Almost as good as eating...

I remember when I became a food writing junkie. I picked up The Best of Food Writing 2001 at the Coop in Harvard Square because it had a pretty, colorful cover and hey, I like food. I remember cozing up with a cup of chai at Diesel CafĂ© and closing the place down that evening, because goddamn, that was interesting stuff. Home cooking gone bad (and good), restaurant critics reviewing gourmet meals, stories of recipes passed between generations…I learned the obvious that day – food brings out the warmth and love in people. You can tell a life through its meals. Four more compilations and a bookshelf of Jeffrey Steingarten, Ruth Reichl, (the much hated) Amanda Hesser, Anthony Bourdain, and Calvin Trillin later, I’m pretty much obsessed.

So I was excited when I heard about the book based on the Julie/Julia Project. What I knew: A woman in Long Island City named Julie Powell had decided to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, all 524 recipes, in one year. She blogged her way through the Project before blogging was en vogue, amassed a following, and then, as the story goes, got herself a book deal. Julie and Julia : 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen was published last September, but I didn’t read it until this week. I hadn’t read her blog, either – I wanted to read the book first.

What an opportunity for a really interesting addition to food writing, and what a colossal disappointment. Powell is not a likeable narrator – she’s incredible whiny and negative, so much so that I had not a shred of sympathy for her. The book rarely mentions the cooking process and the eating of her meals. Sure, we get the stories of Powell dragging home ducks, lobsters, steaks, and mounds and mounds (and MOUNDS) of butter every night…but the majority of the book is taken up by Powell’s personal life. We hear about her awful government job, her crappy apartment, her annoying friends. And we don’t care. We want to know how this relates to cooking 3-part meals every night. To gaining 20 pounds because of all the butter and cream. To not having a social life due to cooking every single night. Powell lets us into that a tiny bit…but then wastes pages with nonsense complaining and uninteresting backstory.

Who edited this book? Who marketed it? There is such a thing as food memoir (Ruth Reichl does it best), but food takes a front seat in those, and the authors are established writers and critics. There’s so much fat in the words and chapters, so many awkward jokes and phrases that don’t work…yeesh. Let me at it. The foodies, her core audience, hated it because there’s no sense of a love for food and cooking. They wanted to know the day-to-day of such a huge culinary undertaking. The book makes it the backstory, not the main story.

Out of curiosity, I checked out her blog last night…and haven’t been able to stop reading all day today. Wow. Powell comes across as a warm, funny, and passionate woman. The text intersperses details of her personal life with the main affair – the FOOD. Every meal, detailed from start to finish – the problems, the successes, the timing, everything. I can’t stop reading it. And now, I am puzzled by the editing even more. Little, Brown turned this fascinating project and what seems like a woman who has talent and grace into an annoying, twitty, “zany” New York 20/30-something. Shame on them for messing with and ruining a good thing.


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