15 Food Questions for Nora Ephron

by Nicki Gostin

Nora Ephron isn't just one of our best female directors, she's also Hollywood's top chef. Don't believe us? Food is a theme that reoccurs in all of her movies—just ask Meg Ryan. There's that famous delicatessen scene in When Harry Met Sally when Ryan gets really excited about ... dinner. Or when Ryan stops at a diner in Sleepless in Seattle and orders "tea, with the bag out," while listening to the radio. Or all the Starbucks in You've Got Mail. OK, maybe the last example was just really clever product placement, but you get the idea.

Now Ephron is finally entering the kitchen for real, with Julie & Julia, which tells the story of not one, but two chefs: Julia Child (played by Meryl Streep) and food blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams). Ephron spoke with NEWSWEEK about her love affair with food.

1. Your book Heartburn had lots of recipes and you're known as an amazing cook. What took you so long to do a food movie?
I don't know. I'm ashamed of myself. Food was supposed to be a slightly bigger part of Heartburn and it actually didn't turn out to be because of me. I just didn't find a way to make it a bigger part of the movie as I should have and we cut several scenes in which food was a major character. I have quite a lot of pie in Michael, I want to say that. But I don't know what took me so long because there is nothing more fun than having a huge amount of food on the set.

2. At least you didn't gain a lot of weight from this movie. When you read Julie and Julia did you immediately think I'm going to make this into a movie?
No, I actually read about Julia Powell in The New York Times and then I went to read her blog and immediately decided no. I didn't know how you could do a movie out of it, and then when I heard the idea of combining the two stories, I got really excited. I just immediately saw it and thought, oh my God, what a great idea.

3. Did you grow up worshipping Julia Child?
If only I had grown up worshipping Julia Child. I was already grown up─thank you very much─when Julia Child's book was published. When I moved to New York in 1962 you had to own it. You had to own Catch 22 and the Julia Child cookbook or else you could not enter adult society in New York City at that moment, and you had to cook the beef bourguignon at your first dinner party for your friends.

4. Was that your first dish that you made from Julia's book?
No, but it was definitely the one everyone made and then some people got loony and made things like veal Prince Orloff which takes about a day and a half of solid cooking to produce. One of my proudest achievements looking back is I never made the veal Prince Orloff mistake.

5. What's the dish that's taken you the longest to make?
In my life? Well I had a brief Chinese food episode and made the famous lemon chicken, Pearl's Lemon Chicken, where you had to coat little strips of chicken in water-chestnut flour and deep fry them. That took a while.

6. In the book, Julia Child has an epiphany when she has sole meuniere. What dish was like that for you?
I don't think there was ever a dish that changed my life. I certainly remember a constant series of things that I had for the first time and thought, where has this been all my life? One was brie. I mean oh my God! One was my first soft-shell crabs. I grew up in California and they really didn't have them there in that period and you know béarnaise sauce, béarnaise sauce! Oh my God! So yes, there are just a million things. I remember reading years ago that when Woody Allen made What's New Pussycat? he went to a restaurant in Paris and had sole meunière for sixty consecutive nights and when I read it I thought, what is wrong with him? Why wouldn't you order something else and now I go to Paris and I order sole meunière practically every single night. I have exactly the same feeling about it as Julia Child had about it. I think it is the most delicious thing. You pretty much have to have it in Paris.

7. You're a famous New York cook. Are your friends intimidated to have you over for dinner?
I hope they're not. What I've noticed is compared to when I was young, people don't cook they way they do in the period when everyone fell in love with Julia Child. People watch a lot of cooking now. Cooking is truly a spectator sport and some of what they watch is so daunting like Iron Chef, that it seems to me it keeps people out of the kitchen rather than what Julia Child did. She made you think you think you could do if she could do it.

8. Do you watch a lot of cooking on TV?
I'll watch almost anything. I happen to love Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa) and I love Nigella and I like watching Iron Chef. This thing that people do now where they stack food up on a plate like a little Mount Everest. What is that? I'm still at the point where I don't like my sauce to mush into my string beans.

9. What's your favorite comfort food to make?
Fried potatoes. Pasta with a bolognese sauce. I have a really, really easy fast way of making bolognese and it's just great, so that would be one thing.

10. Guilty pleasure food?
Well you know a basic hot fudge sundae. I'm a pretty careful eater but I do love a good corn chip, I really do.

11. I know it's Meryl Streep but still her Julia accent is amazing. Did you laugh the first time she did it?
Well it wasn't just laughing. The other thing was, it's not that she had to keep doing it when the camera wasn't on but I really feel that she swallowed Julia Child and reinvented her so they don't really look alike yet the minute you see Meryl you just go for it completely. You don't say, "Oh, well that isn't quite what she looked like." They don't have the same teeth at all for example or nose and yet she inhabited that personality. One of my friends worked with her and said that Julia was like a Christmas tree and Meryl just got that thing, that big twinkling thing that Julia was.

12. What's a typical meal like for you at home?
Well, one of our favorite meals is a recipe for barbecued shrimp that of course aren't really barbecued. They're hot and spicy shrimp that involves a pound of shrimp and a half pound of butter. That's absolutely true, I'm not exaggerating.

13. What's a dish you love serving to friends?
At the moment chili. I just got really deeply into chili. I like to serve it with fried chicken and some really great salads. I don't make the chicken. I'm a connoisseur of where to buy great fried chicken, but I love my chili.

14. Let's face it. Anytime something has a lot of butter, it tastes really good.
That's right! You know here's the truth. Everybody dies, there's no avoiding it and I do not believe for one second that butter is the cause of anyone's death. Overeating may be, but not butter, please. I just feel bad for people who make that mistake. By the way the same thing is true of olive oil. What difference could it possibly make if there's a little olive oil in your salad dressing? It does not take one day off your life.

15. You must have been approached to do a cooking show.
You know at one point, I don't know if they were serious, they asked me if I would be interested and I think especially now that I've done this movie, it is so hard to talk and cook at the same time. It's not that I'm not obsessed about food. I really am and I'm sitting in a room right now with food and I'm 10 feet away from it and I've been thinking the whole time I've been talking to you, is the telephone cord is long enough for me to get some food?