Powell first rose to prominence as a food writer after she made the decision to chronicle her year cooking all 524 recipes from her mother’s copy of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1.” It wasn’t going to be an easy road. Powell was an untrained home cook and, as she put it in the book she wrote about her project, her kitchen was located on top of “the rotting floorboards of [her] ‘fixer-upper’ ‘loft.'”
That didn’t deter Powell, however, from diving into the preparation of dishes like Filets de Poisson de Bercy aux Champignons, Poulet Rôti, Champignons à la Grecque, Carottes à la Concierge and even a Crème Brûlée. She wrote about it all in her blog — a dishy, wickedly funny and, sometimes, a little vulgar series of posts she eventually called The Julie/Julia Project — which originally debuted on Salon in 2002.
“I’d written about all of it, my mistakes and my minor triumphs,” Powell wrote in her book. “People — a couple of friends, a couple of strangers, even my aunt Sukie from Waxahachie — had written in to the blog to root me on.”
Over the next year, Powell’s audience grew exponentially. At the time, Salon reported that the blog had accumulated over 400,000 page views.
“I remember it being well-regarded, but not the juggernaut it became after the book,” said Salon senior writer Mary Elizabeth Williams, who previously managed Open Salon, the platform that hosted Powell’s blog. “This was also pre-Slack, pre-Zoom, so as a team, a lot of people didn’t even know about it. And I think the people who read Salon weren’t seeking a woman writing about her home cooking.”
“She truly made her own lane,” Williams added. “We were lucky enough to be the conduit.”
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Following the success of the blog, she sold the book to Little, Brown & Company, and went on to sell more than a million copies. In 2009, Nora Ephron turned Powell’s story into a movie starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child, Stanley Tucci as Paul Streep and Amy Adams as Powell.
Julia Child, who died in 2004, never saw the film, but she was aware of Powell’s project. As Russ Parsons revealed for the Los Angeles Times in 2009, he had sent Child some excerpts from the blog while she was still living. When Parsons inquired what Child thought, she apparently hesitated for a moment before responding, “Well, she just doesn’t seem very serious, does she?”
Child continued: “I worked very hard on that book. I tested and retested those recipes for eight years so that everybody could cook them. And many, many people have. I don’t understand how she could have problems with them. She just must not be much of a cook.”
But it was exactly Powell’s wit and authenticity that drew in many readers to whom classic tomes like “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” did seem inaccessible. Powell’s blog, in turn, became a template for much contemporary food writing.
Powell went on to release a second book in 2009, “Cleaving: a Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession.” It detailed her faltering marriage which had been impacted by infidelity (a tough pill to swallow for many fans who had become acquainted with Powell via Ephron’s sunshiny depiction of the marriage) and how she found solace apprenticing in an old-school butcher shop called Fleisher’s.
While that was Powell’s last book, she did continue to write. Most recently, she returned to Salon to write a series of commentary pieces about the Food Network series “The Julia Child Challenge.'”
“As a long-time fan of Julie’s writing, I was personally thrilled when she agreed to return to Salon and recap ‘The Julia Child Challenge’ for us earlier this year,” said Erin Keane, Salon’s editor in chief. “Her bond with Julia Child, as a fan and a cook, was unique and yet still relatable. Who knew better than Julie the joys and pressures of cooking those legendary recipes in the public eye? Who else would hear Julia’s voice in her head, as she put it, quite in the same way? Just as Julia changed cooking in the home from her own kitchen, Julie changed how we write about it from hers.”
Julie Powell’s work