Close to the bone

Unabashedly confessional, Powell’s latest embraces her obsession with butchering and another man

Julie Powell buries herself in learning butchering as a distraction from her failed affair and foundering marriage. Julie Powell buries herself in learning butchering as a distraction from her failed affair and foundering marriage. (Carlo Allegri/ Associated Press)
By Lylah M. Alphonse
Globe Staff / December 13, 2009

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There’s nothing rational about obsession, and Julie Powell knows that she is a slave to hers - the man she’s having an affair with, D.

“I’m familiar with the landscape of addiction,’’ she writes in her new memoir, “Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession.’’ “I recognize that I’ve built up a habit for him, no less real and physical than my habit for booze.’’ Married to her childhood sweetheart, Eric, she binges on D, becomes dependent, and goes into withdrawal when he cuts her off. She casts about for a distraction, fixates on butchering, and starts going door to door, asking butchers whether they’ll hire her as an apprentice. Fleisher’s, a small shop in the Catskills, takes her on, and she finds as much peace in the physically demanding work as she does in the camaraderie of the staff.

Of course, it’s not enough. It never is. That’s the thing about obsession.

Powell is famous for cooking her way, recipe by recipe, through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.’’ One of the harrowing high points of Powell’s resulting blog (The Julie/Julia Project), book (“Julie and Julia’’), and movie (in which she’s played by Amy Adams) centered around her having to bone out a duck, so it’s not surprising to learn that Powell has a thing for butchers who can do the complicated and messy job with ease. “Rippling deltoids and brawny good looks are nice, of course, but to me a butcher’s sureness is the definition of masculinity,’’ she writes. “It strikes me as intoxicatingly exotic, like nothing I’ve ever experienced.’’ What’s surprising is that in “Cleaving’’ she decides to become one herself.

It starts to make sense, though, when she describes the actual process of cutting apart the primals, taking the unprocessed sides of beef, lamb, and pork and producing the perfect roasts and steaks you find at the meat counter. “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.’’

Powell isn’t just honest about her flaws and foibles, she writes about them blatantly and self-indulgently. Her writing is peppered with profanity, and she seems titillated by her indiscretions, which are described mostly in flashback form. “I was finally doing something I ought to have felt ashamed of, and for the first time in a long time, no obscure guilt squeezed my heart at all. I was giddy. Wanton. I had a lover.’’

You know how you notice everything when you’re truly in the moment? That’s how Powell draws you in to her world: moment by moment. The minutiae of boning out a leg of pork is riveting because you become the apprentice, too. In fact, you’re still with her even as she admits that she’s trying to distance herself, and you, from her real problems. “Even as I’m writing this sentence I can sense thousands of eyes glazing over in a more-than-I-needed-to-know fog,’’ she writes before launching into detailed description of skirt steak.

Unfortunately, that fog descends during parts of the rest of the book as well. The casual betrayals are by turns grim, cringe-inducing, and pitiful, her cries for attention go from desperate to just plain sad. She doesn’t feel guilty as much as she just feels sorry for herself; one has to wonder why her husband stayed, let alone signed off on some of the more humiliating scenes in the book. The frequent references to “Julie and Julia’’ are unnecessary, and, frankly, a little annoying - why continually interrupt your story to tell the reader you’ve written a book before?

The chapters are set off by stark pen-and-ink diagrams of animals and cuts of meat; one of them is a human being, hung upside down, cuts carefully marked as if the corpse was a chuck primal. It perfectly illustrates the crux of the story: In learning how to butcher, Powell is dissecting herself as well as her marriage. “That way I can take a knife and do something new, break something apart to make something else beautiful, understand something, a body, its parts, the logic of it.’’ But she’s not sure what to do with all the parts. Are the pieces good enough for the display case, or should they get tossed into the grinder for sausage?

“Cleaving’’ is confessional and, yes, crass, but it’s also a compulsive, voyeuristic read. If you’re a foodie, the recipes scattered throughout are a bonus, but the real meat in this book is Powell’s relationship with her husband, Eric - and how she goes about tearing it to pieces before seeing what’s left to salvage. “A heart is just a muscle, after all,’’ she points out, “which is something I should remember more often.’’

Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe staff.

CLEAVING: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession
By Julie Powell
Little, Brown, 307 pp., $24.99

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