Book Review: Cleaving by Julie Powell: Rough Cuts
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.
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.
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.