I had a dream about Chris Messina last night,” confides Julie Powell, perched on a stool in her small but airy Queens kitchen. Nothing odd in dreaming about a handsome actor. What’s a little weird is this: Messina is the actor who played Powell’s husband, Eric, in the film version of her bestselling memoir Julie & Julia. “‘You guys are sort of interchangeable in my head,'” she continues, pretending to talk to the real Eric. “‘Sorry, dear!'”
On the scale of marital transgressions, it’s a minor one—especially given this particular couple’s history. For two years after she wrote Julie & Julia, the story of the year she spent tackling all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Powell, 36, was carrying on an extramarital affair. And now she’s mapping its fallout, as well as describing a not-entirely-unrelated butcher-shop apprenticeship, in her new book Cleaving. Given that the marriage in Julie & Julia looks as perfectly composed as Child’s boeuf bourguignon, “Someone who watches the movie and then picks up Cleaving,” Powell admits, “is in for some serious psycho-whiplash.”
So how could she cheat on that adorable husband, who she says is almost as superhumanly supportive as Messina’s simplified portrayal of him? How could she write about it? And what’s with the meat cleavers?
First, the hard stuff. Powell and Eric, 36, a magazine editor, “have been together since we were 18—since we were children!—and got married at 24,” she says. When her book became a hit, “things changed abruptly.” As she was adjusting to fame and its new possibilities, an old college flirtation, whom she calls “D.,” moved to New York and, she says, “came swooping back into my life, the right/wrong person at the right/wrong time.”
Within a few months, Eric (who declined to be interviewed for this story) knew of the affair. “There were fights and crying,” says Powell. Eric responded by seeing another woman. Julie continued seeing D. Yet the Powells remained committed to their own union. “I told Eric, ‘Through all the stuff that’s been happening, I love you in exactly the same way.’ I think he felt the same.” After Julie and D. broke it off in 2006, she and Eric started counseling. “I wouldn’t recommend infidelity as a way to work through your problems. But our marriage was more resilient than we thought.”
Powell sought another outlet too. “I tend to throw myself obsessively into projects in times of stress.” Just as compulsive cooking solved the onetime government drone’s career crisis, cutting meat became “a haven during a difficult time in my marriage. You can’t go traipsing about your mind while working a band saw.”
Enter Josh and Jessica Applestone, co-owners of Fleisher’s, a Kingston, N.Y., butcher shop committed to grass-fed beef, free-range poultry and, at least in 2006, free lessons for city gals who ask. “I had no idea who she was,” says Josh, a former vegan. In the blood and bluster of the all-male cutting room, “Julie held her own.” Adds his wife, who had read Powell’s blog: “She left whatever she was going through personally off the table.”
Powell, a well-documented omnivore, says that learning about protein’s trip from the pasture to the table has now made her a “restaurant vegetarian” who won’t eat meat “if I don’t know the provenance.”
Butchery also gave Powell a metaphor (a meat-aphor?) through which to think about the affair and its effect on her marriage. When she writes, “It’s sad, but a relief as well, to know that two things so closely bound together can separate with so little violence,” she is describing more than the surprising bloodlessness of cut pig flesh.
Remarkably, she and Eric remain a couple that often cook dinner (recently it was carne adovada, from pork Powell had butchered) and eat together in front of the TV at the slightly larger digs her success bought them. (“I love having an apartment that isn’t a nightmare.”) Since they are making a go of the marriage, why write about its near demise? Powell emphasizes that she wouldn’t have “without Eric’s blessing,” and that D., too, signed off on the project. But now, “I’m going to get out of the memoiring game for a bit. I’d like to write a novel.”
First, more butchery. Powell recently visited Fleisher’s for a refresher and was boning a leg of lamb using a “faith cut,” a butcher’s term she has come to love. She explains, “A ‘faith cut’ means you have to cut right through the flesh, hit the bone and hope it’s all going to come out all right.”