''Julie & Julia'' author channels Julia Child -- Julie Powell revisits the recipe master's work in her new memoir

When you’re about to have lunch with a woman who has cooked every dish in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, from the Veal Kidneys Flamed in Brandy to the Calf’s Brains in Brown Butter Sauce, you’re entitled to certain Rabelaisian preconceptions. Julie Powell does not disappoint. The pretty, profane 32-year-old author of Julie & Julia (Little, Brown, $23.95), one of the fall’s most eagerly awaited memoirs, takes a cursory glance at the menu at New York City’s Casa Mono and decides on the sweetbreads. No dainty luncheon salad for Powell, who has written that liver is ”the sexiest food that there is,” but that ”you must submit to it — just like you must submit to a really stratospheric f—.”

Three years ago, Powell, who grew up in Texas and graduated from Amherst College, was an aspiring New York actress with a dead-end secretarial job. Depressed, aimless, and panicked about turning 30 with nothing to show for it, one night she decided to cook her way through Julia Child’s classic 1961 tome as a way to give her life some direction, however wacky. Her husband, Eric, suggested she write a blog — ”You know, like a Web site sort of thing.” And so, after a couple of vodka gimlets, Powell sat down at her laptop and posted a manifesto: ”365 days. 524 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen. How far it will go, no one can say….”

Now, of course, it is possible to say: The Julie/Julia Project, as Powell named it, became a must-read bulletin for several thousand devoted fans, an addictive, unmediated, R-rated account of a hilarious and ferociously articulate young woman’s daily life. Powell wrote candidly and vividly about her antic adventures with Child’s recipes for quiche lorraine (”pretty god-damned good”) and Oeufs en Gelée (”The resulting scene of carnage was not, let us say, that which Gourmet magazine covers are made of”). But perhaps more importantly, she wrote about food in a rich and raucous context, about putting pot-au-feu on the table through plumbing crises and existential desperation; about both Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom and the difficulties of finding marrow bones. ”Food is inanimate and it’s not all that interesting in and of itself,” says Powell. ”But it’s something you do every day. You don’t have sex every day unless you’re terribly lucky, but you eat every day, and you come to the kitchen in all stages of your life, and how do you eat at all those different points? That’s interesting.”

By the time Powell finished her ”deranged” project on Aug. 26, 2003, she had found her calling (writing), landed an ”obscene” six-figure deal to turn her yearlong endeavor into a book, and was able to quit her job. (Columbia has since bought the film rights to her story and is developing a screenplay.) ”Her voice is irreverent and acerbic,” says Judy Clain, who acquired the memoir for Little, Brown in a bidding war. ”She didn’t do some trendy cookbook. She took this classic, not very hip book, and that’s part of what’s intriguing about it.”

Julie & Julia
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