Julie Powell's first post to her blog, The Julie/Julia Project, set off a firestorm of interest when she began it in August 2002, in an attempt to lift herself out of the doldrums at a soul-numbing secretarial job. As she faced age 30, she decided that in a year's time, she'd endeavor to cook every single one of Julia Child's recipes from her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Cook them she did, watched by thousands online who cheered her on as she tangled with eggs, marrow, and all manner of frustration. The 32-year-old New Yorker-by-way-of-Texas has since seen herself splashed across the pages of Entertainment Weekly, doing cooking demonstrations for Tyra Banks and Martha Stewart, and embarking on a nationwide book tour for her blogmoir (yes, I just made that up, but it's better than "blook," isn't it?) Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment. One of the most anticipated memoirs of the season, Julie & Julia walks readers through Powell's existential crises, imagined snippets of Child's life, and ties them togetherwith her adventures in her kitchen. Powell continues to blog, and plans to continue to write. She recently spoke with Gothamist about the "art" of cooking, the myth of Julia Child, book title battles, movie deals and finding her calling through blogging.
When you started the blog, did you have bigger goals, like a book, in mind, or was it simply the year-long commitment to making all the recipes?
It was really simply a personal commitment to the project itself. I had no conception of having a book come out of this at all. It was a really personal project for me and a way for me to have an outlet and a part of my life to call my own since I was so overwhelmed with my work day job.
How much time elapsed between having the idea for the blog and starting it?
About 48 hours. There was not much planning involved. It was sort of one of those Reese's chocolate peanut butter cup moments where I’d been talking about wanting to learn to cook, wanting to write something and the two ideas sort of knocked into each other and made this project idea.
The blog format seemed to create a very close connection between you and your readers that seems to have followed you today, not just in terms of people reading the book, but feeling intimately connected to you. How did that feel?
It’s a wonderful thing. The first thing to say is that the book could never have happened without my blog readers and without the medium of the blog for several reasons. First, I never would have finished it if I had just been writing in a journal, I just don’t have that kind of stamina. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have someone out there reading and responding to what I was doing. They were a great set of cheerleaders when I was discouraged. The most important thing in terms of how important the blog readers were is that I don’t know if I would have understood the resonance of what it was I was doing without their feedback. It wasn’t just about cooking through a cookbook, it was about finding a new way for yourself. People really responded to that aspect of what I was doing, and that was incredibly helpful to me.
The other thing about it is that people really do feel like they know me which is kind of great and thrilling. In a way they kind of do know me, they know everything I’m doing. I’d run into people and there was nothing for me to say; they knew what I’d eaten for dinner last night and that Eric was sick, they knew everything and as a consequence really felt like they knew me. It was something that struck me when I was on tour-people would come and say I feel like I’m your best friend or I was having breast cancer surgery and having you to talk to every day helped me through that. It’s a wonderful feeling but it’s slightly unnerving because it’s very one sided. I don’t know anything about these people and they know everything about me. I guess I got into that idea that what I do now for a living is present myself on this intimate if often quotidian level and that’s what people want to read about. It’s a little unnerving but it makes me feel loved and that’s nice.
You said in another interview that the project was a "fluke," which I took to mean that you would have found a way to become a writer or be creative in some form no matter what. Can you elaborate on that? Without the Project, do you think you'd still have your secretarial job or would another project have come along?
In a way, what I really meant was that I’m a person who was very frustrated and was looking for some creative outlet and that it happened to be this food-related project that happened to catch on and become what it has become was a fluke in that it wasn’t like I was setting out to be a food writer or a food blogger. I didn’t even really know what a blog was when I started it. They happened to come together and grabbed people's imaginations so I got lucky in that way. I now seem to be making a living doing food writing which to me is a little fluky. It just happened that the project I chose was The Julie/Julia Project. I could've been writing about skydiving.
Do you think you would’ve found something else if it wasn’t the Project, or would you still be working as a secretary?
Who knows? It’s incredibly possible. Anyone who’s feeling frustrating the way I was keeps looking for that way out. I hope that if it hadn’t been this, it wouldn’t been something else, but I could very well still be back there in that awful awful place or some other equally awful place. People spend whole lives looking for their way to find themselves. I got very lucky to find it when I did.
