Julie and Julia (Powell)

Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously
Julie Powell, 2005
Little, Brown & Co.
400 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316042512

With the humor of Bridget Jones and the vitality of Augusten Burroughs, Julie Powell recounts how she conquered every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and saved her soul.

Julie Powell is 30 years old, living in a tiny apartment in Queens and working at a soul-sucking secretarial job that's going nowhere. She needs something to break the monotony of her life, and she invents a deranged assignment. She will take her mother's worn, dog-eared copy of Julia Child's 1961 classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she will cook all 524 recipes—in the span of one year.

At first she thinks it will be easy. But as she moves from the simple Potage Parmentier (potato soup) into the more complicated realm of aspics and crepes, she realizes there's more to Mastering the Art of French Cooking than meets the eye.

And somewhere along the line she realizes she has turned her outer-borough kitchen into a miracle of creation and cuisine. She has eclipsed her life's ordinariness through spectacular humor, hysteria, and perseverance. (From the publisher.)

The book was adapted to film in 2009 and starred Meryl Streep as Julia Childs with Amy Adams as Julie Powell.

Author Biography
Birth—April 20, 1973
Where—Austin, Texas, USA
Education—B.A., Amherst College
Awards—2 James Beard Awards, 2004 & 05; First Annual
  "Blooker" Award, 2006; Quills Award, Debut Author, 2006
Currently—lives in Queens, New York

Things were not going very well for Julie Powell. She had moved to a crummy apartment in Long Island City, Queens, with her husband and was working at a succession of even crummier temp jobs rather than fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer. Like so many New Yorkers on the cusp of turning 30, Powell was questioning every aspect of her unfulfilling life. As she told blogger Christopher Lydon, she often lamented, "Why am I in New York? Why am I torturing myself with the commute and the un-air-conditioned apartment and making $50,000 a year but still being unable to pay my bills?"

Unable to reconcile her life or find a constructive outlet for her increasing hostility (particularly irked by that daily commute, she was known to punch and shout at subway cars), Powell turned to a book, which she has described as having "totemic" qualities. The book was her mother's well-worn copy of master-chef Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell didn't exactly consider herself to be a great cook, but she began to formulate a seemingly hair-brained project that might give her life some much-needed structure. She decided to tackle all 524 recipes in Child's cookbook in a single year.

The project started relatively easily as she whipped up some potato soup. Soon enough, however, the dishes became increasingly complex and Powell's pet-project became a true test of her mettle (not to mention of a test of her husband's commendable patience).

While diligently working her way through Julia Child's cookbook, Powell chronicled her progress on the Internet via her own blog, appropriately naming the project "Julie & Julia." Much to Powell's surprise, the funny, self-deprecating, often potty-mouthed and completely unpretentious accounts of her trials and triumphs in the kitchen became a big hit with readers. Before she knew it, the project she began as a means of giving herself a bit of direction yielded a whiz-bang memoir with the unwieldy title of Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen: How One Girl Risked Her Marriage, Her Job, & Her Sanity to Master the Art of Living (mercifully abbreviated to Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously in its most recent printing). Suddenly, Powell was no longer just another unsuccessful, struggling New York artist. Her book became a smash hit amongst readers and critics. The Library Journal declared it "well-executed" and "entertaining," while Kirkus Reviews applauded "its madness and pleasures." Periodicals including the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, and Publishers Weekly were also quick to recommend the book, and Powell even snared a James Bean Award and a Quill Award for her efforts. Incidentally, Powell has also discovered that she has become something of a celebrity.

"When I was working on my first draft, in the summer of 2004," she told Powell's.com, "I took my dog Robert up to the Adirondacks, to this primitive cabin all by itself in the middle of nowhere... [I] got to talking to the couple, about how beautiful the country was, and how quiet, and how I like the cabin—the only one on this particular tract of land that had electricity. I offered that I needed electricity to power my laptop, since I was working, so they of course asked me what I was working on. I'd barely gotten out ‘Well, I'm writing this book about how I cooked all the recipes in Mastering—when the wife said, ‘You're Julie Powell! I'm a huge fan. I read your blog all the time!' That was pretty gratifying—if just the teensiest bit creepy."

From a 2007 Barnes & Noble interview:

• The "Julie & Julia" project was not the first time that Powell has indulged in a bit of ritualistic behavior. When she was a kid, she would read Douglas Adams's entire "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" trilogy every two years.

• Aside from housing one bestselling author and one husband, Powell's Queens loft is also home to three cats, one snake, and a 115-pound dog named Robert.

• In working on Julie & Julia, I had the opportunity to rifle through Julia Child's archives. Surprisingly, the most fascinating thing to me was her husband Paul's archives of letters. He was an extraordinary correspondent and a complicated, contradictory, sometimes crabby man. I became far more fascinated by him, and by the nature of his and Julia's marriage, than I would ever imagine. I hope that someone will someday publish his letters.

• I first met David Straithairn, wonderful actor and my secret dangerous boyfriend, while working as an intern at New Dramatists', a fantastic non-profit service organization for developing playwrights in New York City. This incident is described in my book. But I have met (stalked) him several times since. He even knows my name now. It's a very special relationship.

