Haven’t read Julie Powell’s Cleaving just yet? No worries; Luke shares his review below, while also highlighting “A Nice, Simple Way to Make Short Ribs.” This recipe is very close to my own and Jill photographed it beautifully. Pop this pot in the oven and then go about your afternoon. When you return, all you need is some potatoes to absorb the rich jus and a glass of something deep and red. -Maggie
In one of my favorite recordings from Johnny Cash’s “Unearthed” box set, there’s a live orchestral version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” Mr. Cash starts strumming the chords to the song, and you hear someone off mic say to him, “you’re playing the song in F#, the orchestra is playing it in F.” Cash leans into the mic and says, “Sorry Bill, I was just doing it the way I wanted to.”
This song and this particular introduction came to me while reading Julie Powell’s “Cleaving.” I didn’t read “Julie & Julia,” (in which Powell attempted to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” in a single calendar year) but I did see the movie. I wasn’t nuts about the Powell half of the movie, but was really touched by the love story of Julia and Paul Child. I think this might’ve been due in no small part to the work of Meryl Streep, the only actor I’ve ever been around whose mere presence rendered me unable to say anything comprehensible for a good five minutes, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
Powell’s latest book, “Cleaving,” picks up where “Julie & Julia,” (both literary and cinematic) left off. Julie is a best-selling author. She’s made a lot of money from her book, but she’s not completely happy. She is still married to Eric, but has also taken up with another man, who goes by the initial “D.” Powell goes back and forth on whether the affair is worth the sneaking and lying, or if it’s a relationship that she needs in her life. At some point, she tries to make a break of thing and, finds herself heading upstate to roll up her sleeves and immerse herself in a subject she’s always been fascinated by – butchery. Eager to learn more about that particular art, Julie is able to talk the owner of Fleisher’s butcher shop in Kingston, New York into letting her apprentice there for no money and no special treatment.
At Fleisher’s, Powell learns a lot about how to butcher various cuts of meat and, after a long learning process, ends up being pretty good at it too. She can sling around the big cuts of meat and compete with the locker room braggadocio with the best of them. Powell is shown how to carefully and professionally prepare cuts of meat, and they also share a few recipes with her. One of the stand outs is what Julie calls “A Nice, Simple Way to Make Short Ribs.” No matter how many different ways we make short ribs, I always feel like we’re doing something wrong. This keeps it basic, but sometimes that’s what works best.
A Nice, Simple Way to Make Short Ribs
- 4 pounds of short ribs
- 2 teaspoons crumbled dried rosemary
- 3 tablespoons bacon fat
- 3 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
- 1 small onion, cut into half rings
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 1 cup beef stock
- Salt & pepper to taste
- Pre-heat the oven to 325.
- Pat dry the ribs and trim off any excess fat.
- Season with rosemary, salt & pepper.
- Warm the bacon fat in a stockpot on the stove until almost smoking.
- Brown the ribs in batches, setting aside once done.
- Pour off the remaining fat, leaving approx. 3 tablespoons.
- Add garlic and onion, until onion is golden and garlic is super fragrant.
- Add red wine and stock. It’ll hiss and boil almost immediately.
- Add ribs and any juices that have collected while sitting.
- Cover, and place whole pot in the oven for at least two hours, when the meat is falling off the bone. (Powell suggests serving with the juices and a big dollop of mashed potatoes.)
As good as the food is, Powell’s personal life is a little messier. Her affair with D makes everything both inside and out a bit uneasy. She divides her time between the apartment she shares in Manhattan with Eric and a very sparsely decorated apartment near Kingston. Her happiest moments are at the shop, her saddest moments seemingly anywhere else.
The book concludes with trips to Argentina, Ukraine and Tanzania, as Powell finds herself a little adrift after D tells her they can’t continue on. However, on the trip Powell finds the strength to stand up and be her own person. She realizes that, perhaps, this too will pass.
When I first started reading, I wasn’t digging it. I didn’t really like Powell’s voice and the fact that she seemed to be excited about her extramarital affair didn’t really win her any points either. However, as I continued to read, I found myself enjoying the book more and more. Maybe the feeling that Powell was rubbing our noses in her illicit activities and, essentially making us co-conspirators wasn’t what she was trying to do. The more I read, the more I took the book to be a meditation, a reflection on a difficult time in a person’s life. And to read any more into it, to offer comment or reaction is kind of like telling a person that’s on fire that all they need to do is find some water.
The deeper you get into the book, the more you feel the pain and the split going on within Julie. She didn’t give the readers any idea of morality because she was trying to figure it out herself. By the time I reached the end, I felt that offering any comment on the emotions contained therein would be foolhardy at best, insulting at worst. Powell deserves commendation for laying herself bare, for highlighting her flaws in a way most people would never dream of.
By the end of the book, I was thinking of another Leonard Cohen song – “Anthem.” “Ring the bells that can still ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That is how the light gets in.”
All photos by Jill Chen/Freestyle Farm.
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