julie powell author of julie julia took food writing to a franker darker place

Julie Powell, Author of ‘Julie & Julia,’ Took Food Writing to a Franker, Darker Place

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At the end of the year that Julie Powell spent cooking every recipe (more or less) from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” she came to mayonnaise collée. It is a hand-whisked mayonnaise thickened with gelatin — a kind of stiff, salty garnish that was piped decoratively over aspics and the like in Mrs. Child’s time.

“1961 was a different country, no doubt about it,” Ms. Powell wrote in 2003, casting a retrospective eye on a project she thought was over.

But the end of the blog wasn’t even close to the end of the brilliant conceit that Ms. Powell had conceived and executed in a moment of professional despair. She went on to secure a big book deal — one of the first bloggers to do so — and distilled the posts into a book. Then the writer-director Nora Ephron, herself an avid cook, turned that book into “Julie & Julia,” an adorable, durable film that has brought Mrs. Child to life for a wide audience of American cooks since 2009.

All three women joined by that thread are now gone — outspoken figures who helped make sense of domestic life in the last half-century.

When Ms. Powell’s death, from cardiac arrest on Oct. 26, was reported this week, it unleashed a surprising avalanche of public affection, complicated opinions and nostalgia for the early 2000s. Numerous social media posts have also speculated about why Ms. Powell, who recently tweeted about health problems, including contracting Covid-19, died so young. (She was 49.)

Today, 2003 seems like a different country, with a friendly, cooperative internet that held relatively few dangers. There were no Reddit threads or recipe guys: Ms. Powell said she was sustained through the project by her tiny group of “bleaders,” blog readers, a term that has mercifully melted away.

Food blogs were still new, recipe search engines were primitive and there were no cloud-based communities of sourdough experts or xiao long bao lovers. Few home cooks went online to share ideas or compare new cookbooks: That took place in person, at the dinner table, or during lunch breaks at the office.

Ms. Powell’s blog made a huge splash in that world, without meeting any of the established criteria for the food writing that came before, from culinary memoirists like M.F.K. Fisher, Laurie Colwin or Ruth Reichl. It didn’t fit the model of later food blogs, where pretty pictures and cheerful women hold a powerful advantage. Nor did it have the standard equipment for what came after: Her blog contained no recipes, no videos, no actionable cooking tips. (Still, “Don’t crowd the mushrooms,” as Amy Adams, playing Ms. Powell, murmured in “Julie & Julia,” became a touchstone for fans of the film.)

Ms. Powell didn’t start blogging because she was a prescient media observer; she wasn’t trying to capitalize on the audience for digital food content that had been building since 1995, when Allrecipes.com and Epicurious.com came online. And she didn’t know that she was part of a wave of women whose unfiltered takes on domestic life would inform influential sites like Mothers Who Think, paving the way for xoJane, Jezebel and The New York Times’s Modern Love, platforms that launched countless writers with what Slate in 2015 called the “first-person industrial complex.”

What Ms. Powell did possess was an understanding that starting out as a cook is a universal experience, and a voice that made every recipe sound like an adventure.

Born in 1973, Ms. Powell was among the first generation of American cooks who were fed a steady diet of Julia Child from birth, in the books and public television shows that flowed after Mrs. Child’s original volumes were completed in 1970. In 2002, these readers instantly grasped the dynamic between Ms. Powell’s personal chaos — she was literally working through the aftermath of 9/11, as an administrative assistant for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation — and Mrs. Child’s cultural role as a voice of stability, nourishment and authority.

These younger readers heard themselves in Ms. Powell’s voice, but many older ones — including Mrs. Child herself — sniffed disrespect in her saucy tone and thought the project reeked of parasitic fame-seeking, a generation gap that flared up again this week in the social media conversation about her death.

Either way, the millions of people who love “Julie & Julia” make up the vast modern audience for Child-inspired content — including a recent biopic, an HBO Max series and even a competitive cooking show, “The Julia Child Challenge” (which Ms. Powell, in her last published work, fittingly recapped for Salon).

Ms. Powell’s life after the Julie/Julia Project wasn’t all soufflés and soubise, and she didn’t get the same friendly reception, in reviews and sales, for the dark side she revealed in her second book, “Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession.” Like her Generation X compatriot Elizabeth Wurtzel, who also died young, she lived knowing that readers were disappointed that she didn’t bring the bounce and verve of her early work to the grind of adulthood.

The Julie/Julia Project is hardly an unvarnished picture of domestic bliss. In the original blog posts, she writes about maggots on the drainboard, cat litter ground into the rug, undone laundry. She drinks a lot of vodka gimlets and smokes a lot of Marlboro Lights. She writes about how much Julia Child loved sex, and how little of it she herself wants from her husband as the chaos of the project engulfs them.

But through it all, her writing remains fast, funny and affectionate.

In “Cleaving,” published in 2009, her wit is intact, but the tone is different — sad and slow. She is living alone in upstate New York, bleakly preoccupied with learning how to dig the cheeks out of pigs’ heads and scrape lamb bones clean.

Her decision to apprentice as a butcher was in line with the frankness and sensuality she showed in the Julie/Julia Project. But by bringing equal frankness and sensuality to her narrative of a yearslong affair, her husband’s reluctant acceptance of that, and his subsequent infidelity, she crossed a line, and many readers apparently did not want to follow.

After “Cleaving,” Ms. Powell never completed another book, and published only occasional bits of writing. She embraced the chatty immediacy of Twitter, but went silent for long stretches. During the pandemic, isolation seemed to make it ever more difficult for her to work. In the last weeks of her life, Ms. Powell tweeted about illness, depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts.

Looking back on the Julie/Julia Project through that lens, it’s clear that her struggle with domesticity was there all along.

What got lost in the translation to book and film is how dark the original blog posts could be. Ms. Powell grew to dread cooking; she woke up stressed; she raged about work-life balance, though she didn’t use that term at the time. Anyone who has worked for hours over a Charlotte Malakoff or veal Orloff, or even just a batch of caramelized onions, knows how truly unfunny failure can be. For every success — and there were many — there was a meltdown or a teary midnight dinner.

During her life, the world didn’t know quite what to do with the two Julie Powells: The Julie Powell who created the Julie/Julia Project out of respect and affection for Julia Child, and the one accused of co-opting Mrs. Child’s work as part of an attention-seeking stunt. There was the Julie Powell who adored her husband, her sweetheart since high school in Texas; and the Julie Powell who was serially unfaithful to him, and chronicled it in detail. There was the Julie Powell who doted on her pets and campaigned for animal rights, and the Julie Powell who spent a year as an apprentice butcher, up to her wrists in blood and eating fresh-cut meat every night.

She always knew them both.

“I don’t see the disconnect between the parts that are nice and full of butter and Julia Child and the parts that are painful and include pig parts and BDSM,” she said in an interview after “Cleaving” was published. “One leads to the other and back again.”