• I'm still living in Long Island City, Queens, albeit in a MUCH superior apartment. Three things I like about it particularly:

a. Sitting in the living room, we can watch the 7 train arc around us like a necklace. Every time we notice it, my husband Eric says, ‘The 7 train to Times Square. You'd like to be on that train, wouldn't you?' and I say in my best Bogey voice, ‘Why? What's in Times Square?' And it's this whole big married moment.

b. I have a dishwasher that isn't my husband.

c. In the summer we can stand on our patio and look down every Saturday at all the hipsters dancing at PS 1 museum's weekly DJ party, and feel quietly superior.

• I hate all bananas. I like Cheetos, occasionally, and Skittles, which I eat like an OCD sufferer, two skittles of the same color at a time, until I only have odds left in the bag.

• Butchery is my new favorite thing to do, and, while tiring, a fantastic way to unwind and get out of my head for awhile. My head can be an annoying place to be.

• A gimlet is worth learning to make well. Very cold vodka (or gin, that would be more authentic, but I like vodka) shaken with about a third of a capfull of Rose's lime juice. NEVER fresh lime juice. Something made with fresh lime juice might be tasty, but it is not a gimlet. That's it. If someone serves you something with an onion in it, that is a Gibson, not a Gimlet. It can be tasty, if a little strange, but is no substitute.

When asked what book most influenced her career as a writer, her is what she said:

Well, the most obvious impact is clearly Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It reached out to me at a time when I felt like I'd hit the end of the road. A year's immersion in its challenges, and in Julia's exhorting voice, prepared me as nothing before had for transforming myself into a professional writer. (Bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
If this all sounds sort of sitcom-y, it's because Powell has clearly taken cues from Sex and the City and its chick-lit, chick-TV ilk, ... [which is] not a good way to realize the genuine literary potential of the Julie/Julia Project. When she's focused on the cooking itself, Powell shows signs of being one of our better, loopier culinary thinkers, more in the iconoclast mode of M. F. K. Fisher than the rhapsodic, sun-dappled vein of Saveur magazine at its most-perfect-peach fetishizing.
David Kamp - New York Times

Toward the end of the book, unfortunately, Powell's descriptions of the journalists who get interested in the Julie/Julia Project begin to overwhelm the project itself…Still…Powell is offbeat, eccentric and never too self-serious. Moreover, she understands something important. In an era when our bosses expect us to spend our lives at the office, she understands that life can't be all about your job. In an era when hostesses are praised for the food they picked up at Zabar's, she understands that there is something glorious and elemental in cooking. She has introduced ritual and meaning into an ordinary life. Not everyone will find her ritual and meaning with Julia Child, of course, but this book will inspire and encourage readers to find it somewhere.
Lauren F. Winner - Washington Post

Powell became an Internet celebrity with her 2004 blog chronicling her yearlong odyssey of cooking every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.... Occasionally the diarist instinct overwhelms the generally tight structure and Powell goes on unrelated tangents, but her voice is endearing enough that readers will quickly forgive such lapses.... [F]unny, sharp-tongued but generous writing.
Publishers Weekly

[V]ery funny...but listeners should beware...[of] a hearty smattering of the "f" word, nor is it a dignified tribute to Child. In fact, the strength of the author's humor resides in her blunt, irreverent tone and mordant descriptions of meals consisting of unconventional ingredients such as kidneys, brains, and homemade jelly boiled from calves' hooves.... [An] entertaining memoir —Dawn Eckenrode, Daniel A. Reed Lib., SUNY at Fredonia
Library Journal

Powell is a softy at heart, appreciating Child because, she says, Child "wants you to remember that you are human, and as such are entitled to that most basic of human rights, the right to eat well and enjoy life." Powell clearly enjoyed hers, with all its madness and pleasures. Indulge in this memoir of marrow and butter, knowing there is always a bitter green to balance the taste.
Kirkus Reviews

Book Club Discussion Questions
1. Julie has such a remarkable relationship with Julia Child, despite never having met her. What did you think of the relationship that Julie built in her mind? And why does it not matter, in some sense, when Julie finds out that Julia wasn't an admirer of hers or the Project?

2. Throughout the book, various people become involved with the Project: Julie's husband, her friends, and several of her family members. Discuss the different roles each played in the Project. Which people were most helpful and supportive? Who was occasionally obstructionist?

3. Did you find Julie to be a likeable character? Did you relate to her insecurities, anxieties, and initial discontent? Why do you think it is that she was able to finish the Project despite various setbacks?

4. The Julie/Julia Project is obsessive and chaotic, yet it manages to bring a sort of order to Julie's life. Have you ever gone to obsessive lengths in an attempt to, ironically, make things more manageable? Why do you think Julie does (or doesn't) succeed in this?

5. If someone were to ask you about this book, how would you describe it? Is it a memoir of reinvention? An homage to Julia Child? A rags-to-riches story? A reflection on cooking and the centrality of food in our lives? Or is it all (or none) of these?

6. Did Julie's exploits in her tiny kitchen make you want to cook? Or did they make you thankful that you don't have to debone a duck or sauté a liver? Even if your tastes may not coincide with Julia Child's recipes, did the book give you a greater appreciation of food and cooking?

7. At various points in the book, Julie finds that cooking makes her question her own actions and values. What did you make of her lobster guilt, for example, or her thoughts on extracting bone marrow? Have you ever encountered these issues while cooking, or while going through other everyday motions of life? Have you come to conclusions similar to or different from Julie's?<

8. When Julie began the Project, she knew little to nothing about blogging. What do you think blogging about her experiences offered her? Does writing about events in your life help you understand and appreciate them more? Do you think the project would have gone differently if the blog hadn't gained so much attention? Who was the blog mainly for, Julie or her readers?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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