about food and love, and they were all mixed up together for her in that movie,” Delia said.

Ephron died on June 26, 2012, at 71, of complications from leukemia. In the months leading to her death, she planned her goodbyes. There would be a party at the apartment with cucumber sandwiches from William Poll, and champagne, her preferred choice of beverage, her son, Jacob Bernstein, wrote.

A memorial at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center was held in July that year, which Ephron had partly planned as well. She had a list of people she wanted to speak, which included Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Martin Short, and her sister, Delia. Ephron’s charm, along with her expansive career as a newspaper reporter, a magazine writer, screenwriter, and director, meant the invitation list was a cross-section of who’s who in Hollywood and media. Each person received a program, and printed on the back was a recipe from Ephron’s cookbook, which she had gifted to loved ones. “That was actually my idea,” Delia said. “I just thought it would be a perfect thing for everyone to remember her.”

Nikhita Venugopal is a freelance journalist who has written for publications such as Bon Appétit, Taste, and Eater.

Food News

Robert Pattinson’s Potato Diet, Egg Smuggling, and Tasting Whole Foods Truffles

The Dave Chang Show

The Future of the Ratings System, and How Gambling Could Change the Food World

The Dave Chang Show

Media Distortion and Lobster vs. Crab

View all stories in Food