Cooking and books, books and cooking: my Julie/Julia story

Dark Winter Night  ItsGreg

Dark Winter Night by It'sGreg.

One Christmas season, I was at loose ends.  I was finally, officially divorced after a fairly long marriage.  My sons were working and traveling, or out with their friends. There was a man I’d been seeing, but he was traveling, too, and anyway, he was never going to be My Guy and I knew it. 

I was alone. A lot. And Christmas was bearing down on me with all the traditions I would not be indulging this year. No vats of cookies or Christmas morning bread. Not much shopping. So I wrote journals and surfed the Internet, and focused on mainly just getting through this boring, lonely Christmas. 

One night, I stumbled over the Julie/Julia Project.  It’s hard to remember now exactly where I entered the whole thing.  I opened it at random somewhere around the middle, led by some link from somewhere else. She had already finished it, but being a reader who wants the whole story, undisturbed, I waded my way back to the beginning and started to read from Day One.  I read until my eyes gave out that night, in my dead-quiet living room.  

And I came back the next night, and the next, and the next and the next, reading and reading and laughing at her misadventures, thinking, “If any editor on the planet has read this, surely she has a book deal by now.”  (And of course, by the end of the blog, she did land a book deal. A very good deal. Just as Julia did, with Mastering the Art of French Cooking.) 

I didn’t suddenly start cooking as I read. There was a pretty big wound in my kitchen, waiting to devour me. I hadn’t cooked much in a couple of years because cooking was family and my family was all in pieces. Also, my ex had fancied himself to be THE cook in  the family, so I was relegated to making great cookies and loaves of bread, and the workaday meals everyone could eat five days a week.  These days, there was almost never anyone home at dinner, so I ate Cheerios and Lean Cuisine and sometimes nothing else.

That hushed season, Julie Powell’s bad language and ineptness and moxie and honesty kicked my heart awake, and I told me mother I thought I might buy a copy of Mastering the Art of French cooking. To, you know, just mess around.  I don’t know that I really intended to do it.  But my mother (who has always seen me much too clearly for my comfort) beat me to it: she gave it to me for Christmas. 

It’s a luscious book. It’s impossible for a cook at any level to resist the kitchen once she starts to read, so I found myself cooking again. Not the breads and cookies and meals I made as mother/wife. Now I explored Julia Child–starting with vegetables, mostly, because no one in my family had ever really liked them, and I do; and eggs, and chicken breasts.  All through the dark days of winter, while things devolved more and showed me that I wasn’t dating the right person or living in the right place, or maybe even writing the right books, I cooked.  I cooked and wrote, wrote and cooked.

It turns out, I am not terribly interested in the French method. There are things I enjoy about it–who doesn’t like mushrooms sauteed in butter, or chicken breasts cooked in wine?–but I began to see that I was already an excellent cook with a clearly defined method of my own.  My ingredients are chiles and fresh tomatoes and avocados and spinach.  My style is more California than Paris; I’m not a huge meat eater (though I’ve failed at repeated attempts to become vegetarian, too); prefer olive oil to butter and fresh lemons to Hollandaise. 

During those long dark days of winter, cooking, I finally heard my own preferences and desires and voice. Cook spinach, it said. Write about tamales. Move to Colorado Springs.

Yesterday, I went to see Julie/Julia and absolutely adored it.  It’s a very rich story with brilliant acting and wonderful visuals and a great storyline about how wonderful cooking is, but it’s also the story of two women falling in love with their work, finding themselves in words and cooking, cooking and words. 

I had not expected that I would remember that lonely winter, but as I cheered Julia in her pursuit of her cooking and cookbook, and cheered Julie in her pursuit of the year of cooking, I found I was also cheering myself, that woman pursuing herself with bravado and then calm.  Because I, too, cooked with Julia and Julie, and cooked up myself and wrote a book which became THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS.  That circle, Julia to Julie to me, me to you, each of them to millions of others–seemed so lovely that I came home and cooked.  I made sauteed mushrooms in honor of Julia, and I cooked the chicken breasts in wine, but I also added grilled lemons to the mix, because I love them, and served them with steamed yellow squash which is fresh and particularly perfect right now.  

I think Julie and Julia would approve.


If you’re interested, the Julie/Julia Project is still online.  Here is a link to the first page, which has a lot of comments, but if you go to the next few days, you can see that nobody read her blog for ages.  It’s fun to watch the evolution, see the backstory:

16 thoughts on “Cooking and books, books and cooking: my Julie/Julia story

  1. Just mentioning ‘The Lost Recipe for Happiness’ makes me want to grab it off my keeper shelf, curl up all day and re-read.

