virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Tue 29 Nov 05 09:12
We're delighted to welcome back to the Inkwell Julie Powell. Julie visited in the wake of her one-year sojourn cooking her way through Julia Child's classic cookbook and blogging about it all. She had a book contract in hand and a new diet underway. Now, the book is in stores and homes, she's back from tour and ready to let us in on things here. Helping lead the conversation are Well members Jill Davidson and Eric Gower. We asked all three to tell us a bit about themselves. Julie replied: After nearly ten years of mire and temp work, I now suddenly find myself an author - of a couple of things, most amazingly a book: "Julie & Julia" (plus subtitle that goes on for days), my account of the year I spent cooking my way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," an insane assignment for someone who can't really cook, but one that wound up changing my life in a lot of ways. For instance: I now get paid to sit around in my pajamas and type on my laptop, which is a far, far better way to make a living than Xeroxing. My husband Eric and I still live in Long Island City, in the same crappy apartment, with our three cats, 110-pound dog, and snake, Zuzu Marlene. Jill said: I'm a 38 year old mom - 2 kids now, and in March 2006, 3 - and educational writer who cooks every day. I have 2 cats and 100+ cookbooks and live in Providence, Rhode Island (been here a year after 13 years in San Francisco). The top three occupations of my brain in order: 1. my family; 2. food and cooking; 3. (still important but way, way back in the pack) work. What I do for that work: I am the Publications Director for the Coalition of Essential Schools (www.essentialschools.org), a national school reform organization. Though it isn't writing about food, I do like it a lot. I spend much of my time writing and editing our quarterly journal, Horace. What I cook and eat: most recently, dinner tonight, lentils with onion and carrot and potato with ricotta salata and buttered egg noodles on the side. Lately: lots of Thanksgiving and resulting leftovers. In general, the circumstances of my life don't call for the time consuming or far out but I do my best to mix it up and cook pretty widely and decently. And I love to read about food about as much as I love to make and eat it. Eric told us: I lived in Japan from 1988 to 2002. Most of that time was spent doing editorial/ghostwriting work, but I cooked a hell of a lot too, and wrote a book ("Eric's Kitchen") for home cooks there, an attempt to get them to use classic Japanese ingredients in new ways. Then I wrote another one, this time in English ("The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen"), for home cooks OUTSIDE Japan, urging them to use Japanese ingredients in unorthodox ways. I've just finished a third cookbook, and this time I've finally managed to (largely) wean myself from Japanese ingredients (I've added lots of Indian and Middle Eastern ones into the fray). I'm happily based in SF. Welcome, you three!
Eric Gower (gower) Wed 30 Nov 05 11:39
Hello Julie! You are no doubt tired of talking about this by now, but for people who haven't read the book, could you kindly give us the basic lowdown on how you got the idea for the Julia project? It's easy to see the appeal of going through the Julia oeuvre of dishes one by one, but what made you want to blog it? Had you blogged before? So many questions, but we'll take them a few gulps at a time.
Julie Powell (juliepowell) Wed 30 Nov 05 14:46
Well, "got the idea" implies rather more powers of reason than I employed. It was more like a panic attack. Mothers lift up two ton automobiles to save their babies, depressed 29-year-old secretaries embark spontaneously on insane projects and blog about it. Actually, I didn't really even know what a blog was at the time. This was 2002, when blogs hadn't really reached the mainstream in much of a way. It was my husband's idea. We just had a sort of Reese's peanut butter cup moment. You know, "Hey, your frustrated desire to write is in my longtime ambitious amateur cookish-ness!" It just kind of went from there...
Jill Davidson (jilld) Wed 30 Nov 05 20:51
So do you think that if you hadn't had the blog, you would have finished the project fully within the year? My sense from _Julie and Julia_ is that you had your own motivation in a real way, and you had Eric and others as witnesses, but the blog gave you an extra - maybe sometimes crucial - push when you felt ready to hang it up and stop.
