“A Blank Check for Whining”: Julie & Julia by Julie Powell


Julie & Julia, both the original blog and the ensuing book, is what dreams are made of. It’s an early example of the power of the Internet, of random projects, of opening up your life to the world in an online format before it was ‘cool.’ Before blogs were all about aesthetic or DSLR photos with sterile white backgrounds, they were about content and—it seems—that Julie Powell answered a hunger that wasn’t being fed.

Stuck in a dead-end secretarial job, living in a terrible Long Island apartment with her husband and three cats, and eminently approaching the big 3-0, Julie Powell needed something more. She’d had grandiose dreams of acting when she was younger (why else move to New York?) but she’d been stuck in temp job after temp job for years now. Currently stuck as a small cog in the great bureaucratic machine, life had no grand meaning beyond an episode of Buffy and take-out. Until her husband, Eric, suggested starting a blog and working on some kind of project.

Thus, the Julie/Julia Project was born: 365 days, 524 recipes, 1 tiny apartment kitchen. It’s the kind of thing that I say I’m going to do, but never really follow through on. However, thanks in part to a public audience of ‘bleaders’, Julie carried on through antique aspics, lobster murder, duck de-boning, and too many melt downs to count. Through this unique and innovative public project, Julie managed to find a way out of her dead-end life and grasp at some greater meaning.

I’ll be honest and say that I saw the film before I read the book. In fact, I put it on in the background so I could be inspired to do more than sit on my ass, because if Julie Powell can cook so can I and if Julia Child can write a famous cookbook after 40 I can get published eventually, right? I’ll also be honest and say that I prefer the film to the text for many reasons, but the book does have its own merits.

If anything, the grand experiment is a book-sized advertisement for Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It makes almost every recipe sound mouth-watering good and I’m sold on getting this book—no matter how outdated some of the recipes and trend foods are. In between the lines, the Julie/Julia Project serves to show how removed from cooking and food we as a society have become because of the capitalist drive of our economy. Why spend an entire day making a single meal when you could just order out, or microwave something, or throw ready-made ingredients together? I think that our society is moving back toward a love of food, of cooking, of ingredients, but our idea of food is very different from what a meal was in the 1960s. (Calf hoof aspic, anyone?)

Julia does a good job of making her struggle as a modern woman through this cookbook believable. We’re so used to premade mixes and boxed dinners that the idea of eating kidney or liver or duck probably seems pretty foreign. And Julia’s journey through the cookbook is, indeed, a struggle. She throws plenty of hissy fits for every failure and tastes every success. There is an abundance of cussing, but I can relate to that, and it’s refreshing to have a cook who isn’t perfect, who isn’t going on Cutthroat Kitchen or Chopped, and who works hard just to put a French dinner on the table.

The biggest criticisms of the book are mostly due in part to the fact I saw the film before reading. Powell seems desperate to give off a New York ‘Sex in the City’ type vibe. She has her group of friends who are living exciting, gossip-worthy lives, she drinks gimlets in nearly every chapter, and she’s anxious about her approaching thirtieth birthday. There are a lot of anecdotes and off-topic stories that don’t add anything to the food plot and just seem there to remain faithful to the original blog (as it was a food/lifestyle type), but become chunky when organized in the book. I honestly thought that the book was going to be a post-by-post reprint of the blog, but it’s not.

So, no, I don’t care about the couch that blocked the entrance to their apartment for months. I don’t care about the details of Julie’s secretary job and it’s off-putting to read such a cavalier attitude from a New Yorker about 9/11. I’m not fond of anti-conservative views that feel force fed into every encounter with a Republican, as if it’s a sin—and that’s coming from a fellow liberal. I don’t really care about her adolescent encounters with sex education. There’s a lot in Julie & Julia that I didn’t really care about.

What I did like was the effort put into the narrative, the hindsight evident in every description of a tantrum and fit, the love the author has for her husband as much of that tone is apologetic, and the way that this book actually fits with Millennial concepts. I doubt that Julie Powell was trying to comment on something that wasn’t really a thing at the time, but she struck a nerve. Much of my generation is about enjoying what we have as we have it, because an uncertain future is all we know. The horror and uncertainty that Julie feels about turning thirty reminds me of the Millennial struggle.

My honest opinion is that this a decent book and, for its time, it was an innovative blog. Julie Powell’s story of redemption through cooking can relate with many readers personal struggles to find meaning in the mundane. While this is not a page-turner, it is a read that can be savored and taken in bite size pieces. However, I will recommend the film over the book simply because it trimmed away the extra fat that is in the book, took the Julia Child narrative to the next level, and has Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci.

If you’re looking for a book that combines real world struggles with delicious cooking then dig into Julia & Julia.