365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen

By Julie Powell

Little Brown. 309 pp. $23.95

In the foreword to "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," Julia Child and her co-authors urge would-be gourmets to be diligent and precise ("small details can make the difference between passable cooking and fine food"), to keep their knives sharp and, "above all, have a good time."

Julie Powell followed all those instructions in her year-long sojourn with "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Pushing 30, Powell felt like a failure: She should have spent her twenties either making oodles of money on Wall Street or slavishly devoting herself to pottery or modern dance. Instead, she married her high school sweetheart -- a refreshingly unusual move for one in Powell's hungry New York set -- and paid the bills with tedious temp jobs. After a depressing visit to the gynecologist, who informed Powell that she might have some serious fertility problems, our heroine decided it was time to do something: specifically, to learn the art of gracious living; even more specifically, to cook every recipe in Child's great guide to French cuisine.

She gives herself one year to cook all 524 recipes, beginning with Potage Parmentier (that is, potato soup) and ending 12 months later with Rognons de Veau a la Bordelaise (veal kidneys in red wine sauce). In the first week alone, Powell prepares Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons, Poulet Roti, creme brulee (which, alas, came out a little soupy), quiche Lorraine and Haricots Verts a la Anglaise. She began staying in on weekends so that she could give her recipes their due. She scoured New York's butchers and fishmongers for the proper ingredients. At moments, her husband wondered if she was a tad touched, and her mother begged her to stop cooking. But Powell had set a goal, and she was going to see it through.

Devoting oneself to mastering French cooking is not, it turns out, just a quirky self-help scheme or an epicure's version of going to the gym every day. For preparing all this delicious food leads Powell to open her home to her friends and family; you're not going to go to all that trouble just for yourself and your husband, after all. In the end, Powell recovers two lost arts: gourmet cooking and hospitality. Her friends come, bearing bottles of wine, to try Powell's new dishes and to introduce her to their new boyfriends. One night, having served her friends a potato and beet salad that "really was quite an unnerving shade of pink," Powell looks around the table and silently gives thanks for this crew who can gather together and eat and enjoy one another: "That was enough."

"Julie & Julia" is worth the price of admission simply for its hysterical descriptions of the culinary challenges that Powell met along the way. She was determined, for example, to make Oeufs en Gelee for Thanksgiving. It took several days because "before each step I had to gird my loins all over again." She first made the gelee itself, but the smell was so revolting that she couldn't set foot in the kitchen the next day. Then there was a lengthy clarifying process, which involved turning a pot in quarter-circles 12 times per hour and ladling stock through cheesecloth. There were eggs to poach and tarragon to parboil, and then the whole mess had to be layered into ramekins. "I woke up at six a.m. on Thanksgiving morning to finish putting the little bastards together," she writes. "I rewarmed the aspic and placed a cold poached egg on top of each tarragon X in each chilled ramekin. The least attractive side of the egg is supposed to face up. This was largely academic in the case of my eggs." After all this work, how did her guests respond to Oeufs en Gelee? "Julie, this isn't your fault -- it's just the recipe," one said gently. Powell wanted to believe those kindhearted words, but she just couldn't shake a certain familiar voice, "yodeling on about how frightfully elegant an aspic might be, and I felt ashamed."

As she was doing all this cooking, she also kept a blog, where she moaned about the failed Sauce Tartare, and the fact that you can't eat French food every night without gaining weight. Indeed, Powell is every blogger's dream come true: Not only did the blog lead to a book contract, it also led to a really good book.

Toward the end of the book, unfortunately, Powell's descriptions of the journalists who get interested in the Julie/Julia Project begin to overwhelm the project itself. (One self-deprecating story about how intimidating it is to cook kidneys while Amanda Hesser of the New York Times lurks in your kitchen is endearing; a dozen such tales are a bit too meta, and they begin to grate on the reader's nerves.) Still, "Julie & Julia" provides a wonderful alternative to Bridget Jones and "Sex and the City." Powell is offbeat, eccentric and never too self-serious. Moreover, she understands something important. In an era when our bosses expect us to spend our lives at the office, she understands that life can't be all about your job. In an era when hostesses are praised for the food they picked up at Zabar's, she understands that there is something glorious and elemental in cooking. She has introduced ritual and meaning into an ordinary life. Not everyone will find her ritual and meaning with Julia Child, of course, but this book will inspire and encourage readers to find it somewhere.

Early on in the Julie/Julia Project, Powell prepares a steak, and the steak leads to a meditation on life. This amazing steak -- the beef marrow made all the difference -- tastes like "life, well-lived." I have never had a steak that tastes like life, well-lived, but now I have read a book that models it.