Julie and Julia started its life as a blog. With her 30th birthday looming, Amherst-educated cubicle worker Powell (“government drone by day, renegade foodie by night”) set out to cook her way through Julia Child’s masterpiece Mastering the Art of French Cooking: 524 recipes in 365 days. The ups and downs of this “deranged assignment,” detailed in her signature breezy, tell-all style, won a huge online following and landed Powell book and movie deals.
Happily ever after, right? Only in the movies.
If Julie and Julia was a frothy soufflé, Cleaving is beefsteak tartare. This tale of carnal and carnivorous yearnings is not for all palates, but if you like your memoirs raw and juicy, it won’t disappoint.
Powell enters a Manhattan coffeeshop with a gust of winter wind. She doesn’t look a thing like Amy Adams. Her hair is dark, her brown eyes sharp and bright. She’s wearing a parka over a nubby brown sweater with a few stray pine needles in the weave, a distinctly nonurban, nonceleb outfit. Her conversation is equally down-to-earth; she can be jaw-droppingly uncensored. Even when gleefully skewering fellow authors with phrases like “sanctimonious prick,” and “smug bitch,” Powell never invokes the dread “off the record.” “I’m a pretty confessional kind of girl,” she says with a grin.
Indeed. “Cleaving” is one of those rare English words with near-opposite meanings; its dictionary definitions include “to stick or adhere, cling or hold fast” and “to split, rend apart.” In Powell’s case, both meanings are equally apt.
The high-pressure Julie/Julia Project sent shock waves through a relationship that began when both partners were still in their teens. By the time Julie and Julia was published, Powell was deep in the throes of an obsessive, sexually kinky affair, and her husband Eric was seeing another woman. “During the book tour, we were separated. And I’d written a book about this wonderful supportive marriage, which was true at the time,” she asserts. “But by the time it came out, things were so much thornier. So there was a certain amount of cover-up. It made me feel like a liar.”
Cleaving uncovers the truth with a vengeance, describing Powell’s marital struggles and her apprenticeship at Kingston’s celebrated Fleisher’s Grass-Fed and Organic Meats. Fleisher’s, writes Powell, became “My haven. My butcher shop. I spend my days now breaking down meat, with control, gentleness, serenity. I’ve craved certainty in these last troubled years, and here I get my fix.”
Why butchery? “For me, it’s not that strange,” says the author. “I’ve always been fascinated with food, and butchery is a craft I’ve always admired.” She isn’t alone: the New York Times recently ran a food feature titled “Idols With Cleavers Rule the Stage,” about the new breed of cool-dude butchers with “swinging scabbards, muscled forearms, and constant proximity to flesh.”
“It’s definitely a sex thing. I find it hilarious and a little bit overblown,” says Powell, who nevertheless describes Fleisher’s co-owner Josh Applestone as sporting a “Seventies porn star mustache.” In the rock-star butcher hall of fame, she says, “Josh is the big, buff guy” and Tom Mylan of the Meat Rack is “the Williamsburg hipster—he’s a wild man, the Hunter S. Thompson of butchers.”
“I was so lucky I did my apprenticeship with Josh and Jessica—they’re such amazing, generous people. We matched up real well,” Powell says. The Applestones clearly agree—they’ve devoted a page of their website (www.fleishers.com) to Cleaving. Powell’s husband was not quite so sanguine, though he—and the Other Man, identified only as “D.” for the bulk of the book—granted Powell permission to write about their entanglements.
“Does it feel like Cleaving is a betrayal, exposing something that shouldn’t be exposed?” Powell asks. “I think it’s a good thing to talk about how hard even a really good marriage can be.” Her only regrets are for Eric’s discomfort. “He’s a much more private person than I am. It’s not coincidental that I found my voice as a writer on the eve of this new blogging medium. I was always a person who spilled—that was why blogging connected so much,” she explains. “There’s a freedom you get, and a sense of communion with people. Twenty-first century life is so fractured, it’s so difficult to feel grounded. A blog is an effort to reach out and say, ‘Here I am.’”