Personal Preface: In that Julie and Julia centers on the author's experiences with Mastering the Art of French Cooking and imagining that start of Julia Child's relationship with the man who was to be her husband (Paul) and with France, it seemed to be that my own background with Ms. Child influenced not only my reading of Julie's book but deciding to pick it up in the first place.
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Neither Julie Powell (the author) nor I ever met Child. It was through the tv icon and the pair of books with fleur-de-lys covers we first knew her. (Ms. Powell also read correspondence in the Child archive at Harvard and the biography of her by). I thought that there were two things that I learned from watching "The French Chef" decades ago: how to bone poultry and how to dice onions. The third lesson was less specific: to keep going whatever kitchen disaster occurred (Child dropped many things!).
The project of making every recipe in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking intrigued me for several reasons. One was that our set was split upon divorce (and I'm pretty sure I have not opened the volume I got ever since, though this is going to change). Julie lifted the first volume from her mother. A more important reason is fond memories of making canneton `a la orange (duck in orange sauce) with my girlfriend whom I brought home with me from college one Christmas (her family being posted to Southeast Asia). It seemed that my mother had told the whole town (at least all the women of her age plus or minus 15 years) about the project, which in her account involved three day's cooking (in fact it involved cooking on three days, but only a few total hours spread across them. Everywhere I went, I (we) got questions about how the duck project was going. Nowhere did we get questions about her. My mother had spread word that I was bringing home an African friend (to distinguish her from being African American, which she was, though her father had earlier been stationed in Nigeria and she had gone to school in Geneva and Bangkok). BTW, the duck turned out very well. Thank you, Julia!
Considering that undertaking one recipe from the book could generate widespread interest ("famous all over town," like Danny Santiago), Julie's experience of people being interested in her project was a bit familiar. And I knew from my own experience how involved many of the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking areand that not even the supposedly "simple" ones are easy (a distinction discovers and rediscovers in her project of making all the recipes in the book). They were far too labor-intensive and reliant on not-readily available ingredients for the French restaurant in which I worked for a year. (I was constantly frustrated that I could not make real French food thereexcept to feed the staff: they were avid consumers of what I made that was not on the menu for the customers!)
Also, I put in a year and a half as a temp in downtown San Francisco (1979-80). But I didn't grow up in Austin, Texas.
Julie and Julia is the memoir of one year in the life of its author, Julie Powell, an aspiring actress who worked as a temp and then stayed on as a secretary in a federal government office overlooking the World Trade Center crater. Facing her 30th birthday and unable to escape the realization that she was not going to get work as an actress, she embarked on cooking her way through all the recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking , the 1961 two-volume cookbook that carried classic French cooking to many thousands (millions?) of American cookbooks. Its droll style is clearly that of its author who was a native speaker of English, Julia Child, whose celebrity (and Americanessand height!) eclipsed her French coauthors.
Julie (readers quickly feel that they are on a first-name basis with the author, just as Julie is with Julia) blogs about her project and life and attracts a growing band of readers who encourage her. Some of the later ones complained about her profanity, which they find gratuitous, and were jumped on by earlier fans. The expletive-filled language seems to have been picked up back in Texas from Julie's mom, a woman who is very concerned that her daughter is undertaking too much: 524 Child (et al.) recipes in one year and in a tiny and not-well-equipped Queens apartment plus writing about it and commuting to her job in lower Manhattan.
Julie's husband Eric is a paragon of supportiveness. He may not up to slaughtering crustaceans or even watching Julie dispatch them, but is a master at making vodka gimlets for her, anticipating when she will need one (which is rather often; she also smokes a lot of Marlboro lights). Her brother, nicknamed "Heathcliff," who is camped out on the couch for more than a month out of the year, is also supportive, as are some female friends with more "Sex in the City" romantic adventures. (As Julie learns to make French haute cuisine from Julia Child, she learned how to be a confidant to her friends' tales of their sexual adventures from Miranda (Cynthina Nixon).) And, not least considering her expressions of frustration at the Bush administration bureaucrats in her office, her blogging received no interference from her "superiors" ("superior" only within the government hierarchy).
With a lack of official opposition or interference and the support of her intimates, Julie still faced some major obstacles. 524 recipes in 365 days is a lot, especially given that they are labor intense with multiple steps and involve ingredients (and gear) that is less readily available in the 21st century than it was in 1960 (even sugar cubes were a problem to find). The original avid audience for Mastering the Art of French Cooking was not women with jobs, but affluent (prototypically suburban) married women with more leisure and discretionary shopping money than Julie. Partly, the past is a different countryeven four decades in the past. Powell sometimes articulates this. Partly, Julie and Eric were less affluent than Julia and Paul, which Powell sometimes suggests, but never fully analyzes. (I know she's not a sociologist, OK?)
