Were it not for the edgy, muffin-bellied smoker from a louche New York suburb - the warts-and-all author Julie Powell - no one would care much about that caroling gourmand Julia Child.
Child died in 2004 - just two days shy of her 91st birthday. Long past her heyday on The French Chef , she continued to do television, interviews and public appearances until 2000 or so, but by then, the grande dame of butchery and butter was scarcely known outside of the realm of nostalgia. Even Dan Aykroyd's revoltingly accurate Saturday Night Live impersonation of Child (which Julia adored) is relatively ancient now, having first aired in 1978.
So why is Powell, the author of Julie & Julia, a memoir-cum-tribute to Child, being raked over the coals these days? Why is there a wave of media dislike, and worse, the volte-face of a great deal of what is queasily called "the blogging community."
Those following Powell already know that in 2002, she decided to cook, in one year, each grisly, calorie-infested recipe in Child's 1961 Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a 734-page, exacting and exhaustive catalogue of the foods the author had fallen in love with while stationed with her diplomat husband in Paris.
Even as une ancienne , Child would shriek from the joy of watching, for the first time, ducks being jammed into a contraption that pressed their bodies into "luscious juice." The scourge of vegetarians for decades, Child had an ardour - equal parts appetite, scientific curiosity and weird voodoo - for hacking apart animals to locate their essence in the very marrow of their bones.
Powell learned the same grotesque procedures, gamely boiling live lobsters, sucking marrow from dino-sized bones and cutting up chickens in a manner that suggests the exquisite lustmord of Hannibal Lecter. She wrote about her daily adventures - some, lovely meals; others, bloody disasters - in a simple blog, The Julie/Julia Project and developed a charming fan following, strangers who urged her on, and often sent exotic treats and intimate effusions.
In spite of almost daily catastrophes, dramatized in the memoir as yelling, sobbing tantrums that invariably resulted in a number of stiff drinks and a long, woeful glance at her and her husband's small, filthy apartment, the Project was completed in 2003 and the book, originally entitled Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen was published by Little, Brown and Company.
And still, Powell was well-liked. Except, most notably, by Julia Child, who felt Powell was not a "serious cook," and that her Project was a "stunt." She is flimsy, the chef is said to have sniffed. (This news reached Powell, who is not so tough that she didn't cry.)
I confess that when I read Powell's memoir, I also felt antipathy toward her. I found repulsive her practice of feeding live mice to her snake; the ripe squalor of her apartment; her boastfulness, hysterical temperament and unspeakably crass regard for her work with a 9/11 tribute-in-progress.
Yet, I admire that she presents such an unwashed version of herself: The sensation of standing in the tiny, filthy kitchen while a desperate lobster is being clumsily sawed apart is palpable. And Powell laughs through her own "nausea," she cheerfully states, and laughs, ultimately through ours.
That she is tackling the excessively esteemed "art" of French cooking, paradoxically, makes her gaucheness all the more intriguing. While Child pushed for many years to have gastronomy recognized as an academic discipline (and left all of her money to Harvard's Schlesinger Library), Powell has a far more earthy approach to cooking, which is, after all, simply a way of fulfilling, however prettily, a biological need - should the manufacturers of sex toys or toilet tissue be given chairs at Ivy League universities?
There is something inherently sad and ridiculous about foodies and their overweening pomposity: I have seen this sort of person put on airs and furies more appropriate to a wretched translation of Dante than the preparation of a pork chop.
Then again, to people who think of cookbooks as books, food is a serious matter. As one of Powell's defenders notes, she was not discovering herself as a chef but as a writer, through her blog and book. And she has written another memoir and cooking tale, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession , postponed until next year and already hotly criticized for the inclusion of a story about marital infidelity (hers) and her critique of organic food snobs, which set the "blogging community" aflame, according to Gawker.
I like organic food; I love animals, I'm a vegetarian and I hate cheaters. Still, Powell is what she is: a curious autobiographical figure in the manner (not artistically, I'm afraid) of Robert Lowell, whose confessional writing was so persuasively self-loathing.
And, to be blunt, her book dragged Julia Child out of the grave and dusted off her kitchen, a relic that is located in the Smithsonian. Laura Shapiro's Julia Child: A Life , appeared last year, and is prominently displayed in most bookstores alongside reissues of Mastering the Art of French Cooking . There is the major motion picture, of course, starring a comically adroit Meryl Streep and a too-cute Amy Adams.
Ultimately, as someone who can never find the time or energy to complete such major projects as replacing a button, making an igloo out of sugar (an old New Year's resolution) or cleaning out a cupboard an archaeologist might find an object of considerable interest, I remain impressed by Powell's tenacity; and moved by her desire to recapture the feeling she once had, as a child, holding the big, blue and gold book.
Here is Powell, grown-up and opening its pages: "With one finger marking Mom's recipe, I flipped through the book, trying to pronounce all the French words under my breath. An old smell came off the pages, musty but not like library books. More like a dog or a forest floor, something damp and warm and living."
The madeleine, here, is a pair of pig's trotters; and Proust would be a maddened and maddening young woman, but still - Powell captures so well, throughout her work, what it is to long for and attempt to recreate such fragrant, hot and soothing "things past."