Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bayless: Apologies, Rick, we're talking about Julie Powell today

Author: Rick Bayless
Book: Rick Bayless' s Mexican Kitchen
Dishes cooked: Chipotle shrimp, spicy corn, black rice
Score: 7.5

It was all generically tasty, like something you'd eat at a posh Mexican restaurant where they serve $10 margaritas and the guacamole comes in an actual molcajete. I don't like those molcajetes; how do you ever get them truly clean? None of the pictures were appetizing, so I'm just skipping all that today.

Something else is on my mind. 

I saw Julie & Julia a month ago and I appreciated it as the airy, toothsome confection that it was. I didn't give it much thought, but yesterday, I stumbled across this blog post harshing on Julie Powell and decided to offer my own two cents. Because I know how very much it matters.

Julie & Julia has pitted Amy Adams against Meryl Streep, but also Julie Powell against Julia Child. Neither is a fair fight, particularly the latter. Were we meant to compare Child's monumental, hard-won achievement with Powell blogging her way to a book deal? Did Nora Ephron deviously engineer it so people would? Or was it just how the movie shook out?

I was probably one of the few people who went to see Julie & Julia more interested in Julie than Julia. I revere Julia Child, etc., etc., what everyone else says. But I also think Julie Powell is a crazy good writer. Undisciplined and self-absorbed, but she cops to all of it and usually manages to make it amusing. She was miserable and lost and living in New York City, she wrote herself out of a hole, and watching her do it was like seeing a fantastic piece of performance art. I don't begrudge her a thing.

Amy Adams was an ethereal fairy in Enchanted, but she played this saucy, earthy, slightly manic young woman by getting a dowdy haircut and throwing tantrums. SUCH tedious tantrums. Ephron and Adams convey the selfishness and hysteria of Julie Powell, but none of the vitality and charm, none of the kooky intelligence, disarming candor and wild humor that made her blog great. The book was not great, but yes, I thought her blog from which it sprang was great. 
I sometimes cringe at the honesty in Powell's work, and she makes choices that strike me as reckless. I don't know how a marriage can survive the excruciating (ouf! trust me) essay about sex that she contributed to Behind the Bedroom Door. (That whole book brought out my inner Victorian, which, to be fair, isn't that hard.) I'm equal parts worried and fascinated to read Powell's forthcoming Cleaving, which I fear will be an expansion of the painful material in that essay. Still. Her writing crackles. She's not a towering icon of our culture like Julia Child, but neither is she a boring drip. 


  1. well put, and gives me good perspective on the movie.

    i too have a prude not far below my surface, but of course i think it was in some way that prude who just went immediately to the library website to reserve a copy of behind the bedroom door. She must not be getting enough chance to wield her prudishness with my usual reading material.

  2. I've been intrigued by the hatestorm that has been unleashed against Julie Powell. I was aware of her blog but never followed it, and went to see the movie because I like food and cooking. But man! People hate them some Julie Powell. The appraising part of me thinks it's because they're all jealous little blogging cats who wish they'd been discovered instead.

  3. I'm thinking that it's totally jealous little blogging cats. When I was in sixth grade I had an epiphany about jealousy (I was talking down a local band playing covers at a community festival) when I realized that my criticism was totally based on jealousy. Forget putting them down, just go do some stuff of your own. Julie got lucky, yes, and there are plenty of talented bloggers who haven't gotten lucky, perhaps even more talented bloggers than Julie, but that doesn't mean that Julie isn't talented.

  4. I'm with you: I don't begrudge her a thing, either. I read the book (but, sadly, never her blog) and got a big kick out of it. I just saw the movie and enjoyed it, too. I would have loved, though, if they had been able to fit in the David Straitharn scene that was in the book. Jealous little blogging cats, indeed.

  5. Well said. I think the movie didn't do much justice to the irreverence or excellent writing of either woman, and I had to conclude that I just wasn't the target audience, despite loving both of their work. Nora Ephron and I don't prioritize the same storytelling elements, and that's fine, but it almost makes me want to write another movie, one that includes more diplomatic intrigue, more detail, and the downtown dominatrix incident, but also I just want to make a film that understands the sensuality of words and physical cooking and how they became the thread that tied these women together. I found Julie's riffs on Julia's language some of the most interesting stuff in the blog/book.

    Makes you wonder how all of us would come out when put through the meat grinder of the chick flick machine.

    Also, on an unrelated note, I so much sympathize with your turkey jones. I want them too. Just be glad you can have chickens, my Brooklyn rooftop won't support that sort of thing.

  6. Nice post. I first saw Julie Powell when she was in the midst of her cook-through project, and was featured on a TV news show. I was impressed with her idea and her stick-to-it-iveness. When I discovered her blog a few years ago, after it was already complete, I read the whole thing, and then read her book. I liked her writing style and was intrigued by the glimpses into her personality. When I heard about the movie deal, I thought it would end up bringing her more trouble than benefit, but that's the choice she made. I do sense a lot of sour grapes underlying the negative commentary.

    I haven't seen the movie, and I doubt I will. I like Meryl Streep's work, and I admire Julia Child, but I don't really care to see Meryl portray Julia.

    I hadn't heard of the bedroom book before. I'm not a fan of that kind of literature; I'll declare myself a fellow Victorian.

  7. Re: Don's epiphany. My husband and I were at a show once, when he turned to me and said: "This band sucks. I could do better than that. That should be me up there...sucking."

    Long story short: we are a band now.

  8. I *wanted* to like Julie. And I do love her writing. You said it exactly right, her writing *does* crackle. But she's using her funny, brutally honest voice to depict a whiney, tantrum-throwing woman that isn't very likable. Viewing her on screen removes the good part: the writing. So I'm not too surprised that the character on the screen wasn't particularly likable.

  9. pishhhh...I read the book, then I found the blog and read it, then saw the movie, bought the DVD, and even have it on my PVR. My husband HAAATES it.
    There are three movies I will watch doesn't matter where in the story line I happen upon it on TV at 2AM when I can't sleep and turn the TV on.
    Fried Green Tomatoes
    Steel Magnolias
    I think Julie Powell is the creature that got all of us blogging, not to mention cooking from books and documenting the process. I just wonder WHERE THE HECK she is now and WHATS SHE UP TO. She seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. I google her once in awhile but have come up empty handed with anything current. For someone as talented as's a pity