After making all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, would you say it’s an art?
Cooking can be an art. I think that the role of the recipes in MtAoFC, and why it continues to be useful even though the recipes are kind of dated and belong to a specific time and place is there’s such an emphasis on the techniques, and they're such lucid techniques. It's like being given a paintbox or a lesson in oil painting or pastel. There are rules that apply to different materials and different techniques that you can then apply. To make it a true art, you have to go off on your own and find your own way of interpreting, it’s more like a toolbox than anything else. It’s a wonderful book, I find the book itself is a piece of art as literature, it’s an enormously well-written book. What they don’t talk about much is Julia’s skill as a writer and one thing that I think she does best is in the format of this very formal book, it’s not Nigella Lawson carrying away about her personal life, it’s not any number of cookbook writers who really put themselves at the center of their book. It’s a very formal book; it’s designed like a cooking class and moves from the simplest techniques to the most complex, but within that pretty formal format she somehow manages to imbue the thing with her personality and you can just hear her saying it, it’s her voice on the page. I think that’s an underrated skill. People don’t understand how hard that is, it’s a large part of the reason people feel so personally involved with her, she pops off the page as well as popping off the television. Ultimately it’s the tools for an art in the book. You can’t master any art out of a book but you can get the tools to begin.
Do you still cook, and have you made any of the recipes since finishing the Project?
I definitely still cook, and I occasionally cook things out of the book, mostly simpler things though after this book tour it’ll be a long time before I make the potato leek soup because I was fed it wherever I went. She has a great garlic soup with poached eggs in it that I love, it’s a very healthful feeling, which is unusual for Julia Child. There’s beef bourgignon and coq au vin and all these stewy oniony bacony dishes that I love and occasionally do make. It’s not a way to cook every day. They’re time consuming and they’re heavy and I’m trying to eat lighter these days though I am gonna use her technique for frying up steak tonight, with a little vermouth sauce.
How do you feel about the blog to book label?
Obviously I got incredibly lucky. It was definitely an issue of being in the right place at the right time. I came in with this particular thing at a time when it was easier for blogs to catch attention. I think it’s all going to settle. My feeling is that there’s this gimmicky stage where everyone wanted to find the next blog that’ll be the next book and paid people like me way too much money, and the people who are good blog writers will continue to be able to transform them into books and if we’re not good writers people are gonna get wise to that. It’s sort of a temporary trendy thing right now.
The nice thing about blogging is that you put something out there and if it’s of worth to someone then people will find you. It definitely makes selling a book an easier thing if what you have is worthwhile but once the uproar has died down it’ll become less of a superstar surefire thing because lots of these books . . . I’m very excited about some of the bloggers I know who are coming out with books. I’m looking forward to them, but publishers aren’t stupid-after they’ve published a few books that haven’t made any money in the fever of excitement because it was a blog and it was a new thing, they’re gonna get smarter. The bubble will burst a bit I imagine.
You're blogging again, though mainly giving reports on book readings and the like. How has your relationship with blogging changed? Are you still enamored with it or is it a chore?
At this point, with the blog I have now, it was stared with an entirely different intent. I wasn’t starting it as a component of a project I felt passionate about. It’s a way to keep in touch with people and I’m happy to do that, but there’s nothing drawing me to it. It’s more administrative and publicity related more than anything else so I don’t find it as fascinating. I do love being back in touch with people who were faithful during the blog days.
I think it’s something that’s gonna be strange for blogger/book writers. I’d be interested in hearing what other bloggers have to say about it. I could not have gotten to the book without the medium of blogging. I’d been a frustrated writer for many years. But now that I’ve done it, part of me wants to keep turning back to it as a process. I hope I’m going to continue to write books and I could see a situation where I continued to go from blog to books and start from this point and blog it for a year or however long and transform it. I like the community aspect, I like having stuff out there unedited in cyberspace and the commenting, the ferment that happens. But at the same time, how it could not be gimmicky and how do you keep that organic quality that made it so fascinating the first time around if you got into it knowing that you’re gonna blog for 6 months and then write a book? I don’t know how you keep that spontaneity.
