When Julie Powell, a 29-year-old low-level “government drone” living in Queens, set out in 2002 to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s epic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and to write about it on her personal blog, she called the self-imposed assignment “deranged.”
Powell had little idea then what would come of those words tapped out on her keyboard. Her blog, then a rare breed, would attract thousands of readers and eventually earn her a reportedly six-figure deal for a best-selling book that was made into a 2009 movie starring Amy Adams as Powell and Meryl Streep as Child.
They began a cultural phenomenon that would nurture a new generation’s affection for Child and her butter-laden cuisine, prompting 20-somethings — who weren’t just “servantless,” as Child described her readers, but also lacking cooking skills and much money — to attempt classics such as beef bourguignon and lobster thermidor in their own group house and studio kitchens. But the most lasting legacy from Powell, who died last week at age 49 of cardiac arrest, might be on the way we write about food. Her style, in contrast to the high-minded, sophisticated prose previously found in cookbooks and mainstream publications, was the kind of personal, bare-all honesty you were more likely to find in a late-night chat over cocktails with a girlfriend than in the pages of Gourmet.
Food writers from MFK Fisher to A.J. Leibling had long mixed their own narratives with those about the food they consumed, but Powell’s was far rawer, filled with the minutiae of Gen X scrapping, where cat vomit and Netflix rentals and takeout pizza and too many vodka gimlets were the backdrop to the gratins and pate brisee. It was the kind of thing you couldn’t even describe as “confessional” because there was no apology implied.
To many young writers, her lack of pretense — and the fact that she was an uncredentialed interloper in the typically gate-kept world of food writing — was inspiring. Her project spawned a crop of bloggers who launched their own “cook-through” projects in which they cooked (and wrote) their way through classic culinary tomes, including “The French Laundry Cookbook” and the 1,300-recipe “The Gourmet Cookbook.” Others found liberation in her gritty honesty.
“Most of the food writers that I’d been reading up until that point wrote really polished prose — everyone from Ruth Reichl to Jeffrey Steingarten,” says Adam Roberts, who began his own food blog, the Amateur Gourmet, in 2004 and now pens cookbooks and a newsletter. “Julie showed us that you didn’t have to be formal to write about food; in fact, being too formal was a liability … it puts up a wall between you and your readers. She tore down that wall by being outrageous and vulnerable and off-the-cuff and moody and all of the things you’re not supposed to be as a professional food writer.”
Some corners of the literary establishment weren’t impressed. Though Powell’s blog was picked up by Salon, and her 2005 book “Julie & Julia” was an unqualified success, selling some 1 million copies, “there was a lot of misdirected derision toward blogging back then,” recalls David Lebovitz, a cookbook author and former Chez Panisse pastry chef who was himself one of the pioneers of food blogging.
In a New York Times review of the book, critic David Kamp likened it (unflatteringly, of course) to “Sex and the City” and chick-lit novels. “ ‘Julie and Julia’ still has too much blog in its DNA: It has a messy, whatever’s-on-my-mind incontinence to it, taking us places we’d rather not go,” he sniffed.
But Powell herself was contemptuous of most establishment food writing and never set out to ape it. “Overall, it is a genre beset by twee-ness. And I never could understand it,” she wrote in an early blog post, before describing a success with Child’s poulet poele a l’estragon. “ ‘Jesus!’ I’d think as I read yet another snarky paean to Fairway, another article on how to survive air travel on those harrowing flights to Italy with a few gourmet comestibles. ‘Why can’t you people friggin’ write?’ ”
But Powell, whose early success coincided with the rising popularity of the Food Network and its stable of stars, had the last, unfiltered word. Lebovitz draws a line from her freewheeling, warts-and-more blog posts to the current state of food media, where personality and voice are often prized above technical prowess or plaudits from prestigious institutions. “What I realized is that a lot of us are personalities,” he says. “Ina Garten is not doing anything groundbreaking. She’s making excellent food that turns out well, but now, what differentiates people is a voice, that conversational tone.”
Dianne Jacob, a food writer and editor and the author of “Will Write for Food,” says Powell introduced a way to marry personality and food that now seems commonplace. “She was irreverent and cranky, ranting about married life and disasters in the kitchen, recording her meltdowns and triumphs,” Jacob says. “Her writing came from the heart, with little filter and existential anxiety. That’s what set her apart. Before her, there were cookbooks and feature articles, but nothing so personal.”
Powell’s relatable persona might have paved the way for others, but, Jacob says, her work remains singular. “After her, thousands of imitators followed,” she says. “But they didn’t bare their hearts the same way.”