Julie & Julia
by Julie Powell

Little Brown and Company, 2005. ISBN 031610969X.
Reviewed by Marti Weisbrich
Posted on 06/08/2006

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

The subtitle to Julie and Julia is 365 days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen or How One Girl Risked Her Marriage, Her Job & Her Sanity to Master the Art of Living. So begins Julie Powell's quest to remove herself from her drone-like existence as a secretary and to transform herself into a worthy contender to take on the crown of Julia Child. Julie's quest is to recreate, in her miniscule apartment over the course of one year, all 524 recipes from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She titles this quest "The Julie/Julia Project."

Julie Powell's project was a discovery of joy, of self and, most importantly, a discovery of hope. When I read in the book about her learning that Julia Child did not think too highly of her project, it saddened me. Yet I believe that if these two women had a chance to meet and talk to each other, Julia might have very much felt differently about the hope that she gave Julie. Powell says, "I thought I was using the book to learn to cook French food but really I was learning to sniff out the secret doors of possibility."

Once I stated reading this book, I could not put it down. But I must admit that I felt my age. The frenzied life of this almost thirty-year-old, when she started this project, was something I had difficulty relating to. My first reaction to the book was to think I might not want to read it. I simply did not want to read yet another whiny book from a generation Xer. At times, Julie's whiny comments, her quick-as-a-trigger, volatile anger (her husband Eric must be a saint), her constant use of profanity, and the slovenly backdrop of her kitchen were disgustingly off-putting. Yet I kept on reading because Julie's voice of despair kept nagging me. Her underlying sadness about her possible infertility touched my heart. I also realized that the environment of her job was so soul-stripping that if I had been in her shoes, I too would have looked for a way out. Julie's office was right across from Ground Zero, and part of what she did as a government drudge was to give comfort to the families of victims of the September 11 tragedy. All these factors rise up like ashes, coating every page with an unrelenting hopeless feeling.

When she is asked repeatedly by her mother to stop this insanity and stop her blog, she writes, "No, don't you get it, This is all I've got..." For Julie, this project is her life jacket. She goes on to say, "Without the Project, I was nothing but a secretary on a road to nowhere... and I'd never live up to my name. I'd been born with the name I shared with Julia."

On page 259, the ashes are flung away by a strong wind as Julie begins to get it, begins to realize that she is doing something. What that something is in the bigger picture is not yet clear. She writes, "So that night I made my New Year's resolution, better late than never: To Get Over My Damned Self. If I was going to follow Julia down this rabbit hole, I was going to enjoy it, by God — exhaustion, crustacean murder and all. Because not everybody gets a rabbit hole. I was one lucky bastard, when you came down to it."

And I start to get it, too. Start to truly admire this obsession and the insane courage that drove Julie to this project. I get the incredible power of her honest, imaginative, oh so descriptive and searing, writing. This is why I get it:

"...Here, I took butter and cream and meat and eggs and I made delicious sustenance. Here, I took my anger and despair and rage and transformed it with my alchemy into hope and ecstatic mania. Here I took a crap laptop and some words that popped into my head at seven in the morning and I turned them into something people wanted, maybe even needed."

"...The crosses of tarragon over the snowy-white poached egg centers were like the negative images of chalk marks on the doors of quarantined houses..."

She illustrates the unmolding of aspic, "slipped off and puddled on our plates with almost indecent eagerness-- like silk lingerie, if silk lingerie was repulsive..."

"The silky soul of steak."

"Somewhere along the way, I discovered that in the physical act of cooking, especially something complex or plain old hard to handle, dwelled unsuspected reservoirs of arousal both gastronomic and sensual." Then Julie launches into a description of her younger self wanting to entice her boyfriend by attempting to recreate the quail in rose petal recipe in Like Water for Chocolate, only as an adult realizing that most of the recipes in this book are not real. (As an aside, talk about connection... we have been discussing this book in my reading circle!) Pate de Canard En Croute is described as "culinary plutonium" when Julie relates how she perfectly recreated this dish.

With trials, failures, setbacks and triumphs, this book rises like a soufflé. The amazing thing is that it never falls.

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