Jill Davidson (jilld) Thu 1 Dec 05 08:34
And about the panic attack method of career development: it's not cooking related but I really love that you are so candid about why you embarked upon this. My own career trajectory has been guided by impulse decisions, desperation, and a persistent flight from working in actual offices. I work a lot with high school students as a mentor, kids interested in becoming writers. Lucky for me, adolescents are very busy focusing on their very important own selves and rarely have I been asked why I became a writer. A good thing, because I am hard pressed to describe in ways that seem educationally sound why I do what I do. The real reasons, like - I actually do love to work, but I hate to work in offices and urgently need a job that allows me to be alone. My need for alone time is huge and as a mother of 2 soon to be 3 kids I write for a living just because it pays for the alone time - never quite seem educationally sound, you know? Your descriptions of your office culture and circumstances totally resonated with me. Now that you're free of that, what do you think. Happy? Do you miss aspects of daily work life with others? Are you just so happy to have the writer's life now? Eric (and others), how about you?
Julie Powell (juliepowell) Thu 1 Dec 05 15:24
There's absolutely not question - without the blog, there'd have been no Project. There was no way I could have known when I started what a boon the blogging medium would turn out to be for me. First there was the dailiness and quotidian nature of it. I didn't have to know where I was going, I didn't even have to edit - I just had to get my task done for the day, and let it go. And then, of course, there were my readers, who I really credit with being huge contributors to the project. They weren't just cheerleaders - though they were that. But even more important, it was through their comments, and their enthusiasm, and their stories about their own lives, that I really was able to understand the significance of what I was doing. That my experience, particulars aside, was a universal one. And no. I never ever ever miss being a secretary. It's true that it's an adjustment, learning to work under your own steam. But if that's the worse problem I have, I count myself lucky. My whole life is devoted now to never having to work in an office again.
Eric Gower (gower) Fri 2 Dec 05 10:41
Readers reading and commenting in real time is such a strange new concept for writers. But let's get right down to it: I wanna know about aspic! You had to make/use a bunch of it for the project; I can't think of a single ingredient that's fallen more out of favor. How could anyone ever have enjoyed this vile substance.
Eric Gower (gower) Fri 2 Dec 05 10:42
And: which dish has become the standby, the one you now make more than any of the others?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 2 Dec 05 12:56
(Note: offsite readers with comments or questions can send them to <firstname.lastname@example.org> to have them added to this conversation)
Casey Ellis (caseyell) Fri 2 Dec 05 13:16
eagerly awaiting Julie's answers -- and chiming in to say, in WELLspeak: I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the book.
lmc (lmc) Fri 2 Dec 05 13:23
hi julie, welcome tho the WELL, looking forward to reading the answers as well. (jilld) and (gower), thanks for leading this!
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Fri 2 Dec 05 13:34
<scribbled by slf Sat 3 Dec 05 05:26>
Julie Powell (juliepowell) Fri 2 Dec 05 13:48
Okay - sorry for the delay! Whew, this has just coincided with a hell of a bad day.... Anyway - 1) Aspic. Don't know. Sucks. Bone marrow jello was always a bad idea - perhaps in a decade they'll feel the same about, I don't know, balsalmic vinegar ice cream. 2) Standby recipes.... Well, now that it's cold I do head back from time to time to the good old classic JC stews - boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, etc... And I like my baked cucumbers. But honestly, my love for MtAoFC has very little to do with the recipes themselves. It's a book I like to breathe over. Oh, and the liver with mustard. Yummy! (Ack! SO many questions!!) 3) I could not imagine someone else I might cook through besides JC. First of all, the structure of MtAoFC is such that you really do believe you could systematically learn to cook by working through it. And you can. I can apply the techniques that I learned during that year to Thai cooking or hamburgers or whatever. But more than that, I find the book mesmerizing as literature. It's a book I can read over and over. No other cookbook has ever spoken to me like that. Except maybe Roy Andries DeGroot, Feasts For All Seasons. That's a nutty one! 4) Making a living as a food writer beats making a living xeroxing by about a thousand miles. It is true that I never particularly thought of myself as a food writer, and that I think there are a ton of people out there who know more about food than I do and therefore writer about it better. I think I write more as an eater, and my interest in food is just that it's one of the two or three things that everyone in the world does every single day. Perhaps next I should write about my bowel movements, but I'm not yet the writer to do that well. 5) My first impulse, OCD sufferer that I am, was indeed to cook through the book from beginning to end. Luckily I uncharacteristically considered that option for more than ten seconds and realized I'd be eating bavarians for two weeks, and that I'd never be able to pay the rent once the veal roast section came up. So instead I decided to cook each chapter consecutively, but to bounce around between chapters. So - first soup, first chicken, first meat, etc.... That method worked out pretty well, except that it lulled me into a false sense of security. It was all so easy at first! Ha HA! Will post now in place of taking a breath, before embarking upon the last few questions....
