Pundits like to hold forth about how much the Internet has altered, and will alter, publishing. Rather than theory or prediction, here’s a recent example: “Two years ago,” writes Julie Powell toward the end of Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, her charming first book, “I was a twenty-nine-year-old secretary. Now I am a thirty-one-year-old writer. I get paid very well to sit around in my pajamas and type on my ridiculously fancy iMac. “In those two busy years Powell went from dead-end job to that favorite publishing category, media darling. How? It all began with a blog, Powell’s almost daily online account of her attempt to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s exhaustive Mastering the Art of French Cooking—in a single year. Julie is enormously preoccupied with Julia. After all, Child was the woman who introduced the nation that gave us Boeuf Bourguignon to the nation that gave us Velveeta and Spam. The blog took off. News media reported on this curious project. Powell appeared on TV shows. She was offered a book contract—and here we are.
Julie and Julia is not just for food fanatics. Even half-ass cooks who brag about every red-wine-reduction sauce, such as yours truly, will find this book entertaining and enlightening. Nor is the book just about Julia Child. It’s about food, marriage, sex, hero worship, commitment and the percentage of nutcases among Powell’s blog readers. It’s about wanting something passionately.
Powell is a charmer. Like all truly civilized people, she loves good food, sex and humor, and hates bad food, offices and George W. Bush. Powell’s voice derives as much from her sense of humor as it does from her sense of adventure. For example, she remarks that a friend of hers, a woman who abhors Renée Zellweger, responds to a flirtatious man with “a passing, annoyingly Bridget-y sort of a jones for him.” This conversational silliness seldom becomes tiresome. Usually the book is funny, and always it is lively. It’s worth buying merely for Powell’s guilt-ridden, Hitchcockian account of the first time she murdered a crustacean.
Powell grew up in Austin, Texas, where she met Eric, the man she married. Eric must be mentioned in this review because he is a prominent character. “Character” seems the right word, because Powell, like every other memoirist (or whatever she is), carefully chooses what to present from her story and how to present it. Her candor is eyebrow-lifting. “Eric and I hadn’t had sex for a month,” she notes after another failed attempt at imitating Child (the Salmon à la Moutarde with braised endive), “and we sure weren’t going to end the drought tonight.” Why? Because she’s working herself into an early grave by trying to condense the career of Julia Child into a single year. Who would have energy left over for sex?
The voice of this book is conversational partially because Powell follows a thought wherever it leads, and often she can’t resist stage-whispering a comic parenthesis. For example, she writes that she responds to Eric’s “defensive tactic of selective hearing,” which he developed to survive what she describes as her hysterical fits, with “a technique of incremental amplification.” At first Eric tunes out, “and once he is roused to a reaction, he is at a distinct disadvantage, as he has not heard much of my rant and therefore cannot accurately judge what piece of it he should best respond to in order to defuse it. Plus, because he was the one not listening to me, I gain the moral high ground. Darwinism at work, my friends.”
Although she admires Julia Child, although this project changed her life, Powell is no simpering toady. “The verdict on Foies Volailles en Aspic?” she asks. “Surprisingly undisgusting, but why eat chicken livers cold with jelly on top of them, when you could eat them hot without jelly?” She critiques her way through the sacred text, alternately admiring and demurring. She makes her experience relevant and entertaining by telling us all along how she responded to each step of the process, to each triumph and failure. Some days she slept too little and cooked too much. Some days she wrote too little and ate too much.
Before you ask: yes, Powell gained weight during her year of cooking dangerously. If, say, you tend toward olive oil instead of butter, you may gain weight merely from sniffing the pages of this cream-filled, butter-drenched, carnivorous, carb-loving dessert tray of a volume.