Monday, August 11, 2008

Book: Julie & Julia: My Year Of Cooking Dangerously

I have a huge stack of books on my bedside table but we just got this one and I couldn't resist. I read her blog a few years ago and enjoyed it very much. I actually enjoyed her blog more than I enjoyed her book, but the book was relatively entertaining. Fluff, to be sure, but fun fluff.

If you have been living under a culinary rock for the past five years, here's the scoop. Julie Powell, about to turn 30 and suffering in a dead-end job as a secretary, decides she needs A Project. So she decides to cook every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. Her husband suggests a blog to document it (back when not many people had blogs). Turns out that trying to learn how to cook Frenchie food when you live in a tiny Long Island City apartment, routinely work until at least 8 pm, and have to shop and transport by subway -- is no easy task.


Julie Powell is a pretty funny girl. Her blog is full of rather pitiful/kinda hilarious mishaps and lots of expletives. The book seems watered down by comparison, although it does provide more backstory about what was going on while she was in The Project. The book follows a relatively linear path, with a few flashbacks to Julia Child's life. I found these flashbacks sort of confusing. It was almost as if this book could not figure out if it were a raucous slipshod account of someone who just doesn't give a flying flip about most things (but desperately wants to), or a sort of tribute to the towering greatness that is/was Julia Child, or a touching Finding Yourself journey. Maybe that is actually part of the problem -- Julie Powell is, basically, someone who lucked into this great gig, just being herself, writing about an experience. She didn't know all this was going to happen (a book, a movie, a whole new life). And now, since it happened all of a sudden, she's trying to figure out what exactly happened, and what's expected of her, and so she just does her best and then sends it off to the printer.

Props to you, Julie, but I liked your blog better. It's raw and frantic and haphazard and far more gritty and real than the book, which is fun and flip and occasionally thoughtful, but ultimately feels like a retelling -- the immediacy of the experience is missing, as well as the extreme highs and lows that happened in the blog-world adventure.

However, definitely a fun book, a quick read, and made me realize again that living in New York is probably not all that it's cracked up to be.

As one could expect given my track record, now I want to read all this Julia Child stuff. I promptly requested both "My Life In France" by Julia Child and also "Appetite For Life," a bio of Julia, from the library. I want to watch DVDs of The French Chef and chuckle over Julia wielding enormous cleavers and massive amounts of butter.

I also would very much like an old used copy of MtAoFC. You never know when you'll need a recipe for incredibly buttery mashed potatoes or a chocolate-ladyfinger trifle thingie.

I have, through a lot of trial and error, managed to become a fairly competent cook. Nothing special, of course, and certainly I screw things up fairly regularly when I step outside the box a few steps too far (spinach-broccoli soymilk blended soup, anyone?), but I consider it an accomplishment from where I started. I always knew how to cook the basics: I could make a 'white sauce', steam veggies, make pancakes from memory, make caramel corn, make up a recipe for french toast, etc. But I had no idea what to make. Growing up, food was definitely function over form. Food was fuel. It was often tasty, since most of our vegetables came from our garden, and almost all our meat was fresh caught/shot/butchered. I definitely knew what it took to get food on the table: a lot of work. Gardening, hunting, fishing, baking bread, going to the dairy for milk... but aside from baking cookies and later on, experimenting with candy recipes, cooking wasn't exactly fun.

Fast forward to when I moved here to California. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people who really, really had a thing for food. I felt intimidated at lunch at my publishing job, as people brought in their exotic leftovers and talked about making risotto (I'd never had risotto) or trying that new Thai place for lunch (I could count the number of times I'd had Thai food on one hand). Suddenly it became obvious that I needed to learn to cook. I started by trying recipes in the Sunset magazines. I didn't like to cook red meat so I made a lot of chicken things. Somewhere along the line I became (mostly) vegetarian. I learned to bake fairly well. Friends taught me how to make soup, how to make up a recipe for soup. I envied my friend Lara's cookbook collection and started my own. I started reading those cookbooks, experimenting. I went out for lunches featuring cuisines I knew nothing about. I discovered I liked vegetarian Japanese food. I loved Indian food, Afghani food. Thai food became my birthday lunch of choice. I wanted to make these things for dinner, I wanted to have really delicious food at home.

It was so very, very fun. Suddenly I could try anything! I started building my spice collection and experimenting with new flavors. I tried to copy dishes I liked in restaurants, and when it didn't turn out well, I tried to figure out why. This makes me sound like I was somewhat talented at this. I definitely was not. I was just persistent. It was something that I just wanted to know how to do -- being able to create something that was actually yummy, something delicious -- rather than just functional.

10 years later, I am still having fun. The thing about cooking is that it's immediately rewarding (or not!). And there are always more recipes to try. I rarely make a recipe more than once or twice, unless it's very simple and very yummy. It's sort of a bad habit. But really? There are so many different recipes out there. How can you not want to try them all? Well, not all. Just the ones with no meat, limited dairy, sugar, and wheat. :)

One thing I agree with Julie Powell (and Julia Child) about is that food does not have to be fancy to be really good. I used to get most of my online recipes from Epicurious and puzzle over how to toast hazelnuts and whether it made a difference if I got Napa or Savoy cabbage; now I tend to browse Allrecipes for the best homespun pancake recipe or the highest-rated vegetable soup. I want to use better ingredients with simpler recipes. (Generally speaking, that is. The fun thing about cooking is that you can change your mind every day -- we might have pancakes for dinner one night and an elaborate curry the next.)

Here's the thing: adventures are fun, whether they're in your kitchen or out in the wide world. You have to eat every day, so why not make it an adventure whenever you can?

I'll end this post with my latest adventure/discovery of a very simple, very delicious dinner. Here it is: Fresh boiled corn, cut off the cob and mixed with a little Earth Balance, salt and pepper. A baked potato. A head of garlic, well-oiled and stuck in the oven the same time as the potato. Perfectly steamed broccoli. Cut the potato in half. Dress with a bit of Earth Balance and a bit of sour cream (which I just happened to have). Smoosh in some roasted garlic. Mix well (preferably in the potato skin, just for fun). Top with corn and broccoli.

This is very, very good. Very, very easy. And makes me very, very happy.

1 comment:

Alex said...

I've been noticing a trend of "the blog was better" reviews. Heard similar things after I read "Straight Up and Dirty" by Stephanie Klein. Makes me wonder how publishers deal with this side effect.