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Julie Powell, food writer behind ‘Julie & Julia,’ dies at 49

In search of escape from her dead-end job, she cooked her way through Julia Child’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking,’ chronicling her year-long odyssey in a blog that became a book and then a movie starring Meryl Streep

Julie Powell makes potato leek soup, one of the first recipes in Julia Child's “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” at her New York apartment in 2005. (Henny Ray Abrams/AP)

On the cusp of turning 30, Julie Powell was living in a cramped Queens apartment and working a dead-end job as a secretary — feeling destined, as she put it, for “a life of terminal mediocrity.” So Ms. Powell, who had a kitchen wall hung with pans but considered herself a dreadful cook, set out on an audacious culinary quest: to make every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a single year, and to blog about it along the way.

How Julie Powell and her 'Julie/Julia' blog changed food writing

By any measure, she had set herself a difficult task. Child’s landmark 1961 cookbook contained 524 recipes, for aspics and sweetbreads, poached eggs and mushrooms, chicken fricassee and calf’s brains in wine. Even in a gastronomic capital like New York, ingredients like veal kidneys and calves’ feet were difficult to come by. It didn’t help that Ms. Powell was hardly a gourmand: Before embarking on her project in 2002, she had never eaten eggs and rarely ate fruit.

But as she started cooking, preparing an inaugural meal of bifteck sauté au beurre (panbroiled steak), the project offered her a direction in life and provided an emotional outlet through blog posts that were blunt, candid and often hilariously profane. “It assuages my hopelessness,” she told the New York Times as she neared the end of her project. “If I get this done, somehow it will all be O.K. It’s better than being a secretary.”

Ms. Powell ultimately pulled herself out of “a tailspin of secretarial ennui,” as she put it, to become an early star of food blogging. She attracted thousands of regular readers to her blog, the Julie/Julia Project, which was hosted on the website Salon. And she landed a reported six-figure book deal to write a 2005 memoir, “Julie & Julia,” that sold some 1 million copies. The book was adapted into a hit 2009 movie by filmmaker Nora Ephron, who intertwined the stories of Ms. Powell (played by Amy Adams) and Child (Meryl Streep), who studied haute cuisine in 1950s Paris while her husband (Stanley Tucci) worked as a U.S. diplomat.

Ms. Powell, who later wrote for food magazines and published a second memoir, was 49 when she died Oct. 26 at her home in the Catskills community of Olivebridge, N.Y. The cause was cardiac arrest, said a friend, Nicole Mabry.

When Ms. Powell decided to blog her way through a single cookbook, there was little doubt about which author she would pick. “Julia Child,” she explained, “taught America to cook, and to eat.”

With her mother’s dog-eared copy of “Mastering” propped open on the kitchen counter, she learned to clarify butter and peel potatoes into an olive shape as she tried her hand at dishes such as oeufs en gelée, in which a soft-boiled egg is suspended in gelatin.

Her writing was credited with inspiring a generation of home cooks to expand their repertoire and with encouraging others to take up blogging. At times, her descriptions of cooking were mouth-wateringly vivid or queasily evocative, as when she recalled removing marrow from beef bones to make the sauce for bifteck sauté bercy. “It made dreadful scraping noises — I felt like I could feel it in the center of my bones,” she wrote. “How much more interior can you get, after all, than the interior of bones? It’s the center of the center of things. If marrow were a geological formation, it would be magma roiling under the earth’s mantle.

“If it were a memory,” she added, “it would be your first one, your most painful and repressed one, the one that has made you who you are.”

Critics were mixed on Ms. Powell’s memoir, with Times reviewer David Kamp writing that “Julie & Julia” had “too much blog in its DNA,” with “a messy, whatever’s-on-my-mind incontinence” that included digressions about her husband’s health and the state of their Long Island City apartment. Her struggles in the kitchen were also not well received by Child: Russ Parsons, a food writer for the Los Angeles Times, said that after he showed the blog to Child, she replied, “She just doesn’t seem very serious, does she? I worked very hard on that book. I tested and retested those recipes for eight years so that everybody could cook them. … She just must not be much of a cook.”

Ms. Powell said she was devastated to learn that Child, who died in 2004 at 91, did not approve of her project. Still, she continued to cook and write, winning two James Beard awards for food journalism while contributing to publications including Bon Appétit and Archaeology magazine, for which she prepared a menu of “ancient cuisine” adapted from Mayan, Mongolian and Mesopotamian recipes.

“It’s a tough row to hoe, no question,” she told an Amherst College interviewer in 2009, describing the origins of her career as a writer. “But for me it was finding the intersection of passion and medium, and maintaining a structure so rigid and fast-paced that I didn’t have time to hate myself. Not hating myself — at least not all the time — turned out to be key.”

Julia Anne Foster was born in Austin on April 20, 1973. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother was a homemaker who returned to college to obtain a master’s degree in design. She cooked occasionally from “Mastering” when Julie and her brother were growing up, referring to the book’s recipes for dishes including beef bourguignon, pork chops and Brussels sprouts.

Ms. Powell acted in high school and studied theater and fiction writing at Amherst College in Massachusetts, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1995. By then, she had concluded that the world outside Texas was sorely lacking in the culinary department. “I just missed chicken-fried steak. I missed Mexican food, and I missed chili,” she told the Houston Chronicle. “In Massachusetts, nobody knows anything about seasoning. Everything is bland.”

Still, she had dreams of becoming an actress, and she set out for New York to pursue a career in the theater.

Ms. Powell said she discovered soon enough that she was “not a New York actress.” Nor was she, as yet, a writer, although she did have what she described as “seven years of three-quarters-finished novels in drawers.”

She was working at the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. when she began her culinary odyssey, shopping for groceries during her lunch hour, cooking at night and writing in the mornings. At times she worried her family back in Texas — “Please. Honey. Stop Cooking,” her mother said in a phone call — and tested the patience of her husband, Eric Powell, with their late-night, butter-soaked meals and the piles of dirty dishes that stacked up in the sink.

Ms. Powell chronicled their marriage in her second book, “Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession” (2009), which detailed extramarital affairs on both sides against the backdrop of her apprenticeship in a butcher shop.

Survivors include her husband, of Olivebridge; her parents, John and Kay Foster, both of Austin; and her brother.

Ms. Powell readily conceded that the portrait of her in the movie “Julie & Julia” was not entirely accurate. The real Julie was “not as sweet as the movie Julie,” she once told an interviewer, and was even more neurotic. What was true, however, was the comfort and meaning she found in her daily jaunts into the world of Julia Child. Even after she had forsworn butter — at least in the copious quantities suggested by Child — Ms. Powell would return to the pages of her cookbook, serving up a dish of sauteed liver or baked cucumbers or, of course, beef bourguignon, “out of nostalgia.”