Julia, Julie, Judith, and Me

Julie Powell's blog was about the lesson that Julia Child taught everyone: that loving food and the inalienable right to "eat well and enjoy life," are things that no one, ever, can claim ownership over.
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Julia Child wants you -- that's right, you, the one living in the tract house in sprawling suburbia with a dead-end secretarial job and nothing but a Stop-n-Shop for miles around -- to master the art of french cooking. (No caps, please.) She wants you to know how to make good pastry, and also how to make those canned green beans taste alright. She wants you to remember that you are human, and as such are entitled to that most basic of human rights, the right to eat well and enjoy life. And that, my friends, blows heirloom tomatoes and first-press Umbrian olive oil out of the fucking water. - Julie Powell, The Julie/Julia Project

A brilliant quote.

A few years back, someone called to my attention a blog written by a young woman named Julie Powell. Her writing was smart, sometimes a little bit snarky, very definitely edgy, and totally heartfelt. The Julie/Julia Project was an entry-by-entry accounting of her offsetting her workaday life by cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, which is comprised of 500+ often idiosyncratic recipes like poulet poele a l'estragon (page 249), veau sylvie (page 357), and jambon farci et braise (page 394).

It was August, 2002; we were all still in national mourning over 9/11. Come mid-month, I would be mourning my own sudden loss of my dad, who died of injuries resulting from a car accident. I was bereft, and seven years later, on many days, I still am, and the only way I climb out of my pain is to cook. So looking back, I suppose I really liked Julie Powell from the outset because on the one hand, her writing was fearless, tough, and totally engaging, and on the other hand, I could understand coming to a point in life where one's own day-to-day is a little bit rocky and one needs a steadying hand to keep one (or, I should say, me) from throwing up. Because, as I read somewhere recently, no matter how bad Julie's day was, there was always the fact of the food, the method, and the process, at day's end.

So several years later, when Judith Jones, Julia's famed editor, told me that she didn't approve of the blog or the book that followed because it denigrated Julia's name and all she had done, I was completely mystified. For one thing, this wasn't so much about Julia as it was about Julie; for another, having heard story after story over the years about how Julia really liked young people who were inspired by her and the process to step into the kitchen and change their lives, I'd guess that Julia -- if you asked her, as opposed to her people -- would have likely given a rousing thumbs up to Julie Powell.

I was sitting in Judith's office that day because, years before, I had taken it into my brain to put together a small book of quotes by Julia called The Wit & Wisdom of Julia Child; I proposed it to a major publisher, and they bought it for a petite sum that would pretty much pay for rights, and little else. Part of the proposal was that all of my royalties, assuming I earned any, would be donated in their entirety to Julia's scholarship fund at the American Institute of Wine and Food. Long story short: for five months, I worked on the book, gathering material and contacting friends of Julia who agreed to contribute to the book in some manner; one day, I sat down at my computer to find that I had been blind copied on an email exchange between Julia's attorney, Judith, and Julia's longtime assistant: "I don't like this one bit," was all it said, referring to my book. A week later, I had a cease and desist order in hand. Two weeks after that, my publisher canceled the book. And two weeks after that -- and even though I had spent five months working on it -- I was asked to return the first portion of my advance, which I did. As a longtime editor myself, I was aghast. As a writer who had no representation at that time, I knew that I had just been bullied into submission, and that, most likely, Julia had absolutely no inkling that this was happening. That afternoon, in Judith's office, she explained to me why, exactly, she had killed my project: because it would denigrate Julia's memory.

On the day that I met with Judith to chat about my book, I was a senior editor at a different Random House imprint, and I knew, certainly, what it was like to feel proprietorship over some of my authors. I also had, and still have, a longtime collegial reverence for Judith, and all the work that she had done over the years (certainly involving Julia, but also far beyond). But what befuddled me was the implication that Julia was simply a commodity -- a property to be owned and used by pre-approved people -- and that those of us who wished to write about her in any manner because we were inspired by her and because she changed our lives, were quietly forbidden: the very people who wanted to prevent Julia from becoming a commodity had inadvertently turned her into one.

So when I started reading Julie Powell's blog, and then read her book and heard about the movie (long before the public would learn that it was partly taken from My Life in France, Julia's posthumously published quasi-biography written by Paul Child's nephew Alex Prud'homme), I applauded. Judith said that it denigrated Julia's work; I said that, as much as I adored Julia and all she had done and meant, it wasn't so much about her, specifically, and that perhaps the naysayers, herself included, were missing the point. Because, at the end of the day, Julie Powell's blog, and her book, were about Julie and the fact that, no matter how crappy her day was, there was always the lesson that Julia taught everyone by her mere existence: that loving food and understanding the process and the inalienable right to "eat well and enjoy life," are things that no one, ever, can claim ownership over.

Brava to you, Julie Powell.

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