The writer-director-producer of the Julia Child movie, Julie & Julia, talks about childhood dishes, favorite cookbooks, and food TV.
Nora Ephron is known for many things: her love of romantic comedies, New York City, strong leading ladies, and food. Especially food. Before she was a powerful writer-director-producer of movies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron wrote about food in the novel Heartburn, in which the protagonist is a food editor and recipes are prominently featured. And she even titled a collection of essays about women Crazy Salad. For Ephron, cooking provides inspiration, metaphor, and relief. It even pops up from time to time in her Huffington Post blog. No wonder she's an avowed Epicurious fan.
With the release of Julie & Julia, a movie about Julia Child and food blogger Julie Powell (who chronicled her attempt to cook all 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking), Ephron draws on her favorite pop-culture elements once again-and food really takes center stage. Meryl Streep, who starred in Ephron's Silkwood, plays an utterly convincing Julia-before she was the icon of culinary prowess. Amy Adams (known for her roles in Junebug and Doubt) is Julie, a disgruntled office worker and food blogger living in Queens, NY. Their lives never intersect, but the parallels-the highs and lows of being a woman who cooks with passion-are explored against the backdrop of Paris in the 1950s and New York in 2002. Ephron, it would seem, can identify with both women.
In this exclusive interview with Epicurious, Ephron describes what she ate growing up, the recipes she uses today, her favorite cookbooks, and how food TV has changed cooking in America. Ephron also shares her favorite recipe for Chasen's Chili.
Epicurious: You reputedly said: "My mother was a good recreational cook, but what she basically believed was that if you worked hard and prospered, someone else would do it for you."
Nora Ephron: That was what I grew up with because my mother had a career. So we had cooks. Very good cooks. I grew up with fantastic Southern food. In Southern California.
Epi: Somehow I imagined your mom making Jewish staples.
NE: Not remotely. The one thing my mother did make was what was known at the time as lox and onions and eggs. Now no one makes it with lox; they make it with nova. That was my mother's specialty, which she cooked on New Year's Day for the Rose Bowl games, which we had a party for every year. It took her about an hour to make scrambled eggs. She made those really creamy, custardy almost. She just stirred and stirred and stirred forever and ever and ever. Basically we didn't have much in the way of what you would call Jewish food.
Epi: Why Southern food?
NE: One of the cooks was from New Orleans. She could cook anything, but we had a lot of jambalaya and the most amazing yeast rolls you've ever had. The second cook, I don't remember where she was from. They were both black women. And they both made the greatest pie crust and the greatest fried chicken. I don't mean that every night we had Southern food. Some nights we had lamb chops. But they were great cooks.
Epi: Is there a signature Nora Ephron dish?
NE: If there is a Nora Ephron signature anything it is that there's slightly too much food. I have a friend whose mantra is: You must choose. And I believe the exact opposite: I think you should always have at least four desserts that are kind of fighting with each other.
Epi: Do you try new cookbooks or prefer to stick with recipes you know?
NE: I use cookbooks, yes, all the time. I go through phases when I get a new cookbook and it sticks. I buy a lot of cookbooks. Some of them you just kind of read and you try one recipe and it doesn't really work. So then you don't go back to it. The new Ina Garten cookbook, which is called Back to Basics, I have not had a failure with. It is the most fantastic cookbook. I think I bought 20 copies of it for friends. And that's the one I have been cooking from mostly in the last year. But I have things that I regularly make that Nick [Pileggi, Ephron's husband] and I love to eat. We love chili; we make it all the time. And there's a Paul Prudhomme recipe for barbecued shrimp that we make all the time. Two years ago I was using Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin, which is a great cookbook. I still use it. That's the one I fanatically cook from.
Epi: It's nice to think of you fanatically cooking from one cookbook, when that's half of the premise of Julie & Julia. Like you already lived the blogger role.
NE: Well, that's what I did when I came to New York and bought that cookbook [Mastering the Art of French Cooking] by Julia. To make this and then this and this. Years later. I did that in the 1960s, but then in the 1980s, I did a huge number of the fish things from the cookbook, which I hadn't done in the 1960s. I learned to make beurre blanc and hollandaise.
Epi: Do you have a nice kitchen? Fancy appliances?
NE: I have had pretty good kitchens in my life. But, you know, you don't need a big kitchen. At all. You don't need much space to be a good cook. I like my stove. It's a Viking. I especially like the Viking logo, which is very attractive. Someone gave me a Kramer knife, which I fell madly in love with. But I cooked for years without one. I had a bleak moment when they announced that Teflon gave you cancer. And I resolved it by deciding that I was going to go on using Teflon and I didn't care. I don't have bad pans. I have those good ones. I forget what they're called. I get them at Zabar's. I do care about those pans. It would be hard to go back to those old cast-iron pans.
Epi: Okay, here are some quick-fire questions: You're having dinner. Do you order beer, wine, or a cocktail?
NE: Wine. Or Champagne.
Epi: Foie gras: Yes or no?
NE: Yes! Are you kidding?
Epi: Is there any dish you won't eat?
NE: I have never eaten brains or blood sausage. Or things in that category. I don't think I've ever eaten tripe.
Epi: Do you watch any food TV?
NE: I watch Top Chef, Iron Chef. I watched one show but then I got mad at it. [I hate it when] they give people five things that have nothing to do with one another and you have to create a meal out of them. I don't like that. That, to me, has nothing to do with anything. It really made me mad when they had a show and made people cook with rice cakes. I love Nigella. And Ina Garten. And Martha. It's amazing to me how you can just watch that stuff completely happily.
Epi: And finally, a big question: Have women's roles changed in the kitchen over the decades, pre- and post-Women's Lib?
NE: I was alive during the women's lib movement and I do not remember anyone taking a position against cooking. I think they were talking about other things. And by then, because of Julia, and [New York Times food writer] Craig Claiborne and James Beard, and all of those people, the little housewife who cooked in a kind of Good Housekeeping kind of way had been supplanted by the idea that you could be inventive and creative and wizardlike in the kitchen. I don't believe that the women's movement laid a glove on the amount of cooking that was going on. What really seems to have laid a glove: People seem very interested in food now, and in watching people cook on television, but they don't cook nearly as much as people did when I was young. They don't. They order in. And my guess is that if we see a big uptick in cooking, it will be mostly because of the economy.
Julie & Julia photos courtesy of Sony Pictures
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by James Oliver Cury
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