How Julie Saved My Life (or at least my sanity)

Julie Powell, author ot Julia/Julia, has died of cardiac arrest. She was an enormous influence on my life and writing, and I’m just bereft.


      In the early 2000’s, I was struggling through a divorce, drinking too much, wallowing in my own sadness and the fact that I was probably now too old to ever have a happy life ever again. Every day felt like the same exhausting struggle. I tried to cheer myself up— I moved my desk into an alcove off the living room and painted the wall bright red; I bought a new couch without consulting a singe other person. I traveled to Scotland with someone I didn’t like very much. Frankly, I made a lot of bad choices in all kinds of ways that surprised me. I’d always been the flexible, adaptable, unbreakable one. 

        Divorce almost broke me. It seemed to me that a person could actually die of a broken heart. 

        One night, wandering through the wilderness of the Internet, I found the Julie/Julia blog. It was written by a young woman, unhappy in her office job, who decided to cook one recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking every night until she made her  her way through the entire book. She lived in a tiny apartment with a tinier kitchen, and something about the quixotic quest caught my attention. 

        In the Before Times, I’d liked cooking. I mean, no one loves workaday meals for a family on a budget, which was the main thrust of my life, but I’d won prizes for sourdough breads and my delicate jams. My ex was a showy cook, Sunday breakfast for dozens, barbecues in the backyard for all of our friends. Everyone marveled at his cooking. I devoted myself to perfecting corn chowder, tacos on soft corn tortillas, the local pork green chile. 

        Post-divorce, I was lucky to gobble down a scrambled egg or crackers with cheese. 

        It was one of those lonely evenings I found Julie. Her writing was bold and funny and earthy, connecting me to parts of myself I didn’t always claim. I recognized something in her need to make something, to have something in her life that mattered. 

       Starting at the beginning of her journey, I allowed myself to read a handful of blog posts each day. By Thanksgiving, I started to imagine that maybe I wouldn’t die of divorce, and a whispering voice insisted it might feel good to make a loaf of bread to take to the family dinner. I still hated sitting around that giant table where everyone else was married and I wasn’t, but the bread was good and I lived through the day. 

       As the season passed, I dug into the the story of Julia Child and her adoration of French cooking and wondered if it might be something I’d enjoy. At the library, I found M.F.K Fisher’s collected works and read a few of her essays sitting in a chair by a long window as a storm rolled in. I read about her eating a meal she cooked for herself on a single burner in a crummy room she’d rented at the end of a long ordeal, and how nourishing it was to eat the simple meal she’d cooked for herself. 

        For nearly two decades, I’d been cooking for other people. Solid, workaday meals for two growing boys and a man who worked a physical job and needed a lot of calories at the end of his day. I started to wonder what I might like to eat, what I might cook if it was for me.  

       My mother gave me Mastering the Art of French Cooking for Christmas. I didn’t think anyone had noticed my obsession with the Julie/Julia project, but clearly, I’d been talking about it. At night, I sat on my new couch and read the recipes, and read along with Julie to see how she’d managed the challenge of beef marrow soup or rack of lamb. I didn’t think I could manage those, but I thought I could probably bake a quiche. The fragrance of it filled my kitchen. I turned on some music and sang along. I set the table with good cloth napkins and linens, arranged a few greens on the plate with a healthy slice of quiche lorraine, and a crisp glass of wine. It was simple. It was mine.  

      I sat down and fed myself good food. 

      Turned out, I cooked and fed myself right out of that broken heart. I wrote more novels about women and their connection to food, and to each other. One of them was This Place of Wonder, which features a young woman who becomes obsessed with Julie/Julia and it leads to a career. Julie Powell read the book and gave me a quote, which shows remarkable things can happen if you keep showing up and maybe cook yourself something once in awhile.  

      Thanks, Julie, ever so much. 

6 thoughts on “How Julie Saved My Life (or at least my sanity)

  1. What a beautiful tribute. I love the Julie/Julia movie and I sad to hear of her passing. I have copy of This Place by Wonder in my TBR pile and I’ve moved it up to the top.

  2. Josephine Howe

    One of the things I love so much about your books is the mention of all the food. So good for you cooking your way away from grief. I loved the movie Julie and Julia and have the dvd and also the book. You are inspiring me to read it. So too bad about Julie. Every day is a gift and we never know which certainly is a scary thing. So meanwhile let us enjoy all the wonderful tastes and creativity of food and cooking.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s one many women should read and one that makes me understand the why behind your books. I’m so happy for you that you found Julie just when you needed her.

  4. This Place of Wonder is at the top of my TBR stack! Now I really do have to read it next.

  5. This is wonderful, Barbara. I loved reading her blog and also enjoyed the movie. Isn’t it amazing how someone we don’t know can have such an impact on us? I, too, was shocked and sad that she died–at such a young age.

    The Age of Wonder is on my beside table, up next to be read!

  6. Lynn Esterhuysen

    What a beautiful article, thank you so much for sharing. Such sad news about Julie. I absolutely adore all your books and have just bought This Place of Wonder, which I haven’t read, so I am super excited!! Sending love and hugs from Cape Town xxxxx

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