The makings of a memoir
Musings about mentor prompt book deal
By Rebecca Miller
NEW YORK -- She may have mastered the art of French cooking, but don't call amateur cook-turned-author Julie Powell a foodie.
"Foodie to me implies being really taken with the trappings of the more elitist aspects of enjoying food, so I try to veer away from the term," she says.
And elitist she's not.
The first sign is her choice of takeout. Powell and her husband, Eric, frequently order Domino's bacon and jalapeno pizza the nights she stays out of the kitchen. Granted, they are Texans with a hankerin' for food with a kick. But why Domino's when you live in New York, home to arguably the best pizza in the United States?
Powell says it's one of two restaurants that will deliver to the loft apartment in Long Island City they share with a dog, three cats and a snake. The alternative is bad Chinese food.
The second sign is her inability to use a food mill, as called for in the recipe for the potage parmentier (potato soup) she's making this particular day. She fumbles with it for a bit before casting it aside for her Cuisinart.
"She doesn't like to use a food processor," Powell says as she transfers the soup between appliances.
She, of course, is Julia Child, Powell's muse as she attempted to cook her way through Child's landmark 1961 cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1."
Powell was blogging about the experience when she was plucked from obscurity and given a book deal. "Julie &; Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen" hit bookstores several weeks ago. (The name is sort of misleading, because her 9-by-12 kitchen is rather large -- by New York standards.)
The memoir follows her culinary triumphs and travails, from committing "lobster murder" to extracting marrow from a bone. Powell fleshes it out with back stories about her supportive husband, wacky friends and evil co-workers. Also scattered throughout the book are fictional flashbacks of Child's courtship with her husband, Paul, which Powell reconstructs based on journals and letters from the 6-foot-2 kitchen icon's archives.
Powell never met her mentor -- Child died as Powell was converting her blogs into the book -- but said she felt like Child was in her head as she cooked her recipes.
Her fascination for what she refers to as "MtAoFC" began at age 11, shortly after she found her parents' hidden copy of "Joy of Sex." Powell would sneak into her parents' bedroom and pour over the tome whenever possible, but she stopped because she didn't want them to think she was snooping for Christmas presents. She turned her attention to her mother's cookbook instead.
"It first appealed to me as a book rather than a cookbook," Powell says. "I was a real bookworm and it just seemed sort of mysterious and adult and slightly dangerous."
The recipes sounded weird -- and sort of dirty. She sensed that this book, too, was full of sensual secrets. Sex and cooking would forever be linked in her mind. (And in her readers' minds, too, after reading Powell's R-rated description of calves' liver.)
"If the 'Joy of Sex' was my first taste of sin, 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' was my second," she writes.
Years later, the cookbook resurfaced in her life. Married to her high school sweetheart, Powell was about to turn 30 and full of anxiety about her dead-end secretarial job at a government agency and ticking biological clock.
She hopped on a plane to Austin, Texas, to visit her parents and wound up stealing her mother's food-splattered, dog-eared classic. She unwittingly bought the ingredients for Child's potage parmentier one day back in New York, and it turned out to be so delicious her husband encouraged her to go to culinary school.
"If I wanted to learn to cook, I'd just cook my way through 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking"' she said. "You could write a blog," he suggested. And the Julie/Julia project began.
The blog, hosted on Salon.com, garnered her a legion of loyal readers. An article in The New York Times turned Powell into a media darling. Freelance writing and a bidding war for a book contract followed.
Powell was shocked by the attention. "So many people did teach themselves to cook with this book, there's nothing unique about what I did," she says.
But what made her stand out was her self-imposed timeline: to cook all 524 recipes in the book in one year. Writing about it for a national audience helped, too.
At the time, Powell struggled to explain the reasons behind the project. She moved to New York right out of college and got married. An aspiring actress who was terrified of auditions, she feared every temp job would become permanent.
"I was painted into a corner. I was completely lost -- I didn't know what I was going to do," says Powell, a sassy, foul-mouthed 32. "I wanted to learn to cook. ... It wasn't until the project was nearly done that I really understood that what I was trying to do was figuring out a new way of living and finding new experiences in life."
Those new experiences -- from battles with sauces that separate and searches for obscure ingredients -- nearly gave her an emotional breakdown. She would wake up, blog for a bit, go to work, shop for ingredients on the way home and cook into the wee hours of the night. A disastrous attempt to cook sauce diable and chou-fleur en verdure (puree of cauliflower and watercress with cream) prompted her to call off the Julie/Julia project. Fifteen seconds later it was back on.
"I realized that if I didn't have the project, I didn't have anything," she says. "The project had become the center of my life."
Powell finished it in August 2003, and her book deal was lined up the next month. Her next challenge was turning a few paragraphs a day into a book with a beginning, a middle and an end.
"It was very clear to me from the beginning that I couldn't just take the blog and plop it into a book form, because that would be excruciatingly boring," she says.
But Little Brown had faith in her, even though it was the first time the publisher picked up a book based on a blog.
"It was somewhat of a gamble, but once we got into the process, we stopped thinking of it as such," said senior editor Judy Clain. "It's such a strong, original idea. And then there was Julie. Her voice is so acerbic and clear. There's almost a performance artist in her."
Critics, however, have gotten snagged on the transformation. Some say the book is too, well, bloggy.
"'Julie and Julia' still has too much blog in its DNA: it has a messy, whatever's-on-my-mind incontinence to it, taking us places we'd rather not go," writes David Kamp of the Times. (Powell's disclosure that she sold her ova to pay off her credit card debt springs to mind.)
Yet the reviews have been generally favorable -- Publishers Weekly calls it "feisty and unrestrained."
The book had a first printing of 150,000 copies and 25,000 more have been ordered.
Powell is currently promoting the book and meeting the blog readers (or "bleaders," as she calls them) who helped launch her career. Ideas for her next project are already swirling in the back of her mind, and film rights to "Julie and Julia" have been sold.
So what does a blogger do when the blog and ensuing book are finished? She blogs about the book tour, of course.