The Ugly Truth About Cooking Served Up in a Rambling Memoir

When Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (now the basis for a sitcom on Fox) was published in 2000, it yanked aside

When Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (now the basis for a sitcom on Fox) was published in 2000, it yanked aside the culinary curtain and displayed the restaurant kitchen in all its ugliness. Julie and Julia, a revealing memoir about how Julie Powell challenged herself to cook in a single year every one of the 524 dishes in Julia Child’s 1961 classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, proves that home cooking isn’t pretty, either.

Like Mr. Bourdain, Ms. Powell lets it all hang out; but in place of Mr. Bourdain’s annoying braggadocio, she displays a self-deprecating vulnerability that makes her memoir not only entertaining but often poignant. Julie and Julia, which began life as a blog, might have deteriorated into a series of kitchen bloopers—or worse, into the boringly meta business of writing about blogging. But Ms. Powell happily avoids all that.

Co-starring as Ms. Powell’s official taster is her husband, Eric, a target of both affection and frustration. Ms. Powell’s marriage to her high-school sweetheart (“straight out of one of the ickier films from the John Hughes oeuvre”) seems happy on balance, but there ought to be a word for urban women like her who marry in their early 20’s. These anti–Carrie Bradshaws often find themselves at loose ends. At the start of the book, Ms. Powell is 29, living in a deadly-sounding part of Long Island City, and she has just abandoned her halfhearted attempts at acting and accepted a full-time office job after years of temping. She’s not ready (yet) to have the baby that an astonishing number of people propose as a time-filler. So while her unmarried peers are looking for Mr. Big, Ms. Powell is looking for a Big Project.

Her newfound employment is key, and not just because it drives her into the beefy arms of Julia Child: Ms. Powell is a secretary for the government agency responsible for Ground Zero. She is blessedly unafraid to tackle this sensitive subject, often with macabre humor, as when she describes as part of her duties answering phone calls from the likes of “the housebound lady in Staten Island who is sure her idea for the memorial is being stolen by some big architect somewhere because the picture she saw in the paper looks just like the collection of crystal paperweights she keeps in her knickknack hutch.” Like one of her skittish cats, Ms. Powell wisely approaches the subject sideways, never bluntly.

In a chapter titled “Hacking the Marrow Out of Life,” she describes the surreal nature of coming home from work on the first anniversary of 9/11 (a designation that to her ears “sounds like a deodorant or something”), after being forced—along with all the other female Democratic employees in the office—to man the conference room where the relatives of the lost stood to view the site. From that psychologically bloody scene, Powell heads home to extract the marrow from a hard-to-find bone, a process that involves a jigsaw, a paring knife and an insane amount of work—and yields less than two tablespoons of “gluey clots of stuff, that plopped down onto the cutting board with a sickening sound.” Meat, as the old PETA slogan and a Smiths album informed us, is murder.

Eggs are murder, too, at least when Ms. Powell cooks them. She describes her attempt at oeufs à la Bourguignonne thusly: “The kitchen was a crime scene. Eggshells littered the floor, crackling underfoot. What looked like three days’ worth of unwashed dishes were piled up in the sink, and half-unpacked boxes had been shoved to the corners of the room. Unseen down the dark throat of the trashcan, yet as conspicuous as tarpaulin-covered murder victims, were the mutilated remains of eggs. If the purplish-stained shreds of yolk clinging stickily to the walls had been blood spatters, a forensics specialist would have had a field day.”

The book can be as chaotic as her kitchen. There’s no overarching structure; Ms. Powell doesn’t cover one recipe per chapter or anything that simple. But the chaos leaves her room to roam, and she has a circuitous—and disarming—way of coming back to the original point.

She does wander a little too far when she conjures up snippets of Julia Child’s life: Julia’s false pregnancy alarm, Julia’s first time meeting her husband. These italicized sections, as sweet as the eight tarts Ms. Powell bakes in a single heroic night, are the weakest part of the book (and mercifully short).

Despite those slips into hagiography, Ms. Powell is no sycophant. She loses her patience with Child’s smug instructions and takes offense when she hears that Child (who died last year at 91) thought her project silly at best.

Perhaps Child missed the point because Julia lacked the confessional gene that Julie has in spades. It’s hard to picture the patrician Child leaning in close to cop to twice selling her own oeufs (Ms. Powell needed the $7,500 to pay off credit card debt, she says); or sneaking off as a young girl to page through two forbidden books: Mastering the Art of French Cooking and The Joy of Sex. One “smelled smoky and astringent and secret,” while the other “is still capable of striking deep if obscure zones of discomfort.” (Answer key: Joy is the smoky one; Mastering the discomfiting one.)

The pairing of these two iconic books brilliantly evokes what makes Julie Powell’s memoir such a stand-out: Like Julia, Julie recognizes that cooking is about responding to animal appetites—and it isn’t for wusses. Or, as she wrote in her blog early on, eating heartily and well “blows heirloom tomatoes and first-press Umbrian olive oil out of the fucking water.” Julie and Julia satisfies immensely, and calls to be consumed in large, gluttonous mouthfuls.

Natalie Danford, editor of the Best New American Voices series, reviews books for People magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications.

The Ugly Truth About Cooking Served Up in a Rambling Memoir