August 13, 2003
A Race to Master the Art of French Cooking
ULIE POWELL is in the homestretch. She has 13 days and 22 recipes to go to complete what possibly only Julia Child has done. If she meets her Aug. 26 deadline, Ms. Powell will have cooked all 524 recipes in the 1961 classic, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."
Ms. Powell began climbing this culinary Mount Everest last summer, on Aug. 26, and has kept an amusing, irreverent and increasingly popular daily Web log of her progress on Salon, called the Julie/Julia Project (blogs.salon.com/0001399).
Other than their names, Julie Powell and Julia Child do not have much in common. Ms. Child, 90, is the cosmopolitan television personality and Smith-educated wife of a career diplomat who has made her home in places like Paris, Cambridge, Mass., and Santa Barbara, Calif.
Ms. Powell, 30, is a secretary who lives with her husband, three cats and a python above a diner on a barren street in Long Island City. Her voice does not soar and chortle; it rattles out words that recall Tony Soprano's more exercised moments. (Some of Ms. Powell's language, in person and on her Web log, is very rough. Some of it is very funny. So that this report may be welcomed at breakfast tables and in classrooms, the word "cookie" has replaced the occasional expletives. For example, as she wrote on Monday, Aug. 11, "This Monday [cookie] is just [cookie] killing me.")
The Julie/Julia Project, though structured and a little manic, is reminiscent of the way many young women taught themselves to cook decades ago. Young wives would latch onto a cookbook and work their way through it, learning basic techniques and finding a handful of recipes they could master.
Few women or men do that now, but there are apparently many who want to cook vicariously through Ms. Powell. According to Salon, since July Ms. Powell's Web log, or blog, had the fourth-most hits of the top 100 on the site, and a total of 394,200 page views. Scott Rosenberg, Salon's blog editor, said the Julie/Julia Project's popularity has grown steadily, and he estimates that it has several thousand regular readers. The blog details Ms. Powell's many cooking triumphs and traumas, and also crisply documents a woman working through a life crisis.
Ms. Powell has not cooked from the front of Ms. Child's book to the back, but has skipped around in order to have variety in her diet. But she has worked through individual chapters chronologically because most of them are designed to begin with simple recipes, building up to more complicated ones.
At this point, Ms. Powell has completed her work on pâtés, eggs, chicken and even brains. "I did that this weekend," she said of the brains. "I got it all done in one fell swoop."
On a recent night, three weeks before the deadline, veal kidneys, sautéed potatoes, glazed onions and a cherry clafouti were on the menu. Ms. Powell had slipped away at lunchtime from her job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to pick up the kidneys, and was now home, with her shopping bags covering the steel shelves that serve as her countertop.
Ms. Powell has a typically small New York kitchen, with no ventilation, no dishwasher (except for her husband, Eric), and a view of a brick wall. The one thing it has in common with Julia Child's kitchen is a wall hung with pans. Ms. Powell has quite an impressive array (numbering 17 by this reporter's count). Wedding booty, she explained.
Ms. Powell got to work, dressed in a white shirt and gray bias-cut skirt, her feet bare. First she blanched onions, to make their skins easier to remove. Then she put them in a pot, dropped in the requisite butter, herbs and parsley and moved on.
Ms. Powell began her project in, she said, "one of those panicked, backed-into-a-corner kind of moments." She was nearing her 30th birthday; she could not find a job and was not moving forward.
"Sort of by making my life crazier, it gave me a structure it was lacking," she said. "It assuages my hopelessness.
"If I get this done, somehow it will all be O.K. It's better than being a secretary."
As the project took shape, so did her daily life. "What's important," she said, "is not to get to work on time and answer the phone and get the catering set up for the meeting. It's that I need to get my kidneys at Ottomanelli's, and I have to get home and cook the kidneys and check them off my list. The point is the project.
"It's made this last year. I don't know, I don't know what I would have done if I didn't do it."
Her husband said, "We could have gotten a dog."
During the first few months, there were many breakdowns, many flops and many dinners at 11 p.m. In her blog, Ms. Powell is blunt about gaining weight, jealously calling her husband "the skinny [cookie]," and is candid about the troubles the project has caused her marriage. ("His life with me has become, shall we say, pretty thankless," she wrote. "Nothing but dishes and late dinners and neurotic wives for him.")
She doesn't mince words, which makes her stream-of-consciousness blog good, addictive entertainment. Last week, when subway delays put her behind schedule, she wrote, outrageously, "I would like to interrupt this program for a long overdue firebombing of the New York subway system, but of course I can't because then I'd go to jail and I couldn't finish the Project. But holy [cookie cookie]."
Early on, Ms. Powell was characteristically blunt about why she focused her attention on Julia Child and not on Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, the other authors of "Mastering."
"Julia Child taught America to cook, and to eat," she wrote. Period.
"It's hard for me to focus on the rest of them when Julia is writ so large in my mind," she said later. "I have no visual image of them at all. It's terrible. I actually feel kind of guilty about that." Ms. Child, on the other hand, Ms. Powell said, leapt off the pages as a generous teacher, looking over her shoulder. "I like to think of her sort of shepherding me through it," she said.
Volume 1 of "Mastering," which has sold more than 800,000 copies, is not an easy book to embrace in this age of olive oil and nam pla. Some of the ingredients that Ms. Child calls for as pantry staples, like canned onions and calves' feet, are hard to find. And the techniques are ancient. Butter is clarified, potatoes are carved into ovals. Ms. Powell said, "When you do spend two hours carving them into olive shapes and cursing her name, they are good and they brown evenly. But in 21 days, I will never peel a potato into an olive shape again."
