Hey Julie Powell Haters, Methinks You Protest Too Much

As the press coverage of Julie & Julia picks up — the new Nora Ephron movie about a Queens secretary blogging her way through every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a way to maintain her creative sanity — I’m struck by the backlash (and coverage of such) for poor Julie.

That’s Julie Powell, whose 2002 blog about sloppily cooking her way through Julia Child’s 1961 work in a year was one of the first to intrigue the masses and scored her a book and then a big-screen deal. There were always a few negative voices back in the early years (on the interweb? Never!) but when the book came out, Powell was reamed publicly for being self-absorbed: her work too fluffy, to full of sex and cursewords, too coarse to be translated to the printed page. Powell, in other words, wasn’t capable of the food-writing gravitas needed to be worthy enough to pair herself off with good old Julia.

Not welcome to the canon of great food writers was Powell, for sure. And a lot of this criticism comes from fellow un-booked and un-flicked writers, who perhaps could be, um, like, jealous?

But Powell also takes flak from food writers who maybe spent years on the line in small, exclusive French restaurants that raised their own chickens in the 1970s and decades on the food desk of a daily paper, who might be a tad offended that an upstart could take over their role with nothing but a WordPress account.

Virginia Willis, a cookbook author with her own blog, wrote exactly that: “People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts. The incredible proliferation and self-indulgent blabber of many food blogs has given people the freedom to hallucinate, ‘I can type and I eat, therefore I am a food journalist’!”

And the great Laura Shapiro totally reams Ms. Powell, or at least the onscreen version of herself, in a recent piece on Gourmet.com. (Note to Julie: Don’t read it.)

“The idea of Powell as a contemporary heir to this personal and culinary epic is absurd. Nothing in her relation to the kitchen offers the slightest hint that she has learned anything at all from her heroine. In the film, Adams tackles each recipe as if it’s her opponent on a battlefield and the only point of cooking is victory. If the dish comes out well, she glows; if it fails, she throws a tantrum. Watching tapes of The French Chef (splendidly recreated with Streep as the 1960s Julia), her sole reaction to the sight of a genuine master at work is to coo, “She’s so adorable.” This is a journey of self-discovery? At the end, she visits the Julia Child kitchen exhibit at the Smithsonian, and her husband takes a picture of her mugging at a portrait of Julia (i.e. Streep). It’s completely unbearable.”

All this is pretty damn similar to the crap flung upon Amanda Hesser, the former Times Dining section writer and Times Magazine food editor who got trashed for doing first-person columns on Mr. Latte. He was the fellow journo she ended up marrying who didn’t know you weren’t supposed to order a latte in the afternoon. (And countless other super-important rules known only to the true gourmet.) Hesser got much the same critique from my fellow food writers, as I recall: Fluff, worthless, self-absorbed, not worthy of the Best. Food. Section. in The Country. (But people liked to read it, I guess, cause you know what? She got a book deal.)

There might be something here about how if women write in the first-person about their own daily thoughts and lives in the food world, they get bashed, unlike Tony Bourdain or the Amateur Gourmet or Michael Ruhlman, who do much the same and get kudos. But I’m more interested in the thought that these people were causing offense because of self-absorption and lack of gravitas about FOOD.

Because in case you hadn’t noticed, food entertainment with plenty of fluff-factor is kind of hot right now, meaning Top Cheffery and Iron Cheffing and Gwyneth with her blog and her future book and Bourdain with his travel show and every blog and vlog and Twitter feed. Just take a peek at any headline on Eater.com or The-feedbag.com, two NYC industry food sites that play more toward snark than serious food knowledge most of the time.

And for the mainstream, it’s been pretty much a given that as the Food Network has gotten ever more successful, their shows have less and less to do with the underpinnings of mastering cooking and more about personalities, people, competitions. More of us are getting into cooking shows and all the rest of it, perhaps, not because they really care about making or even eating good food but because knowledge of such is considered de rigueur these days, and any solidly self-absorbed American should know what mis en place means and that Tom Colicchio is surprised on a weekly basis that so many talented potential Top Chefs never seem to remember to taste their food for salt and pepper before they present it to the judges. (It’s so pedestrian a mistake! That even we wouldn’t make! Because we watch food Teevee!)

One of the commenters on Shapiro’s Gourmet.com post wrote that Powell “paved the way for Carol Blymire’s infinitely more enjoyable cook-with-me-through the French Laundry Cookbook (www.frencchlaundryathome.com), which is arguably the epitome of this genre.”

If working your way through a cookbook while simultaneously blogging about it is considered a freaking genre, then I think my point is proven. We are all just as self-absorbed wanna-be foodies with little or no gravitas like Julie Powell. We just weren’t smart enough to blog about it ten years ago.

Rachel Wharton is a deputy editor with Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn magazines with a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, where she focused her research on sustainab ...read more

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