Book Review: Cleaving by Julie Powell: Rough Cuts

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Photograph: Paula Forbes / Eat Me Daily

Julie Powell's central metaphor in Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession (Amazon) is the idea of butchery as therapy: it is, essentially, the act of breaking down an entity into smaller, more manageable pieces. This revelation occurs over the course of Powell's apprenticeship as a butcher at Kingston, New York butcher Fleisher's Grass-fed and Organic Meats, which she arrived at hoping to escape her disaster of a marriage and the heartbreak of a recently ended affair. When she arrives, she hopes all can be cured by cutting organic beef and Berkshire pork into chops and steaks. But in the end (spoiler!) Powell realizes that dividing everything into smaller parts can only do so much, and she has to examine her life as a whole to find peace. She also realizes that she loves cutting up animal flesh, and would like to dabble a bit more in the world of S&M.

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Photograph: Paula Forbes / Eat Me Daily

The Meat of the Matter

Cleaving is on my radar (as it is on most people's) largely because of Powell's meteoric fame as a result of her first book, Julie & Julia. And thanks perhaps to the momentum of that earlier memoir and its hordes of fans, Cleaving is being marketed as a food book. On this front, however, it is somewhat lacking. The book is divided into three sections ("Apprentice," "Journeywoman," and the epilogue/coda "Master?"), the weaker sections of which are too lengthy and the intriguing sections too compact. The first section, by far the longest, is full of technical paragraphs explaining the exact method of separating specific cuts of meat which achieve the seemingly self-contradictory property of being both detailed and vague at the same time. As Powell herself explains, the art of butchery is one based primarily on feeling the various sinews and seams that divide the cuts, but her descriptions fall short of tactile, and It was hard to wrap my head around the process.

Besides the technical explanations of butchering, Powell handles her beginnings at Fleisher's almost like a novel, taking an overly familiar narrative voice that feels out of place for what is as much a documentary of the rock-star-filled butchering scene as it is a chronicle of Powell's emotional life. New York's local food stars are introduced as characters, giving short shrift to the real and fascinating people they are. "Tom" is the butcher Tom Mylan, of Williamsburg meat mecca The Meat Hook, and "Dan," who runs "one of the restaurants [Fleisher's] supplies," is better known as Dan Barber, 2009's James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Chef, whose restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns is practically locavore Mecca. Powell's gloss over background information like this does a disservice to readers who don't spend all their time reading about food (or to readers who read a lot about food, just not in New York). They're likely to miss these references, which is unfortunate: without this context, Powell takes away from the importance of what Fleisher's is, what they're doing, and how lucky she is to be apprenticing there.

The feeling that we're reading someone's novel continues through second section of the book, "Journeywoman," where Powell details her journeys to Argentina, Ukraine and Tanzania, where she learns about cattle, sausage, and goat, respectively. By far the most interesting part of the book in terms of its food content, I wish this section were longer — it's here that Powell seems to truly learn something about her chosen trade and, in her descriptions of her adventures to cattle ranches and restaurants, manages to step away from her emotional self-involvement. From these journeys, the mini-chapter "Master?" provides necessary closure to the metaphor of the book. While we never find out whether Powell leaves her husband or reunites with her lover, we do get the sense that she has found a sense of peace within herself.

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Photograph: Paula Forbes / Eat Me Daily

Talk About Dirty Dishes

For all the Powell surrounds herself with other people on her butchering journey, ultimately, Cleaving is a selfish story. This is a book full of confessions: embarrassing sexual encounters and overly intimate recounts of her fights with her husband. At times it seems Powell is inviting judgment, as if in some way the attention of the reader will allow her to atone for her mistakes. But for all that Powell is unlikable for much of her story, at least the book is honest — which, for a food book, is rare and remarkable.

In truth, the food world can be a bit too clean. The internet drips with pristine and lovely pictures of fairytale cupcakes, caramelized roasts and vibrant bins of farmers' market produce, and apart from the masculine bravado of Anthony Bourdain and his acolytes, it can get a little cloying. Life is messy; food is messy. Above all, heartbreak is messy. Powell's book is messy, and even more, it's messy without glamorizing the mess. It's a real trainwreck that at times is very uncomfortable to read.

This is the Julie/Julia Chick?

