By Rick Nelson
Author Julie Powell. Director Nora Ephron has used Powell’s 2005 book “Julie & Julia” to inspire the film “Julie & Julia.”
Like many Americans, I’ve always felt that I knew Julia Child. At least a little bit. Acquainted, maybe, a belief that was reinforced after soaking up Meryl Streep’s captivating performance as Mrs. Child in “Julie & Julia.”
The film, which opens Friday, cuts back and forth between two worlds: The 1950s, as we watch Julia Child doing her best An-American-in-Paris thing and transforming herself into the Julia Child we all sort-of knew; and 2002, when we witness New York City blogger Julie Powell get a new lease on life by spending a year cooking all 524 recipes in Child’s seminal “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
By the time the credits were rolling, I felt more than a little sting of regret that I’d never met the culinary icon, never heard that unforgettable voice without the filter of a television set. I have, however, met Powell. Once. Memorably.
The occasion was the 2005 James Beard Foundation Awards in New York City, the annual event that Time magazine once famously described as the “Oscars of the food world.” I was nominated in two categories, and I was nervous. Sweat-trickling-down-my-spine nervous. What if they call my name? Good lord, what if I have to make a speech?
As the night progressed, my anxiety mounted. On the outside, I appeared to be making small talk with the other people seated at my table. But on the inside, my twisted imagination kept re-screening a pivotal scene from “A Star is Born,” when Judy Garland’s character’s Oscar acceptance speech is interrupted by her washed-up movie-star of a husband Norman Maine (played by the magnificent James Mason). He hogs the limelight, rambles through a booze-soaked pity-fest and then inadvertently slaps his wife across the kisser. Awk-ward. Then my twisted fixation turned to the penultimate moment in “The Bodyguard,” when Kevin Costner’s security expert selflessly takes the bullet meant for his celebrity client (Whitney Houston, mere minutes before she starts to scream the stuffing out of “I Will Always Love You”) as the songstress-turned-actress takes the stage to accept her Academy Award.
These awards programs; no good can come from them.
I had one consolation: I was sitting in the ballroom at the Grand Hyatt and not in a gigantic Lincoln Center concert hall. Perhaps I should explain: There are two James Beard Foundation Awards. There’s the glammed-up gala at Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic, complete with the red carpet, the black-tie dress, the star-studded appearances by the likes of Martha Stewart, Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse and the see-and-be-seen food- and drink-fest that follows.
Then there’s the Journalism and Broadcast Media Awards, a much more modest gathering over dinner in a hotel ballroom, where newspaper, magazine, television, radio and internet types are honored for their food-related work. You’ve heard of the Daytime Emmys? The Beard’s journalism awards are their foodie equivalent.
That’s not a criticism, just a point of reference. Take it from me, it’s a thrill to be there as a nominee – a kind of sick-to-your-stomach thrill. Even, I imagine, for someone like the brilliant Alan Richman of GQ magazine, who has accumulated so many Beards that his tally probably bests the combined medal count of Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps. Who isn’t tickled beyond words to be nominated for an award, let alone win one? Count me in.
Anyway. Martha Teichner of “CBS News Sunday Morning” was the evening’s genial host. After relating a few amusing anecdotes about Julia Child – she had died the previous year, and the awards were a tribute to her legacy – Teichner introduced the first presenter: Julie Powell.
At the microphone, Powell cut to the chase and announced the evening’s first category, and it was one of mine. I heard her read the list of nominees: me, Robb Walsh of the Houston Press and Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice. I could hear Powell tear open an envelope, but my eyes remained fixed on my plate.
I don’t recall what happened the moment after Powell said my name, other than I heard polite applause as I stood up and walked to the stage, a medical miracle since every ounce of blood had drained from my legs. She gave me an enthusiastic hug, ceremoniously draped the medallion around my neck and, noticing that she was still holding the slip of paper with my name on it, handed it and the accompanying envelope to me. It was all a little surreal, but it was definitely lovely. Beyond lovely, actually.
And then it was over. Powell turned her attention back to the podium and began to announce the next category. “I guess we’re not giving speeches,” I thought, an enormous wave of relief washing over me, and I returned to my seat. My editor Lee was seated to my left, beaming. “I would have thanked you,” I told her, and I wasn’t brown-nosing it; she deserved the credit.
Powell read the names for the next category: Kitty Crider, Rick Nelson and Robb Walsh. Here we go again, I thought, grateful that the night’s nerve-wracking business was being quickly expedited. “And the award goes to . . . Kitty Crider,” Powell said, and I watched a carbon copy of what had previously transpired. Crider, the food editor of the Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman, got the same gigantic hug, the same bow-your-head-while-I-bestow-this-ribbon-around-your-neck hoopla and the same mock-grave envelope presentation. Sweet. Powell then turned back to the podium – no speech for Ms. Crider – and it was on to a third award. Same schtick, same no-speech zone, and then Powell bid the crowd farewell.
The wait staff quickly served the next course. Soon enough, Teichner returned to the podium. She’s going to announce the next presenter, she said, but first she has been asked to make an announcement.
“If you win an award, we really want you to give a speech,” she said, and the room burst into a thunderclap of applause. “Julie is in the kitchen right now, crying, because she didn’t let anyone give a speech.”
In a case of unplanned perfect timing, Powell was the winner in the very next category. She quickly made her way through the sea of tables, and even from my vantage point clear across the room I could see that the poor woman’s face was streaked with tears. Like the three previous winners before her, Powell got the same Beard Award hurrahs: the hug, the royal flourish of the baby blue ribbon, the presentation of the envelope.
With one minor differentiation. I can’t recall if the presenter was Alex Prud’homme (Child’s nephew and biographer) or radio producer Jennifer Sawyer English, but it doesn’t matter; the point is, he or she made a small gesture to Powell, inviting her to step to the microphone. The room fell into silence.
I can’t recall Powell’s exact words, but they went something like this: “I’m thrilled to win this award,” she said, clutching her medallion. “Mainly so I have the opportunity to say how sorry I am for being such an ass**** for not letting anyone make a speech.”
It was surely the first time that the word ass**** had been invoked at the hallowed James Beard Foundation Awards. From what I’ve read about the salty Mr. Beard, I imagine he would have been delighted; I knew that I instantly adored her. Huge guffaws erupted all around me. I was laughing so hard that I was crying.
The rest of the evening flew by in a blur. I never got another face-to-face with Powell, but here’s what I would have told her: Thanks, Julie. There’s no way I could have ever spontaneously delivered such a memorable acceptance speech.