On the night I visited, her husband was given the job of peeling the potatoes. He was permitted simply to cut them in half. These shortcuts are rare.
"There are only two instances where I cheat," she said. "A, if I run out of anything, like butter, I'll use olive oil. And if I've done a lot of repetition of something." She does not use cheesecloth to bundle her herbs, but she does blanch bacon, as Ms. Child so often instructs.
"Many times, I won't sprinkle parsley on top," she confessed. "It's 10:30 at night and who gives a [cookie]? I just want to go to bed."
But even a recipe for spit-roasted chicken did not daunt Ms. Powell, despite the fact that she does not own a spit. She concocted one, bending a clothes hanger so that it stretched over the top of a stock pot, tied the chicken to it with string, and put the whole thing in the oven.
Ms. Powell estimates that she has gone through about 60 pounds of butter over the course of the project, and dozens of bottles of dry vermouth, both signature touches of Ms. Child's cooking.
The cost of all this fine food? "I'm terrified to conjecture," Ms. Powell said, as she patted the kidneys sitting on her countertop. Readers of the blog have made donations, totaling about $600. "I can't figure out what the [cookie] they're thinking," she said. "I'm not going to say no."
Ms. Powell paused when asked how many years she had been married. "Five years? What is it?" she asked her husband, who was peeling potatoes.
"Yes. I got you a tree," she said to him.
"Right, and I got you TV tray tables," he said.
"Yes, very nice super-modern TV tray tables," she said, lighting up. "Otherwise you can't watch your `Buffy' and eat your kidneys!"
The project has brought countless new dishes and even new food groups to Ms. Powell's life. Before she began, she never ate eggs and hardly any fruit. Now she loves eggs (except in aspic), olives and anchovies, and has warmed up to most fruits.
"I can eat brains," she said. "Don't make me eat a banana."
She has observed that braised lettuce tastes much better than it sounds, and that despite what Ms. Child says, bacon does not need to be blanched. And, she added, "Butchers close too early for people with jobs. Real jobs. Or sad office jobs."
Ms. Powell likes to insist that she is still not a good cook, but she moves around her kitchen deftly, putting pans on the stove, chopping shallots, cracking eggs. At one point, she lifted the lid on the pan of potatoes, used it to rake the potatoes and set it back down on the pan, all without looking.
"I have to credit Knopf for doing a good job putting together a book," she said of the publishing company that released "Mastering"; Ms. Powell's copy is from 1967. Of other cookbooks she has used, she said: "Nigella Lawson fell apart in three days. Marcella Hazan, I'm on my third copy, and it's destroyed again." The spine on Ms. Powell's "Mastering" has seen better days, but it is also much older than the others, and was probably not designed to be open on the counter every single day of the year, as this copy has been.
Before beginning the project, Ms. Powell had never watched Ms. Child on television. "I knew who she was. It was this Dan Aykroyd version," she said, referring to Mr. Aykroyd's impersonation of Ms. Child on "Saturday Night Live."
"The book had been this totemic object," she said. "It was one of those books that you fantasize about. The way it was set up, the tone of it, and the way it was dated. Aspic!"
The writing in "Mastering" is known for its strong voice, a voice that seems to speak directly to the reader. Although it was written by three women, it often seems to have the cadence of Ms. Child's speech, as well as her wit.
Through this voice, Ms. Child has become a powerful presence in Ms. Powell's life. "It would be amazing to meet her," she said, pausing. "I do kind of like that she's sort of a construct. She's my Julia. I like interpreting what she says and what she thinks."
Ms. Powell has surfaced on Ms. Child's radar screen. "I've heard of her," Ms. Child said. "I haven't seen any of her stuff." It took Ms. Child, Ms. Beck and Ms. Bertholle nearly eight years to complete the manuscript and recipe testing. "Simca and I did most of them, and Louisette sort of commented on them," she added. (Simca is Simone Beck.)
Ms. Powell said, "She'll be, like, chop the beef marrow bone in half." She looked over her shoulder as if for help. "And then before you know it, you have the jigsaw out. She can be terse when you most wish she'd be voluble."
Pretty soon, that presence will fade away. For the past 352 days, Ms. Powell has maintained a full-time job, cooked almost every night and written, she estimated, more than 225,000 words about it for the blog. She does her shopping on weekends and on her lunch hour, and she writes before going to work. The pace has taken its toll.
"I'm miserable so they can be happy," Ms. Powell said of her readers. "I'm like the Jesus of extreme cooking. I got fat and very unhappy for their sins."
With the deadline nearing, Mr. Powell has become more philosophical about it. "I'm pretty excited," he said, "mainly because Julie has been in a better mood now that the end is in sight. It'll be a relief. We'll have salads."
"And join the gym," Ms. Powell said, "and be thin and beautiful like we were before."
He said: "A year is about enough time to be cooking with butter. It was like a long march."
Still, many recipes remain, including boned duck stuffed with pâté and baked in a pastry crust. "I'm not going to scream at all during that one," she said. For her last project meal, Ms. Powell has settled on kidneys with a red-wine sauce and beef marrow.
The weekend after her deadline, she and Mr. Powell plan to travel to Washington to see the exhibition of Julia Child's Cambridge kitchen at the Smithsonian Institution.
"We should smuggle in some Champagne in water bottles," Mr. Powell said.
"My dream," Ms. Powell said, "is to leave a stick of butter — an offering to the shrine."