Making the project more daring (or peculiar!) is that Julie (1) had never eatenlet alone cookedan egg before, (2) had a track record of nothing she made that was suppose to jell doing so, (3) had not outgrown many childhood food phobias, (4) had a small and not well-equipped kitchen, (5) not a lot of discretionary income to spend on exotic foodstuffs, and (6) was not a very good cook. Also, as far as I can tell, she had never been to France and sampled the real thing, and certainly had not taken any cooking classes.
What she had was Julia on the page and on some video recordings and the determination to see her project throughparticularly as a fanbase developed. Not surprisingly, many of those commenting on her blog (juliepowell.blogspot.com, which is still going strong) were strongly opinionated. Something akin to a war broke out between advocates of electrical rice cookers (number me in their ranks) and those who regard rice cookers as part of the syndrome of gadgetry. (She did not get one, but from what she writes about her rice-cooking, I would not be confident in rice she had cooked.)
When she thought about giving up, she told herself "I couldn't quit because if I wasn't cooking I wouldn't be the creator of the Julie/Julia Project anymore. I'd just have my job, my husband, [the python,] and my cats. I'd just be the person I was before. Without the Project I was nothing but a secreary on a road to nowhere, drifting toward frosted hair and menthol addiction. And I'd never live up to the name I'd been born with, the name I shared with Julia."
She is very funny on slaughtering lobsters, hacking up artichokes, and many other topics, including her friends and family, her insecurities, the indignities and absurdities of "interfacing" with the public about what to do at the WTC site, appearing on CBS and CNN, hosting a New York Times food writer, and more. Sentences provoking out-loud laughter are frequent. (Some of Julia Child's turns of phrase also do this, as in her exhorting omelet makers "to have the courage t be rough" with the eggs... Grasp the handle of the pan with both hands, thumb on top, and immediately begin jerking the pan vigorously and roughly toward you at an even, 20-degree angle over the heat, one jerk per second"I love that precise timing.)
Julie writes entertainingly about most everything in her life, including turning 30 and hearing her "biological clock" ticking loudly. Unfortunately, the python her brother gave her ten years earlier, Zuzu Marlene, only has one scene. A maggot infestation has another. The buildings water pipes sometimes leak, get frozen for 3-and-a-fraction days, and there is a power failure. (With a gas stove, she decides that losing electricity is much less harmful to her life and cooking project than having no water.) She is an entertaining mix of patience and irritability. Her self-deprecation deflates any temptations to pomposity when she is discovered, even if she exaggerates her terror of failure for literary effect (I think).
Although the book is organized by the Mastering the Art of French Cooking marathon, I learned more about the surprises of becoming a blog celebrity than I did about cooking (in general, or French cooking in particularthough this was partly due to my own long-ago exposures to Julia Child's practical proselytizing.
Powell did a very impressive job of drawing on the raw materials of her blog (including the comments it generated) into a book, that is, into a coherent narrative of a year in which (for once) she did what she set out to do. She did much more than cobble together the contents of her blog.
One thing she did was try to imagine how Julia Child became a master of French cooking. (I've already mentioned the Harvard/Radcliffe Child archives; she also made a pilgrimage to see Child's kitchen in the Smithsonian Institution.) As I was reading the book, I found these intrusive, though Julie's imagined portrait of the young Julia (who did not find her calling until she was 37) affectionate. By the end of the book, I'd changed my mind and thought that they added to the greatness of the book. In part, the sort of parallelism of finding themselves provided a justification for what might seem invasion of privacy, but seems less so since the death of Julia Child (before the book was completed, after the cooking marathon was completed).
I don't read about cuisine very much or very often (though M. F. K. Fisher seems an even more suitable role model for Powell than Julia Child). I did not make it through Water over Chocolate, though I once cooked my way through The Supper of the Lamb (which involves a number of dishes made with the leftovers from the main event). I was reluctant to put down Julie and Julia to attend to my own life, which is my own gold standard for a book.
BTW, the book won the first-ever Blooker Prize, a prize for books based on blogs. And one may read or listen to her appearance on "All Things Considered" from earlier this month at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5535590.
©2006, Stephen O. Murray
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