    Though must go grocery shopping first…I feel a big cooking bout coming on 🙂

  2. I’m going to have to read the book and see the movie now. Thanks for the link to her blog.

  3. Debbie Mekler

    My daughters to me to Julie/Julia this morning and of course, we loved it. Now I’m going to have to pick up ‘The Lost Recipe for Happiness’ as well (and try to finish before my daughters whisk it away).
    Thank you for sharing.

  4. Sharyn

    Lovely blog, SrB.

  5. Beautiful post, Barbara. Brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.
    Haven’t seen the movie yet, but might make myself an artist’s date and go…

  6. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was THE book my mother gave to each of us when we left home. I rarely use it nowadays but everything I’ve ever cooked from it, even when it didn’t work, tasted great. Reine de Saba (here’s the recipe ) was my family’s favorite chocolate cake although I use hazelnut meal instead of almond. Must see the movie. Thanks for this Barbara. Brings back memories of my mum.

  7. Lovely post. I saw Julie/Julia on Friday and loved it. My husband didn’t love it as much, but at his request I’m looking up that last boned duck recipe.

  8. Kristen

    Thanks for the link and the reminder I must get the book. I plan to see the movie even if I must go alone (hubby isn’t too interested).

    I have one of Julia Childs cookbooks on my shelf. I should pull it down and look at it. I used to love to cook, then came marriage and a few picky eaters. 😉

  9. Melina

    We saw the movie last night, in a nearly empty theater with other senior citizens. I found myself unexpectedly weeping when the first clip of Julia/Streep flipping the ? (pancake?). And again when she got the good news from her sister. I suppose it was a nostalgia thing, remembering the newlywed/young mother I used to be when I first discovered Julia’s PBS series. DH and I both loved the movie, laughed and wept in many places. I came home after 9:00pm and threw together a blackberry tart I’d found the recipe for in MaryJane’s Farm magazine. It was amazing, and it renewed my belief that I can cook wonderous things from few ingredients, and nearly scratch, at that.
    Thanks for the link to the Julie/Julia project. I hope to read it over the next few days and weeks.

  10. Thanks for sharing in my pleasure and sorrow, my friends.

    Nicola, please say what you end up cooking.

    Edie, I might have to try the last recipe, too, for my beloved Christopher Robin. I will if you will. 🙂 (Also, if he’s a duck fan, do try the duck tamales in The Lost Recipe for Happiness. Really, really lovely.)

    Melina, I wept, too. And I love it that you went home and cooked a blackbery tart.


  11. How cool that you read the blog when it was still just a blog! I want to see the movie, but doubt I’ll read the book, as I’m just not that into cooking. Only being able to eat about a dozen foods tends to make eating and cooking pretty boring.
    Luckily, my DH fancies himself THE cook, also. Cooks for himself and live-at-home college son. I cook for me.

    Did you watch the latest “The Next Food Network Star”? Loved that the SAHM, Melissa D’Arabian, (married to a Frenchman) won. Her first show last Sunday showed how to make a Parisian lunch for under $10.

  12. Barbara, I ended up cooking Aloo Tikkis, scrumptious spicy potato balls from an Indian cookbook that was a gift from a dear friend for my ‘significant’ b’day last year.

    I love scouring ‘The Food of India’, it sends me scurrying to the shops for new ingredients every time I flip the pages!

  13. Nicola, my aunt just gave me a copy of her treasured vegetarian Indian cookbook–she said she cooked everything in it, start to finish (and mastered it–she’s a great cook). I’m waiting for cooler weather to plunge in.

    Denise, that’s hard, when you have to limit foods significantly

  14. Yvonne Erwin

    I just finished this book, also. I haven’t seen the movie yet but I plan to.

    Funny thing and I don’t mean to be irreverent here (oh yes, I do, let’s face it), but after I read the last word, after I closed the book up and set it down, I wanted a cigarette.

    While I would never, EVER, methodically trudge through Julia Child’s cookbook (on purpose? are you kidding?), I understand the erotica of food and cookery and so, I get that.

    I get it. Bravo, Julie Powell! Brav-o.

  15. Looking forward to hearing what you concoct, Barbara.

    Vegetarian Indian is yummy. I love masala dosais (crispy rice pancakes filled with a spicy potato mixture.) Yum!

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