How Julie Powell and her blog “Julie/Julia” changed food writing
Powell then had no idea what would happen to those words typed on his keyboard. His blog, then a rare breed, would attract thousands of readers and eventually land him a six-figure contract for a best selling book which was made into a 2009 film starring Amy Adams as Powell and Meryl Streep as a child.
They started a cultural phenomenon that would nurture a new generation’s affection for Child and his butter-laden kitchen, prompting twenties — who were not just “servantless,” as Child described to his readers, but who also lacked the culinary skills and lots of money – to try classics like beef bourguignon and lobster thermidor in their own group house and workshop kitchens. But the most lasting legacy of Powell, who died last week at 49 of cardiac arrest, may be the way we write about food. His style, unlike the lofty, sophisticated prose previously found in cookbooks and mainstream publications, was the kind of naked, personal honesty you were more likely to find in late-night conversation around a cocktail with a girlfriend than in the pages of Gourmet.
Food writers from MFK Fisher to AJ Leibling had long mixed their own narratives with those about the food they ate, but Powell’s was much rawer, filled with the minutiae of Gen X scrapping, where cat vomit and Netflix rentals and takeout pizzas and too much vodka tendrils served as the backdrop for gratins and shortcrust pastry. It was the kind of thing that couldn’t even be described as “denominational” because there was no implied excuse.
For many young writers, her lack of pretension — and the fact that she was an unaccredited intruder into the typically closed world of food writing — was inspirational. His project spawned a slew of bloggers who started their own “cooking” projects in which they cooked (and wrote) their way through classic culinary tomes, including “The French laundry cookbookand the 1,300 recipes from “The Gourmet Cookbook”. Others found liberation in its gritty honesty.
“Most of the food writers I had read up to that point wrote really polished prose — everyone from Ruth Reichl to Jeffrey Steingarten,” says Adam Roberts, who started his own food blog, the gourmet loverin 2004 and now writes cookbooks and a newsletter. “Julie showed us that you don’t have to be formal to write about food; in fact, being too formal was a liability…it puts a wall between you and your readers. She tore down that wall by being outrageous and vulnerable and off-the-cuff and bad-tempered and all the things you’re not supposed to be as a professional food writer.
Some corners of the literary establishment were unimpressed. Although Powell’s blog was picked up by Salon and her 2005 book “Julie & Julia” was an unqualified success, selling around 1 million copies, “there was a lot of misdirected derision towards the blogs at the time”, recalls David Lebovitzauthor of cookbooks and former pastry chef Chez Panisse who was himself one of the pioneers of food blogs.
In a New York Times book review, critic David Kamp compared it (unflatteringly, of course) to “Sex and the City” and enlightened novels. “‘Julie and Julia’ still has too much blogging in its DNA: it has messy incontinence, no matter what comes to mind, taking us where we’d rather not go,” he sniffed.
But Powell herself despised most of the establishment’s culinary writings and never sought to ape it. “Overall, it’s a genre beset by twee-ness. And I could never figure it out,” she wrote in a first blog post, before describing a success with Child’s Chicken Skillet with Tarragon. “‘Jesus!’ I’d think I was reading yet another sarcastic Fairway anthem, another article about surviving air travel on those harrowing flights to Italy with some gourmet edibles. ‘Why can’t you write?’”
But Powell, whose early success coincided with the growing popularity of the Food Network and its stable of stars, had the last laugh, unfiltered. Lebovitz draws a line between his freewheeling blog posts, warts and more, and the current state of food media, where personality and voice are often valued more than technical prowess or plaudits from prestigious institutions. “What I realized is that a lot of us are personalities,” he says. “Ina’s Garden does nothing revolutionary. She makes good food that turns out to be good, but now what sets people apart is the voice, that conversational tone.
Diana Jacob, food writer and editor and author of “Will Write for Food,” says Powell introduced a way of marrying personality and food that now seems mundane. “She was irreverent and grumpy, ranting about married life and kitchen disasters, recording her breakdowns and triumphs,” Jacob says. “His writing came from the heart, with little filter and angst. That’s what sets her apart. Before her, there were cookbooks and feature articles, but nothing so personal.
Powell’s personality may have paved the way for others, but, says Jacob, his work remains singular. “After her, thousands of imitators followed,” she says. “But they didn’t bare their hearts in the same way.”
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