My publishers are very ambivalent about The Julie/Julia Project still being out there and I think people who like the book would agree and people who don’t would disagree-eading the book is different from reading the blog. People might say “I won’t spend $25 on the book, I’ll read the blog instead,” even though the blog is a set of notes, and you don’t necessarily want your notes sitting out there in cyberspace. I still don’t know how I’m going to work going forward. I miss that spontaneity but I don’t know how you recapture it necessarily.
It seems like there are a lot of different expectations for your book; the foodie people expect more food and the people we were just talking about expect more personal information. Was that ever a concern when you were writing it?
It really wasn’t a question when I was writing it, because I don’t think I’m capable of writing a book [just about food]. There are people much more capable of writing a real food book, a book about food in terms of being about cooking or commenting on any sort of sociological or historical analysis of food. That’s never what I was going to write, and people who come to the book with the expectation that it’s going to be a companion to Mastering the Art of French Cooking or history of the book or of Julia Child are obviously going to be disappointedb cause that’s not what it is.
I don’t really feel like the book is about food. I used food as a metaphor that year; the food was my route away from an unsatisfying life but it could’ve been anything. People who appreciate the book will appreciate it because they see the universality of the story. It’s not like I climbed Mount Everest with one leg, blind. I did something everybody could’ve done. What’s interesting is not that it’s a unique endeavor or this foodie extravaganza, it’s that it was my particular irrational way of digging myself out of this hole I found myself in. People appreciate it because they understand that feeling of being trapped and that moment of taking an irrational step and making a leap of faith and seeing where it leads.
People get irritated about their not being enough food stuff, I find food writing, even though there are some really wonderful intelligent and well educated and eloquent people writing about food, I find it essentially a rather boring subject. What’s interesting is the way it represents a window in looking at other thing. Everything in the kitchen began to inform the rest of my life, that’s more of what the book’s about than some in-the-kitchen-with-Julia foodie. I don’t think that’s what it is; if people are looking for that they’re going to be disappointed.
Julia Child is a huge presence in your book, from MtAoFC to your fictionalized accounts looking to her for guidance. She’s obviously very important to you, and I’m curious whether the Julia you write about is the actual Julia Child or a mythical one. Did she become a character by the end?
Of course, I never knew her. I knew her the way so many people knew her, through her television show and, for me, primarily through the book. I feel like, and I mentioned this before, it’s not so dissimilar from how some people felt about me during the blog. I feel this incredibly personal connection with her, but it’s entirely one sided; it’s me talking to a book. Of course she’s an invention of mine, I didn’t know her at all. I knew what I could glean from her, what I could read about her and the book itself, which I find to be a fascinating document. She got under my skin. I would think of her as talking to me and being in my head and as I said before, her voice pops off the page, but of course that’s my conception of her and that’s my invention. I can bestow upon her these personality traits that I think she should have.
The person I wrote about in the book and the person who lived was a remarkable, strong, tough, idiosyncratic person as well as a generous one and a funny one and I admire that person but really I sort of created this Julia of my own. That’s the one that I really talk to and think of. Julia Child, the woman who died last year-she’s a historical figure that I happen to now know a lot about, but the Julia that comes out of my book, out of me and out of the year, is another person. My feelings are not unique; a lot of people feel that way about her. They make her their own, they internalize her.
You wrote recently that you got a death threat. Can you tell us any more information about that? Was it real and what could the motivation be?
[Laughs] What happened was-and my husband is very angry for me with this-I did an interview on Salon and the interviewer took me out and got me drunk, so I said some things I shouldn’t have said including a comment that just came out wrong, about food bloggers. It wound up sounding like other food bloggers except me suck and people got very angry with me, which I think is funny cause who gives a shit what I think? So I was getting these nasty comments on the old blog and someone said something like you should just die, if you die then all of your monstrous pride will be gone and you will just have peace. I was exaggerating for effect and people got very upset and called me all sorts of nasty names.
You certainly don't hide your political leanings in the book, or on your current blog. Did you ever hesitate over that, concerned that it might drive away otherwise interested readers who just wanted to hear about the cooking?
