First up, I should make it clear that I’m not a fan of French food – either cooking it or eating it. I find it excessively meaty, saucy, heavy and especially fussy. Give me a nice spicy curry or some Ethiopian stewed collard greens any day of the week.
That’s not to say I haven’t cooked and eaten French food, as my year of cooking school was based almost entirely around classic French cuisine, it being the supposed basis and benchmark for all other cuisines (which is complete and utter bullshit, but French chefs, and especially French cooking instructors insist it’s true). So when I first heard about the Julie/Julia Project in which one NYC woman sets herself a goal of working her way through Julia Child’s first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (in a year, no less), my first thought was “Why the hell would anyone do THAT???” Then my second thought was that the only other person I had heard of who worked their way right through that book was Martha Stewart, which to me typifies the type of personality you’d need not to go completely nuts in the process.
Turns out Julia Powell doesn’t have that Martha Stewart perfectionist personality, though, and it works against her significantly during the course of her project.
See, because the other thing you really need to master French cooking is a razor sharp sense of organization and excessive amounts of common sense. Based on Powell’s book, she appears to have neither, to the point where the surprise twist at the end is that she hasn’t set her apartment on fire, poisoned her husband and guests, or chopped off part of her hand.
The first clue comes when she cooks a marrowbone, sending her husband and friends all over Manhattan in search of the thing. Who knew a hunk of beef bone was so elusive? Or that the magical device the rest of us know as a telephone is still unknown to New Yorkers who don’t, apparently, have the leisure of calling their local shops and butchers to enquire about products. Powell finally gets her marrowbone and sets about trying to chop it in half with a chef’s knife because she does not own the necessary cleaver. When unsuccessful, she resorts to scraping the marrow out manually. The whole time I’m reading this passage, my thought over and over again was – why didn’t she just have the butcher cut it lengthwise for her? Powell clues in to this option near the end of the book when faced with cooking marrow again, when her butcher offers to split the bone for her.
Proper tools, such as the non-existent cleaver seem to plague Powell, and part of the last chapter of the book mentions her delight at finally acquiring a boning knife which makes her life considerably easier. To which one can only ask, in a pained and querulous refrain – why the hell didn’t you have a boning knife to start with???? Cooking well is made up of equal parts skill, ingredients and timing, but having the proper tools and being prepared should never be overlooked. That’s why mise en place is pounded into the heads of every cooking student the world over.
Not only does Powell not have the correct tools for the job, she often doesn’t even read the recipes ahead of time. She writes about a particular cake batter that screwed up on her twice before she realizes she is meant to beat the eggs in a separate bowl. Granted, there is a small typo or omission in the recipe, where the words “the bowl” are used in place of either “a bowl” or “the second bowl”, but Child gives a utensil list in all of her recipes – the requirement of two bowls and the instruction to mix items in the first bowl and then set it aside should have been a clue.
While the story of her adventures is funny and well-written, as is her blog where she documented the whole project as it happened, in the book Powell strays off into almost fictional accounts of Julia Child and her husband Paul’s courtship, a speculative interpretation of Paul Child’s letters, that feels oddly disjointed and has little to do with Powell’s own story, other than the slightly weird sense of closeness she begins to feel with Child as she works her way through the book. At various points she claims to feel Child “in her head”, and that Child is a part of her, just as Powell is, having cooked everything in the book, now a part of Child. Yet she also has, when recipes are not working out, no qualms about blatantly cursing out Child, even referring to her as a bitch. She is hurt and chagrined when a reporter passes along information that Julia Child is unimpressed with the Julie/Julia Project, but never really rationalizes why she thinks Child should care – the chef was ninety or ninety-one at that point – exactly what kind of reaction would anyone expect? Was Powell expecting Child to jump for joy and invite her over for dinner?
Overall, I like Powell’s writing style; she’s quick and witty and from the sounds of things, a complete potty mouth, which is something I can well relate to. I don’t question her reasoning for starting the project, and I’m delighted that it worked out for her, garnering a book deal and an opportunity to leave her much-hated office job. I guess I mostly don’t like her cooking style, or the way that she approached the project overall. Powell seems to have been a moderately skilled home cook, who took on Mastering the Art of French Cooking not as a way to genuinely master the craft (she cooked each recipe once and if it didn’t turn out, still considered it completed), but to have set a goal and accomplish it. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but I can’t help feeling as if Powell’s often haphazard style (one section of the book recounts an enormous maggot colony thriving on her dish rack because the dirty dishes had been left to pile up for days on end) made a bit of a joke out of the whole thing. French cooking and cuisine is serious business, or so all my old instructors would insist, yelling ferociously and waving a spoon around, and it seems as if Powell didn’t take the project with the seriousness a more experienced chef would have expected.
Perhaps Powell should be applauded for her bravery in facing a challenge that many with far more skill and experience would never attempt, or perhaps the whole project would have been a completely different one had she taken the time to prepare herself better beforehand. Or it could be that I’m just cranky because more people don’t own a decent boning knife or know how to use it before they embark on a project where they cook nothing but classic French food for an entire year.