Julie Powell, food writer known for Julie & Julia, dies at 49

Julie Powell inspired other amateur food writers to begin cooking their way through cookbooks. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK – Julie Powell, the American writer whose decision to spend a year cooking every recipe in celebrity chef Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering The Art Of French Cooking led to the popular food blog, the Julie/Julia Project, a movie starring Meryl Streep and a new following for Child in the final years of her life, died on Wednesday last week at her home in Olivebridge, in upstate New York. She was 49.

Her husband, Mr Eric Powell, said the cause was cardiac arrest.

Julie Powell narrated her struggles in the kitchen in a funny, lacerating voice that struck a nerve with a rising generation of disaffected contemporaries.

The Julie/Julia Project became a popular model for other blogs, replicated by fans of cooks Ina Garten, Thomas Keller and Dorie Greenspan, and helped build the vast modern audience for home cooking on social media.

In 2002, Powell was an aspiring writer working at a low-level administrative job in lower Manhattan. She was about to turn 30 and had no real career prospects.

It was, she said in an interview with The New York Times, “one of those panicked, backed-into-a-corner kind of moments”.

To lend structure to her days, she set out to cook all 524 recipes from her mother’s well-worn copy of Child’s 1961 classic Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, Volume 1. But as an untrained cook who lived in a small Long Island City loft, she found the road to be long, sweaty and bumpy.

In a blog for Salon.com that she called the Julie/Julia Project, she wrote long updates, punctuated by vodka gimlets and filled with entertaining, profane tirades about the difficulties of finding ingredients, the minor disappointments of adult life and the bigger challenges of finding purpose as a member of Generation X.

Before the year was up, Salon reported that the blog had about 400,000 total page views, as well as several thousand regular readers who hung on the drama of whether she would actually finish in time.

Blogging made it possible for her to reach readers on a relatively new platform and in a new kind of direct language.

“We have a medium where we can type in the snarky comments we used to just say out loud to our friends,” she said in a 2009 interview.

Those comments were posted just as popular interest in food, cooking and chefs was rising.

Powell’s self-deprecating style became a bridge from the authority of food writers such as Child, James Beard and MFK Fisher to the accessibility of Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay and Nigella Lawson.

Just weeks before Powell’s self-imposed deadline was up, Ms Amanda Hesser, a founder of the website Food52 who was then a reporter for The New York Times, wrote about her project, and interest exploded.

The Julie/Julia Project upended food writing, Ms Hesser said in an e-mail.

“I’d never read anyone like her,” she wrote. “Her writing was so fresh, spirited – sometimes crude – and so gloriously unmoored to any tradition.”

Julie Powell’s death was caused by cardiac arrest, said her husband Eric Powell. PHOTO: AFP

Powell inspired other amateur food writers to begin cooking their way through cookbooks and made professional food writers realise “they’d been stuck in the mud of conformity”, Ms Hesser said.

“The Internet democratised food writing, and Julie was the new school’s first distinctive voice.”

Writer Deb Perelman, who started her food blog (now called Smitten Kitchen) in 2003, said: “She wrote about food in a really human voice that sounded like people I knew. She communicated that you could write about food even without going to culinary school, without much experience and in a real-life kitchen.”

Little, Brown & Co turned the blog into a book, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.

Although some critics wrote that it lacked literary heft, it went on to sell more than one million copies, mostly under the title given to the paperback, Julie & Julia: My Year Of Cooking Dangerously.

Sales spiked after the popular 2009 movie Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron’s last work as a writer and director, which starred Streep as Child; Stanley Tucci as her husband, Paul; and Amy Adams as Powell.

Julie Powell “was happy for the story to be Nora Ephron’s story”, said Mr Eric Powell, a deputy editor at Archaeology magazine. “It did kind of sand down the quirky and the spiky and a lot of the things everyone knew her for and loved her for. And she was okay with that.”

The film’s success also lifted Child’s book to the bestseller list for the first time.

Child never saw the film – she died in 2004 – but she was familiar with Julie Powell’s project.

Mr Russ Parsons, a former Los Angeles Times food editor who was among the first to report on the blog, sent Child, then in her 90s, some excerpts.

She took the project as an affront, not the self-deprecating romp that Powell intended, and told Mr Parsons that she and others had tested and retested the recipes so they would be accessible to cooks of all skill levels.

“I don’t understand how she could have problems with them,” he recalled her telling him. “She just must not be much of a cook.”

Julie Powell in a photo taken in New York, on May 16, 2004, as she contemplated her next project.  PHOTO: NYTIMES

Julie Foster was born on April 20, 1973, in Austin, Texas, to John and Kay Foster. Her father was a lawyer. Her mother stayed home to care for her and her brother, Jordon, and then went back to college for a master’s degree in design from the University of Texas.

Julie Powell graduated from Amherst College in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in theatre and fiction writing.

As a child, her brother said, Powell was both bookish and dramatic. “She loved to be on stage, and loved just being over the top and having everyone watch her,” he said.

And, he added, she was “the most experimental and sophisticated cook among us, and we were all people who cooked”.

She met the man who would become her husband when they were playing the romantic leads in a high-school production of the Arthur Miller play All My Sons. They married in 1998.

After years splitting time between Long Island City and a cosy house in the Catskill Mountains that she purchased in 2008, the couple moved upstate permanently in 2018. In addition to her husband and her brother, Powell is survived by her parents.

Powell, who was politically candid and a staunch advocate for animals, maintained her lively voice on social media, a natural extension for the quirky and direct voice she honed as an early blogger.

On Twitter, she posted pointed commentary, mixed in with mundane bits of daily life. As ever, she made her feelings public, whether she was depressed, frustrated or excited.

Mr Powell, her husband, once said to her: “You hate everyone and you love everyone. That is your gift.”

She turned it into her Twitter bio. NYTIMES

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