Julie Powell (juliepowell) Fri 2 Dec 05 13:53
Okay... 6) Kids??!!! Holy shit, no! No kids. I cannot IMAGINE doing this with kids. It nearly killed my cats! And we certainly ordered our share of Domino's pizza - which is NOT, contrary to rumor, my favorite pizza. It is simply the only pizza to be had in Long Island City at 10 pm, once the bernaise has curdled. My husband was a fucking angel, it must be said. He was the only person in the universe that didn't think I was totally insane. Little did he know.... 7) Well, rumor has it that JC was nonplussed by the project. I like to think that if she had understood what it was I was doing, how grateful I was to her for teaching me how to live bravely and how central her book became in my life, then she'd have approved. 8) I have no plans to become the Cook Through the Cookbook lady, and I don't know that anyone would want me on a TV set kitchen. There's the language issue for one thing, and imagine the liability insurance! My main goal is to keep out of the government offices by writing books, both about food and not. I'd like to churn out a novel, I'd always really thought of myself more as a fiction writer before the Project started. Whew!!!
Eric Gower (gower) Fri 2 Dec 05 14:03
Do you think blogging will be part of your writing MO from now on? It seems like it was such an integral part of this book, that your "bleaders" provided such fuel for you. I wonder if any big-shot fiction writers are blogging about works in progress? And how did your editors at Little Brown feel about it?
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Fri 2 Dec 05 14:08
<scribbled by slf Sat 3 Dec 05 05:25>
Julie Powell (juliepowell) Fri 2 Dec 05 15:22
I don't know how the blogging will figure into my next books. It's a funny thing; with the first book it worked so organically, in part because I wasn't starting off by trying to write a book. I worry that blogging with the intention of writing a book might stymie it somehow - that I might start worrying about what it was I was writing, where I was going with it; all the self-doubt stuff that blogging originally helped me get over. And, you're right, I think my publishers are a bit concerned. On the one hand, the blog was what made my book saleable; on the other hand, the blog's still out there, so there's some question as to why throw down the $25 when you can read it online for free? Not that I think the blog and the book are the same, but you see the conundrum. In addition, there's just the fact that my notes, my raw material, is sitting out there for anyone to read. It's not quite but almost like my first draft is out there. Do I want to always have my first draft floating out there? Maybe not. What I loved about the Project was the personal rapport I built up with my bleaders. I don't know if I could force that to happen again. We'll see. One of my next projects - which I don't think I can go into right now - is somewhat bloggable. Perhaps I'll try to think of a new way to do it... While I was doing the project, I got correspondence with a few people who were trying to start a blog modeled on mine, where they were going to set themselves whatever goal and do it. (The Lauren/Ina Project was a particularly unfortunately named one....) I think that's great - if a bit limited as a literary genre. But that's not the point, any more than the point of my blog was to write a book. The point is that a blog can provide structure for you on the way to achieving something you want to achieve. As far as promoting the blog, I didn't really do anything. Sent the link to my friends, is all. I honestly don't know how it caught on like it did. The blogverse was a smaller place back then. Blogs are viral things. Embarrassingly, as far as the book contract goes, I didn't do a goddamned thing. An article was written about me in the New York Times Dining Section, and boom! Book contract! It's awful. I didn't even write a book proposal - I am thusly sweating over the one I'm writing now. Luckily, I had an agent, through another total fluke involving the writer Elizabeth Gilbert and an email from Afghanistan, and she sorted through all the offers I started getting at the end of the project. I just sat there, mouth agape.
