Julie Powell: What I Learned From Cooking Julia Child’s Recipes For a Year

Julie Powell: What I Learned From Cooking Julia Child’s Recipes For a Year

Editor’s note: On October 26 writer Julie Powell died at her home in Olivebridge, in upstate New York. She was 49. Powell was famous for the Julie/Julia Project, for which she spent a year cooking from Julia Child’s cookbook, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking.’ In Bon Appétit’s December 2003 issue, Powell wrote “Julia Knows Best,” an essay about her experience. Read it below.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Not the food, you understand, just the book itself. It resided in my mother’s rack of cookbooks, an eccentric aunt to the spiral-bound Junior League collections that surrounded it, its cover spangled with an old-world pattern of rose-colored fleurs-de-lys, its pages dotted with French words and occasional line drawings depicting culinary acts beyond comprehension.

Later, when I graduated from college and headed out to New York, I brought it with me. But I didn’t cook out of it. Instead, I just caressed its cover and skimmed over its pages, savoring the unlikely recipes —Oeufs à la Bourguignonne, Poulet en Cocotte Bonne Femme—when I needed the inspiration to attempt a complete Thanksgiving dinner in a basement studio apartment. The book was a talisman, not a tool.

That is, until the psychotic break that came to be known as The Julie/Julia Project occurred. One day when it all got to be too much—the job, the commute, the whole turning-30 thing—I abruptly chose to immerse myself in the pages of Julia Child’s 1961 classic. The plan was this: Cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. All of them. And do it in one year.

Only it wasn’t so much a plan, per se. More like a revelation. Or a panic attack. No matter. In the 60s, Julia had taught an America up to its ears in ambrosia salad how to cook—and eat—well. Now she could teach me.

And so she did. After one year and 524 recipes, here’s what I’ve learned.

Begin at the Beginning

If you are going to master the art of French cooking with Julia Child, you are going to start with Potage Parmentier—potato and leek soup.

It is, in Julia’s words, “simplicity itself to make,” just sliced potatoes and leeks simmered in water for close to an hour, then mashed with a fork, seasoned with salt and pepper, and enriched with cream or butter. You may be tempted to skip it—you know all about potato and leek soup, after all.

Don’t. The whole structure of MtAoFC starts with the idea that in order to learn well, you start with basic techniques and build on them. Julia’s not suggesting you don’t know how to make potato and leek soup; she just wants you to begin at the beginning. Have you ever started learning a foreign language and gotten really cocky at the first class —Parlez-vous français? Duh!—only to find yourself drowning in conjugations three weeks later? This is the same. Pay attention, or by the time you get to bouillabaisse you’ll be in real trouble.

Try New Things

Okay, here’s a confession: I had never eaten an egg before I embarked on The Julie/Julia Project. Well, only ones that were baked in a cake, or at the very least scrambled with cheese and peppers and tortilla chips and anything else I could think of that would keep them from tasting like, smelling like, or in any way resembling eggs.

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