It should go without saying that we hold Julia Child near and dear to our hearts around these parts. And not the least because an entire network owns their existence to her. For us, it’s more personal. Growing up, there was something about her show (and to a lesser degree Yan Can Cook and Jeff Smith – The Frugal Gourmet [despite those sexual harrassment rumors]) that brought cooking alive.
I’d see my mom in the kitchen slaving away at dinner or for a party and then I’d watch those shows and the disconnect between the ease with which they were making food and the sometimes struggle of my mom to bring a meal to the table was too wide for my feable brain to understand as anything more than unusual. If they could do it, why couldn’t we all do it?
And that is the central premise for which all cooking shows operate under. No matter your skill level as a chef, and let’s be honest you’re skill level is pretty abysmal, in theory you should be able to prepare the slow braised pork shoulder Texas-style chilli laddled over corn pudding.
And yet we can’t. Or won’t. But it’s comforting to watch someone do it and think to ourselves, shit under the right circumstances and given enough energy I could do that. I could if I just tried. Except we never do, so why kid ourselves.
Enter Julie Powell. A 30 year-old government secretary. At the moment her life begins to fall apart: she can’t bear children, her marriage is on the rocks and her job is unfulfilling, Powell goes back home and discovers Julia Childs.
Specifically, her seminal cookbook, Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Hiding underneath a dust film, tucked into the back of her mother’s closet is the book that will end up saving her life. For in the moment Powell discovers the book a pilgrammage begins; one that will test her sanity, her pluckishness, but ultimately make her life infinitely better.
Julie Powell decides to cook every single recipes in that 1961 cookbook over the course of the year and chronicles those madcap adventures in Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.
Readers follow along, as the project starts innocently enough and builds steam to the point where Powell makes appearances on news shows and becomes something of a quasi-celebrity. Along the way she debones duck, kills lobsters, learns to flip omelettes, breaks sauces and becomes a pretty decent cook.
What’s particularly inspiring, if you want to use that word, is the way that Powell takes ownership of her life over the year spent cooking. It brings her closer to her friends, brings her a bit of infamy, brings her closer to her husband all through the power of food.
Powell handles her journey with a funny hand, always more than willing to deprecate herself. That she treats herself with the same scrutiny she does the other people in her life is a bit refreshing, even if at times she comes off as a bit shrillish. If anything, Powell’s ability to make herself the butt of every joke only makes her more endearing as a literary creation.
Of course, I won’t give away much. But suffice it to say, this is an enjoyably quick read. It’s great if you’re taking stock of your own life and wondering how the hell is this going to get better?!? Much like the cooking shows we love to watch, it’s more important to maintain an illusion that things are getting better even if maybe they’re not. The bring-it-all-home ending, in which Julia Child is obituaried by Julie Powell is touchingly sweet. Here was a someone Powell had never met, but whom ended up meaning so much to her life.
Funny how that works out.
Buy: Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen
Also: Interviews with Gothamist and Powell’s Books and something Julie Powell wrote for the NY Times