Reviews | Short Takes
- John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. By David S. Reynolds ’70.
- Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. By Julie Powell ’95.
Julie Powell ’95 and her titular “tiny apartment kitchen.”
Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. By Julie Powell ’95. New York: Little Brown, 2005. 320 pp. $23.95 hardcover.
If Julie Powell had had her turning-30, what-am-I-doing-with-my-life dilemma 10 or 15 years ago, and even if she had chosen the same way out—a self-imposed challenge to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year—she still probably would not have ended up with Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, because she would have been missing a crucial element: an instant audience. Powell’s book began in August 2002 as a blog, the Julie/Julia Project, and almost immediately Powell had readers. The initial few grew over the months; by the end of the year, her blog had had more than 400,000 hits. Her fans cheered her on, worried about her when she didn’t post, occasionally commented on her (very frequent) use of profanity, sent her food-related presents and, once she added a donation button, contributed hundreds of dollars toward her “lamb discretionary fund.” Eventually, the blog received enough publicity that Powell was able to parlay it into a book deal, not to mention a new career as a food writer.
The book, published two years after the project ended, is not just the blog reprinted in book form. (The blog can still be found online at blogs.salon.com/ 0001399.) While Powell quotes from the blog and from her readers’ responses, the book is its own entity. It fleshes out Powell’s back story and weaves in various other threads from her life, including eccentric friends and family and her amazingly supportive husband, Eric. There are also occasional sections imagining the early life of Paul and Julia Child, entirely made up, Powell acknowledges, but based on letters, as well as on Julia Child’s biography. And Julia Child is the guiding spirit throughout the book, generous and benevolent in Powell’s mind, although she never actually meets Child in person.
The crisis precipitating Powell’s project was not unique. As she approaches 30, a secretary in a dead-end job, Powell realizes that she has become “a person who takes a subway from the outer boroughs to a lower Manhattan office every morning, who spends her days answering phones and doing copying, who is too
disconsolate when she gets back to her apartment at night to do anything but sit on the couch and stare vacantly at reality TV shows until she falls asleep.” This narrow version of what her life has become horrifies her.
Powell’s solution to beat back the crisis, however, was particularly her own. On a trip home, she rediscovers her mother’s copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a book Powell finds “childishly simple and dauntingly complex, incantatory and comforting….Sustenance bound up with anticipation and want. Reading MtAoFC was like reading pornographic Bible verses.”
And so the project begins, with Bifteck Saute au Beurre, Artichauts au Naturel avec Beurre au Citron et Riz Naturel (aka Pan-Broiled Steak, Whole Boiled Artichokes with Lemon Butter and Rice). A week into the project, in her blog, Powell writes, “I don’t know if I’m going to manage this thing, but I feel more than ever that it’s something worth trying.”
The pleasure of the book is not just watching Powell’s confidence increase as she works her way through Child’s tome. (Her successful boning of a duck for one of the final recipes—Boned Stuffed Duck Baked in a Pastry Crust—is a triumph.) What Powell also demonstrates so well is someone glimpsing—and then desperately wanting—a new direction for her life. Despite entreaties from her mother (“Please. Honey. Stop Cooking.”) and occasionally even her steadfast husband, she refuses to give up the project, even at its most stressful points. The project becomes the only thing that sets her apart from what she was before, from the life that is no longer enough.
The book is always entertaining and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. But it also is inspiring, in a twisted sort of way. Julie Powell may have a foul mouth, but she is also a softie underneath, and she is passionate. What she appreciates most about Julia Child, she realizes at the end, is the joy with which she approached what she did. Through the process of cooking and writing her blog, Powell sees her closed-down life open up again. She learns to cook French food, but she also learns “to sniff out the secret doors of possibility,” which turns out to be the most valuable lesson of all.
Several months into the project, Powell receives an unexpected call at work—from a woman who runs an S & M dungeon in lower Manhattan and wonders whether she might take advantage of some of the economic assistance Powell’s employer provides. Powell is inexplicably delighted by this phone call, and relays the story to Eric over dinner that night. “It just makes you happy, thinking about the possibilities out there,” he says.
He didn’t mean the possibilities of getting naked ladies to clog dance for him, or at least he didn’t only mean that. He meant that sometimes you get a glimpse into a life that you never thought of before. There are hidden trap doors all over the place, and suddenly you see one, and the next thing you know you’re flogging grateful businessmen or chopping lobsters in half, and the world’s just so much bigger than you thought it was.
And really, that’s what this book is—Julie Powell’s journey through her own trap door into a bigger life, one she cherishes rather than endures. Powell may no longer need a crazy project to jumpstart her life into a different direction, but her readers can’t help hoping that she’ll take on another one, for us, if not for herself.
—Sue Dickman ’89
Dickman is a freelance writer and former associate director
of alumni and parent programs at Amherst.