Reviewed by Nicole Chvatal
The wisecracking, brutally honest Powell is back, except now instead of cooking all the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she's learning how to debone turkeys and hacking up beef at a butcher shop in upstate New York. Oh, and she cheated on her husband. Wait -- what?
It's true, but before we get to those juicy bits, Powell brings us up to speed on how she got into butchering. Once the initial hype of Julie and Julia died down, but before the movie came out, Powell apprenticed for six months at Fleisher's in Kingston, N.Y. In revealing her offbeat infatuation, she admits she's "attracted to a butcher's intimate knowledge. Romantically, I imagine that it's innate, that his nicked hands were born knowing how to slice those whisper-thin cutlets. I'm attracted to his courtly, old-world brand of machismo."
It took a while for Powell to find a butcher's shop that would take her on; most of them didn't need any extra help or seemed like they were on the brink of going out of business. Butchering, she points out, is a dying art. It's also old school and hard-core. Powell's intense approach to her new "obsession" of meat is downright scientific at times.
Armed with a boning knife and a meat hook, she tells, in gory detail, how to rip apart a pig and turn it into pork chops. She boils down the pig's head to make headcheese and is up to her elbows in ground pork making sausages. It's all gross and strangely fascinating. Powell, being the cheeky writer she is, hilariously alludes to Jack the Ripper and The Silence of the Lambs while popping out ham hocks and bone marrow.
She comes home with plenty of meat from the shop, and the recipes included in the book are a nice touch. But in between removing livers and debating the merits of tenderloins, Powell reveals that she's had a two-year extramarital affair. Cleaving essentially begins when her affair ends and she's an emotional wreck. She also admits to liking it kinky in the bedroom; for the sake of disclosure, there is no denying that Powell's sex life plays a big role in this book.
When the apprenticeship is over, Powell's marriage is still on the rocks and she hasn't found inner peace. A co-worker suggests a solo trip around the world to learn more about butchery, so Powell travels to Buenos Aires, Ukraine and Tanzania. We learn some colorful bits about Argentine cattle farms and Maasai rituals, but this part of Cleaving loses steam as it essentially becomes a backpacking trip cliche.
The good stuff comes from Powell's time at Fleisher's. She doesn't say if any of the staffers ever knew who she was, but seemingly Powell never wore her fame like a badge during her apprenticeship. Instead, she's raw and complicated in trying to piece herself back together after achieving success. One of the things she learned at Fleisher's was how to tie perfect roasts. It sums up her second memoir quite well: "It is both delicate and, sometimes, painful. The twine can bite into fingers, cut off circulation, but the swirling motions as I quickly make the knot and pull it tight are graceful and feminine."
Books mentioned in this post