Powell's first book, Julie and Julia was a different brand of food writing entirely. While it was occasionally confessional — it was based on a blog, after all — it was cute overall, and the gimmick was fun. It was also certain to overshadow any other book Powell would ever write. So it's no wonder that she threw cutesiness to the wind: Cleaving is too intimate, too awkward, and too sexual, and I admit, there were times when I was embarrassed by her candor. I can't help but wonder whether that's because I read Julie & Julia, not in spite of it. Was it because I wanted Powell's marriage to be as perfect as Julia Child's as badly as she did? Is it because I feel as though I know the Powell and her husband, and feel bad for them?

Whatever the answer to Powell's calculated overshare, it clashes — badly — with the meat content. This feels like two books thrown together, and it's not clear what (outside of that initial metaphor) is supposed to tie together butchery with the story of a collapsing love life. It's clear that Powell was trying to be daring as a writer and memoirist, and I'm sure in many ways it was liberating for her. But I have the feeling she got more out of it than her readers will.

–Paula Forbes

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6 Comments

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  1. Allison G.

    I arrived at this website via a link on Serious Eats, a food blog I read daily. Having seen the movie Julie & Julia, the title of the link made me curious, and I was interested to read your take on Julie Powell's latest book. However, this review is pretty disappointing. It appears that it has become de rigueur to criticize Julie Powell, justified or not. I myself didn't love her portrayal in the movie, but to be fair, I'm not sure many people can match the likeability of Julia Child. I was disappointed to see that this review reads like another cliched, unfounded stab at Ms. Powell. For example, I think it's really interesting that Ms. Forbes is cringing over the sexual escapades in this "food book," while everyone uniformly celebrates Ruth Reichl's very similar book, "Comfort Me With Apples." After the recommendation from one foodie after the next, I read a few of Reichl's books and was stunned at how explicit they were, and how often the food writing took a minor role to her sex life adventures. It was more Sex and the City than My Life in France, but people in the food world raved. So what's the difference? It seems to me the difference between Powell and any other star of the food world is that it became popular to criticize her, and now everyone is trying to add to their own foodie street cred by joining in. Classic gang mentality, particularly when it is women hating on women. It's pretty lame. At least she put herself out there in an honest way, faults and all. She might have annoyed me in the movie, but all this senseless bullying is more annoying. And one more thing: if you're going to write a book review, please write with some semblance of correct grammar, spelling, and style. Jeez.

    • Denise

      I don't think this review reads like "another cliched, unfounded stab at Ms. Powell." I think it reads as a well-reasoned, thoughtful, well-supported stab at Ms. Powell.

  2. food writer

    I thought this was a fair review. I got to page 18 in this book after being sent a review copy, and at the second use of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an Extremely Meaningful Relationship Metaphor I put the book down and will not open it again. I get that Powell is putting herself out there, but the solipsism factor just made this a little too top-heavy for me. This was actually quite a restrained review.

  3. Karina

    Allison G. you're taking this review a little too personally. I thought this review was very fair and didn't bash Powell in the slightest. Maybe the book just isn't very good. Maybe Powell's problem is that her talents as a writer were overwhelmed this time by her narcissism. I admit that I couldn't get far enough into the book because I was so turned off by Julie. But, after having read a number of reviews from many different sources, including people who are sympathetic to Powell, I think this review is in line with them.

  4. LeAnn

    I agree almost totally with this review and feel like it's fair. I was impressed with Julie and Julia and wanted to see what else she had to offer. I made it half way through the book before deciding to skip to the last chapter and be done with it already only to find the ending as boring and disappointing as the rest of the book. The butchering scenes were boring, lengthy and lost my interest. I found myself skipping them. The story line that captivated me (relationships both in the shop and her love life) were short and confusing.

    I was so totally turned off by the Julie she portrayed herself to be that I certainly didn't want to read anymore. I wondered if I was just expecting too much from her, but it seems to be a common complaint. I kept feeling like she could have written it differently to avoid that feeling without changing any of the truth.

    I agree that she probably got more out of it than any of her readers will. I will not recommend that anyone read it. In fact, I will recommend that they not waste their time.

  5. JPM

    Allison, I'm not a woman and I'm saying this book is atrocious. I read this at a friends house and after a couple of chapters I was floored by how bad this book is. The writing is choppy, and her attempts at humor almost make you feel uncomfortable reading it because you feel sad for the writer. It's sad that bloggers are now all of a sudden writers. We continue to reward mediocrity. Some of her attempts at humor are just geeky speak and very annoying to be honest. She's not funny and not charming. I doubt that she could write a chapter without talking about herself and how everything affects her. This book is written poorly, self absorbed and isn't entertaining. Whoever agreed to publish this one should take a month off to regroup.

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