It didn’t bother me that much. To my publisher’s credit, they never gave me any problem about that stuff either. To me, it’s funny because I’ll read people who criticize the book and they’ll say, I don’t like her because she hates Republicans. To me, Julie Powell in the book is a character, and this is part of who she is. She tends to go on obnoxiously about how she hates Republicans and that’s part of who this secretary from Queens is. If I were writing a book of political analysis or the Chicken Soup for the Soul paean to Julia Child it would be different, but to me what the book is instead is my memoir. It’s a year of my life, of a very particular person at this very particular time. Politics was a huge part of my daily life, and, as for many of us, a very traumatic time politically.
I never was tempted to pussyfoot around all that stuff because it was part of what I wanted to write about, one particular woman in one particular year. I didn’t want to write some kind of universal “oh great food brings us all together” story. I was interested in writing a very particular story. Politics was always part of who that character was, the same thing with the language and everything else. I knew I wasn’t going to write a book that everyone was going to like. Very few people do that and when they do, it’s often not a very good book. I never expected everyone to like my book. The fact that it’s out there, and has been pushed as heavily as it has been, has been shocking because I can’t imagine that everyone is going to want to buy it. My publishers let me pretty much write the book I wanted to write, they were very supportive. But when it came to the marketing and the cover and the title, we butted heads again and again. I said, you’re gonna put this cover on the book and not have the subtitle say what I want it to say and they're gonna get angry about all the “fuck”s in there. This is not some universal sweet and happy everybody loves everybody kind of book. Ultimately I wish the marketing had gone a slightly different way because I don’t want people buying my book and hating it. I guess it’s great, they bought my book, but I don’t want to trick people into buying my book and sometimes I think the marketing campaign is doing that.
I was going to ask you about that. You wrote on the blog that there were some issues over the title; can you tell me what some of the alternate titles were?
I wanted it to be The Julie/Julia Project. I wanted the slash and the word “project” in there and the subtitle is so much better than it was. They wouldn’t let me put the subtitle I wanted, that first phrase of the blog about “365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen” because people wouldn’t know what “outer borough” meant and nobody wants to see "crappy" on the cover of a food book. To me, “Julie & Julia” has always been this “very special Christmas,” static and sweet image, so I went for other kinds of slashes and colons and they wouldn’t go with it.
The cover that we have now is much better than what we had before with the galley. The dead whisk is much better. The earlier cover had the ampersand and this country kitchen tile thing; it looked like Chicken Soup for the Soul. At least the egg whisk is sort of defeated looking, some indication that there was a struggle. It was so odd because they seemed to be so with me with what the book was about and didn’t give me any trouble but they want to wrap it [like that]. To me that seems unfair to the reader but I guess they don’t really care about that, they just want to sell it, and they’re apparently pretty good about that, so they’re doing alright by me.
Are there plans for a movie in the works?
It’s still fairly early days. The book has been optioned for film by an independent producer who has since signed a deal with Columbia, so there’s money and there’s a screenplay being worked on and directors being bandied about. I’ll believe it when I see it is my attitude toward that. It would be great, great fun.
What are you working on now?
Newspaper and magazine writing that’s coming out on a fairly regular basis. In terms of my next book, Little, Brown would really love something that involves me making myself miserable with food and I’m working on doing that in a fun, new interesting way. Some of the criticisms of my book I think are off base, but I do think there’s a way in which I want to challenge myself to go deeper and deal with things, to get at something from different angles. I’m working out how to make myself miserable with food, not with a cookbook though. It’ll be a radically different way of attacking it, continuing to explore how a project, something that I will set for myself as a challenge fits into the way my life is changing and my marriage is changing. But I’m also hoping that I can fool them into buying a novel. I always thought of myself as a fiction writer before, so we’ll see if now that I’ve been freed up and have some more confidence if I can fold that back into my fiction writing.
Photo by Kelly Campbell
Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment is available now. Julia Powell is currently blogging at juliepowell.blogspot.com. The Julie/Julia Project can be found at its original home at Salon. Julie will be part of the November 17th Books in Good Taste event, from 6 to 8 p.m. at The French Culinary Institute, 462 Broadway. Tickets are $50. This culinary event brings to life recipes from recently released cookbooks including Terrance Brennan, Artisanal Cooking (Wiley); Dave Lieberman, Young & Hungry (Hyperion); Daisy Martinez, Daisy Cooks (Hyperion); and Julie Powell, Julie & Julia (Little, Brown).