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Fri 2 Dec 05 16:23
Icertainly haven't cooked my way through MtAoFC in the last year, but for the last 2 or 3 years I've been putting in a lot of time learning cooking skills. One of the things I have enjoyed most about your book -- and learned something from -- is the "plunge right in" approach. I was really inspired (and, of course, somewhat horrified) by the passage in which you end up trying to hack a marrow bone in half with a chef's knife and then a hacksaw and ended up (as I recall) scooping out the marrow with a spoon. I would probably spend six months psyching myself up for it, and another six months trying to figure out exactly what kind of heavy cleaver to buy. Reading your book has reminded me that sometimes it's ok to go "what the heck!"
Elaine Sweeney (sweeney) Fri 2 Dec 05 17:21
I can't even imagine trying to cook my way through the Betty Crocker cookbook. I'll have to pick up Julia Child sometime and see what you mean about literature, though reading cookbooks or more general books on cooking doesn't fire me up to cook, just to be hungry. Did you finding yourself thinking how out of another world MtAoFC was? Not just the no-longer loved things, like aspic, but the processes that were practically a full-time job of themselves, as a given to the preparations. I don't know if you've read _Kitchen Wars_ but the amount of time that had to be given over to these sorts of meals was mind-boggling to me. And whenever you get to an answer ... it's strictly my idle curiosity here.
Casey Ellis (caseyell) Sat 3 Dec 05 13:29
Opening a bottle of cyber-champagne here for our deightful interviewee. Corby Kummer, the *very* opinionated--and often crotchety--food writer/Atlantic editor/devoted home-cook leads off his Cookbooks review in tomorrow's NYT BOOKS section with a directive to buy "Julie/Julia." This is *major*!
Jill Davidson (jilld) Sat 3 Dec 05 18:25
wow! kudos, Julie!
buddhas (buddhas) Sat 3 Dec 05 18:27
aha! a new topic to whet my intellectual and viscereal appetite.
and ... (buddhas) Sat 3 Dec 05 18:32
when i saw the topic about cooking great meals ala food experiments for a family of 3 plus pets in a small cramped apt...I thought back when in many old cities there are families that have cooked for generations that way but we never hear from them....
Jill Davidson (jilld) Sun 4 Dec 05 16:49
that NYT book roundup made me realize how much your book must be doing for the sales of Childs' books. I hope her estate, whomever administers it, has thanked you, Julie! I have the worst stomach bug today, will not go into futher details, am only now starting to contemplate food in any way other than literary
Julie Powell (juliepowell) Mon 5 Dec 05 10:18
Ick, sorry about the bug, Jill... There's no question that during the project I was cooking in a way that not many people do anymore. It's funny, too - it seems that in a way, the more privileged our society becomes, the more that the slow-cooked, intensely effortful meal becomes a signal of, well, privilege. Where once boeuf bourguignon was a peasant meal, was all about making humble ingredients taste wonderful through time and effort, now it's the wealthy who have the time and/or resources to enjoy these meals, whereas the poor eat on the go fast food. I realize that I'm talking out my ass here. The point, I guess, for me, was that I was taking far more time with my food than most do today, and there was a sense of getting into another way of being. The pace of the cooking came to inform the entire shape of my day in a way it just doesn't anymore for people. It was a very grounding feeling, actually.
Eric Gower (gower) Mon 5 Dec 05 10:29
>>The point, I guess, for me, was that I was taking far more time with my food than most do today, and there was a sense of getting into another way of being. Me too. It's one of the things in life I'm most grateful for. An incredible and increasingly rare luxury. Also amazing: the "lower" cuts of meat -- cheeks, short ribs, etc. -- are some of the priciest entrees in high-end restaurants nowadays. We now pay more to be nostalgic about how good food used to taste.
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