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Diary of a chef wannabe

March 26, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Julie Powell was in a rut. Teetering on the brink of 30, living in a tiny apartment in a distinctly unglamorous outer borough of Manhattan, working at a government secretarial job she invariably describes as "soul-sucking," she figured what her life needed was a good jump-start.

So last August, Powell began cooking her way through Julia Child's monumental "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." All 536 recipes, from Sauce Bechamel to Veal Prince Orloff. All in one year.

And because she is also a frustrated writer with three half-finished novels in the drawer, she though she'd write about it. Thus was born "The Julie/Julia Project," an Internet diary, or blog, capturing one woman's quixotic quest to shake up her life by making aspic.

Hosted by the Salon Web site, "Julie/Julia" is now the fifth-rated blog in its collection of more than 100. And, Powell notes brightly, that's particularly impressive because all but one of the blogs ahead of her is pornographic.

"Julie/Julia" is kind of like a culinary version of "Bridget Jones's Diary," self-absorbed and foul-mouthed but in a sweet sort of way. Only in this case, all the snogging has been replaced by hollandaise. No, that comparison would probably make Powell cringe; "Bridget Jones's Diary" is so two years ago.

Instead, let's say "Julie/Julia" is an oddly compelling blend of twentysomething sitcom and reality show. At times it seems like a wacky episode of "Friends," like something Monica might do if she actually had a sense of humor -- say back around season two.

At other times, it's something straight out of "Survivor": See Julie begin cooking some outrageous dish at 8 p.m. after working all day and lugging home four bags of groceries on the subway. Boeuf Bourguignon after midnight anyone?

And, there is even a soupcon of "Fear Factor" thrown in: Powell had never eaten an egg before she tackled Oeufs a la Fondue de Fromage.

Blogs such as "Julie/Julia" -- the name comes from "Web logs" -- began appearing in 1997; they are "private" journals written for the public, recording everything from the authors' views on art or politics to the kind of minute detailing of neuroses that even the author's mother wouldn't want to know.

All it takes is an inexpensive piece of software and a willing host (Powell pays Salon $30 a year for her space).

Powell's is not the first food blog, but it is one of the few that bears repeated reading. Most are devoted to "here's what I cooked last night" or "here's where I ate out last night." What makes "Julie/Julia" different is not only the premise, but also Powell's sense of humor about it. As with all the best blogs, what you may lose in professional polish, you make up for in unedited zest.

"Government drone by day, renegade foodie by night," she describes herself in the first entry. "Too old for theater, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else."

The birth of the blog was, she says, "an act of desperation -- my tendency to paint myself into a corner in order to force myself to do something."

And so she began Aug. 26, with a menu of Biftek Saute au Beurre, Riz Naturel and Artichauts au Naturel avec Beurre au Citron (it probably won't be a surprise that this was only the second artichoke Powell had ever eaten).

"That first [blog] was like standing on top of the high dive," she says. "There was a definite flush of excitement. I posted it and it was out there and I couldn't take it back. That was the top of the roller coaster."

From there, it was on to the miracles of pate brisee, poulet saute, poached eggs and sauce supreme.

There have been disasters, of course (how funny would a blog be without them?). Like the time she invited her friends over for an all-aspic menu. What does one do with leftover chaud-froid? Or the night she made Homard Thermidor, or, more specifically, committed lobster-cide.

"I dreamed about it all night," she writes. "Our sleep machine, the one we have by our bed to drown out the freight trucks rumbling past our apartment, was speaking to me: 'Lobster killer, lobster killer, lobster killer....' I was fully awake by dawn."

And then there are Powell's numerous food phobias. At various points in the blog, she confesses to loathing beans, olives, anchovies, salad, spinach, eggs and even fresh peas ("little green sacs of wet flour"). That's to say nothing of the sweetbreads, veal kidneys and calves brains still to come.

At times, it has become all too much. "What is this thing I'm trying to do? How will I ever survive it? Is the "Julie/Julia Project" killing me?"

But there have been triumphs, too. The leeks in gratin, for instance: "I really cannot emphasize enough how good these leeks were," she writes. "The eggy gratin, the leek-y leeks, the saltiness of the ham, all came together divinely.... This is the "Julie/Julia Project." Boo-yah!"

She's about halfway through the book, having mastered the art of souffles, quiches, bavarians, hollandaise, aspics and a half-dozen other things.

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