SO many people have blogs now, it’s hard to imagine there’s anyone left to read them. Twelve thousand new ones are supposedly created every day, and more than 1,200 English-language blogs are devoted to food alone. Some of them are even interesting.
But in the beginning there was Julie Powell. In August 2002, the 29-year-old decided to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in the next year -- and write all about it on the Internet.
The resulting blog was a funny, foul-mouthed and occasionally inspiring chronicle of Powell’s struggles with cooking and her environment. None of her readers was surprised when a book deal resulted. The question was: How do you turn a blog into a book?
Perhaps inevitably, “Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen” (out today from Little, Brown) takes the form of a memoir: My Year of Doing Something a Little Crazy and Writing a Blog About It. Powell focuses on the pivotal meals and meltdowns, adding detail and fashioning them into a relatively coherent coming-of-age story that the publisher would like you to compare with “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
The problem is that we want to read about doing something crazy, and not so much about writing it down, on the Net or elsewhere. Powell seems aware of this dilemma, but there is no escaping the self-referential vortex of writing a book about writing a blog that got her a book deal.
Powell struggles to explain why she embarked on the project, or why she chose Julia Child (she never mentions Child’s coauthors, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle). Worst of all, she begins every chapter with fictional flashbacks of Child’s courtship with husband Paul -- a desperate attempt to fabricate an otherwise obscure connection. These are an embarrassment to everyone involved.
STRUCTURAL problems aside, there is plenty of extreme cooking here, which is at least entertaining. Watch as Julie dutifully enrobes a chicken in aspic to the horror of her guests and herself (poulet en gelee a l’estragon). Thrill as she struggles through biblical adversity to produce a masterful pot-au-feu (“boiled beef”). Laugh with Julie about the baroque midcentury rice recipes (riz a l’indienne).
Her failures are much more compelling than her successes. Even if the hysteria brought on by sawing through a marrow bone seems overwrought, anyone who cooks out of books knows that feeling of panic caused by misunderstood recipes and unanticipated complications.
But the delicious food -- and there is much of it in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” -- does not merit the same attention. The pot-au-feu merely “looked, and smelled, and tasted as it should.” While some may be grateful to be spared the mystical language that inevitably accompanies the Frenchman’s description of this meal, Powell’s complete incuriosity about its cultural significance is disconcerting.
Does she really like food at all? It is hard to take seriously the culinary observations of a woman who reverts to Domino’s bacon and jalapeno pizza when the Internet’s not looking. One can excuse a certain desperation in Texans faced with the Mexican food “options” of New York, but how can you eat Domino’s in the greatest pizza city in North America?
After more than 200 pages, Powell gets around to a convincing description of good food, a passionate essay on the joys of calves’ liver (foie de veau a la moutarde): “Liver is the opposite of [bad sex].... You’ve got to give yourself over to everything that’s a little repulsive, a little scary, a little just too much about it.”
Scary indeed, but a huge relief. Finally we are offered evidence that Powell really loves food, that her grueling exercise is more than a meaningless distraction from her squalid life.
The ending is happy: Crepes suddenly stop sticking, flip like they’re supposed to, and even flambe without injuring anyone. (Of course, the real happy ending is the book deal that relieves her of secretarial servitude, but that good fortune is never addressed directly.)
But serious cooks will not find her progress inspiring. On the final day of the project, Powell triumphantly survives a mayonnaise disaster, but it never should have happened in the first place (she ignored the recipe’s precise instructions).
Food, the great uniter
WHAT is inspiring is the social transformation the book documents. The exhausting ennui of gimlets on the couch with a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” DVD is transformed by the magic of food into exhausted dinners with conversation, gimlets and Buffy. Eating becomes a convivial celebration. Friends who used to get “lost” on the way to Queens are suddenly eager to share in the bounty.
The best story comes during the blackout of 2003, when Powell cooks chicken livers and riz en couronne by flashlight for an impromptu party of refugees who show up at her door. There are gimlets, of course, everyone has a great time, and they go to sleep “feeling cozy and communal, like a bunch of Neanderthals retiring to their cave after a good mastodon feast.”
Good cooking, even under very difficult circumstances, does not have to be a chore. With a little patience and discipline, it can even be fun.