Saturday, January 19, 2013
When is a cooking book not a cookbook?
Sometimes, you just pick up a book because it's there, and you aren't sure you're going to like it, and then you end up loving it.
That's what happened to me with Julie Powell's Julie & Julia (Little, Brown and Company, 2005; 359 pages in mass market paperback). I was at the library one day and couldn't find anything I wanted to read. Nothing. My last stop was at the "free" paperbacks rack, where they put the donated paperbacks that aren't even really part of the library's collection. You don't check them out; you just take them home and then bring them back whenever you've finished reading, or you bring back another in its place.
Well, I'd seen the film version of the book, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, and liked it all right. So, I figured I'd give the book a try.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the book or the movie, this is the (mostly?) true story of Julie Powell, a secretary for a government agency in the wake of 9/11, not really loving her job and looking for something fulfilling to do. So, she decides to cook her way through volume one of Julia Child's' "Mastering the Art of French Cooking". That's something over 500 recipes, some of them very intricate and involved, in a year. Not only did she decide to do this, she decided to blog about it.
The blog eventually brought her a bit of national media attention, as well as a book contract to write Julie & Julia.
I was leery of the book at first. I'm not much of a cook, but more the heat and assemble type. I'm getting better. In fact, after I finish writing this post, I'm going to put on some potatoes and eggs to boil for potato salad. It's a simple potato salad, but it's good. Just the potatoes and eggs, plus salt and pepper, mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, and a little water. Oh, and some wedged black olives if there are any in the cabinet. It's the potato salad my grandma taught me to make when I was very young. Every once in awhile I get a craving for it.
Oops. Sorry for the tangent. The book...I was afraid that there was going to be too much cooking detail that I wouldn't understand. Well, there's cooking detail there, but not too much, and I actually understood most of it. But there is also Julie's life for that year, and the life of her husband and her friends. And there's the blog, which kind of became a character all its own, in a good way.
What the book isn't, is just like the movie. There is much more Julia Child in the movie than there is in the book. There are vignettes between most of the chapters from Julia's life and the life of her husband, Paul, taken from his letters, but they are brief. I would have liked there to be a little more Julia in the book, because the parts about Julia's life in the movie were what I liked most about it.
On the other hand, we learn a lot more about Julie in the book than in the movie. As it turns out, I like Julie much more in the book than I did in the movie. She's plain-spoken and opinionated, and when she screwed up the cooking, she lets you know. She's profane at times - and writes about how some of the readers of her blog were uncomfortable about her use, especially, of the word "fuck". But that's Julie, and it wouldn't be the same book if she reined herself in.
I suspect that Republicans, or at least those without a sense of humor, might not like the fact that Julie isn't enamoured much with the Republican Party, and is plain about that fact in the book. This comes out mostly in her writing about her job, which was for an agency dominated by Republicans during a Republican administration. But, again, that's Julie, and the book wouldn't be the same if the reader didn't get to know that part of her.
This is a good book. If you like cooking, and if you like good writing, you should probably read it. If you don't like cooking, read it anyway. It might make you want to try to do some more cooking. That's the effect it had on me. When I was finished reading, my first instinct was to go grab a cookbook, any cookbook, and see what I might make.