Julia on Julie

Thursday, January 16, 2014

I know I’m four years late to the party on this, but I’m writing a post anyway. Because … well, I don’t know why. Just because.

I am here to put to rest, once and for all, the burning question of Why Did Julia Child Not Like Julie Powell’s Project?

There is a scene in the movie Julie & Julia where Julie receives a call from a reporter who tells her that Julia Child was not impressed by her project, and wondering if she has any comment about that. Julie is distraught by this. This scene is taken from the Julie & Julia book, which I read last month. I am up to July on the blog and have not yet come across any mention of this event in the blog itself.

There is a very long thread about it on Chowhound.

This is what Julie Powell herself said about it in a 2009 blog post:

A lot of people have been asking whether it’s true that Julia Child wasn’t a big fan of Julie Powell, and whether she and I really didn’t meet. Both of those things are true – Julia, I think, from what I gather, was less irritated than simply uninterested. Which, when I first found out, was of course devastating. But the thing about Julia, to me, was that she was a real person – a great 6-foot-2 force of nature, with tremendous gifts, nearly limitless energy and generosity, firm opinions, and even a few flaws. That’s what I love about her – she inspired because she was a woman, not a saint. Not to say that her not loving my blog was a flaw. I just mean that the fact that she might not for whatever reason adore me as much as I adore her has absolutely no bearing on what is wonderful about her. Throughout her life, Julia nurtured and encouraged and gave great help to chefs and writers both. And she changed my life. No matter what she – or anyone else, for that matter – thought of the project. I know why I did what I did, and I am proud that I spent a year writing and cooking in tribute to one the most wonderful women I’ve ever not met.

There is a post by Russ Parsons, food writer with the Los Angeles Times, who was friendly with Julia Child and saw her regularly after she retired to Santa Barbara, describing how he brought the blog to Julia’s attention, printing out everything Julie Powell had written to that point (he doesn’t say at what point in the project he did this, though his article about the project was written in March 2003) and delivering it to her. And then when he didn’t hear back from her, following up to see what she thought.

This would appear to be the source of the scene in the book and movie, though at the same time, Russ Parsons said that Julia asked not to tell anyone her thoughts on this, and he didn’t. So not sure how to reconcile that.

At any rate, in the 2009 blog post, Parsons does say that he was “right there in the middle” of this event, and says that Julia Child replied thus, when asked what she thought of Julie Powell’s project:

There was a silence as she gathered her thoughts. Then in that familiar reedy voice she nailed the answer: “Well,” she said, “she just doesn’t seem very serious, does she?”

“I worked very hard on that book. I tested and retested those recipes for eight years so that everybody could cook them. And many, many people have. I don’t understand how she could have problems with them. She just must not be much of a cook.”

She asked me not to quote her, and after thinking it over, I didn’t, choosing a valued friendship over a couple of juicy paragraphs in a story. I’m still not sure it was the right call, but there you have it.

So that solves part of the mystery of Julia’s dis: professional pride.

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knew her well. One of the marvelous things about Julia Child was that even with all of the honors she had earned, she still approached her work with the earnestness (and competitiveness) of a beginner.

However after reading the books As Always, Julia and Julia Child: A Life, I think that’s an odd interpretation of Julia’s statement.

For one thing, it feels surprising to me that Julia would say that she can’t see how someone could have problems with the recipes because they had been tested so thoroughly. Julia did not sail through life effortlessly putting elaborate meals on the table. She struggled to learn to cook and worked and worked at it, experiencing many a failure along the way. In Julia Child: A Life, Laura Shapiro gives us this quote, taken from an episode of The French Chef:

“Cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn,” she told the audience while she stirred the caramel. “You’ve got to have what the French call ‘je m’enfoutisme,’ or ‘I don’t care what happens — the sky can fall and omelets can go all over the stove, I’m going to learn.'”

Perhaps she had forgotten all of this by the time she was 91, or perhaps there was some interpretation on Russ Parsons part, writing a blog post six years after a conversation that he says he didn’t tell anyone about at the time. I don’t know. But it struck me as odd.

Also I think calling Julia’s comment a “dis” of Julie Powell doesn’t seem quite right either, and I don’t see how her “professional pride” could possibly have been touched at all by what Julie Powell was doing. As Julie notes, it wasn’t so much that Julia didn’t like the project, but that she wasn’t interested in it.

But more important is the question of what Julia’s most direct statement means — “She just doesn’t seem to be serious, does she?” — which it seems to me Russ Parsons misses the boat on entirely.

Laura Shapiro, in Julia Child: A Life, talks about Julia’s beliefs about French cooking specifically, and cooking in general.

“People are always saying WHAT MAKES FRENCH COOKING SO DIFFERENT FROM OTHER NATIONS’ COOKING?” she reflected in a letter to Simca [Simone Beck], and she set down four principles that struck her as definitive.

–Serious interest in food and its preparation
–Tradition of good cooking … which forms French tastes from youth
–Enjoyment of cooking for its own sake — LOVE
–Willingness to take the few extra minutes to be sure things are done as they should be done

Her highest praise was the word serious — the very first word that came to her fingertips when she started to type these principles. A “serious” cook, to Julia, was a careful, mindful, thoroughly knowledgeable cook, whose pleasure you could taste in the food….

And at the opposite end of the spectrum from the serious cook was the dark angel who hovered over the last principle in the list, the cook who refused to put in those extra minutes it took to reach perfection. This cook — male or female, French or American, famous name or anonymous homebody — was fatally associated with the term housewife. Julia never did recover from her early, bruising experiences with that word, and she consistently refused to be associated with such creatures. As she put it many times over the years, whenever the subject of housewives came up, “We are aiming at PEOPLE WHO LIKE TO COOK.” Yes, supermarket ingredients could be transformed into authentic French dishes, but not without two ingredients for which there were no substitutes, and Julia named them often: time and love.

If you actually read Julie Powell’s blog — which is very different from the movie, and much better than the book — she ultimately did learn a lot about cooking while doing the project. But I can see how someone reading through a print-out of the blog that a reporter dropped off might not see that.

Much of the blog centers around dealing with life in New York, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, working at a job you don’t like, and drinking vodka gimlets. And sometimes successfully getting a meal on the table, and sometimes doing things half-assed because you don’t have the right ingredients or don’t have the time to do it the way you’re supposed to. But you have a deadline, so you just have to keep moving, and you make the recipe anyway.

When Julia Child says that Julie Powell doesn’t seem “serious,” she means it in exactly the way that Laura Shapiro describes. Because Julie Powell is cooking all of the recipes in the book in a single year, while working a full-time job. She often does not have the time or energy needed to focus properly on the recipe at hand and make sure it comes out right. To Julia, this means that Julie is not a serious cook. And it would be hard to argue with her on that.

However, in Julie Powell’s defense, I will say that buried within the stories about bad housekeeping and difficult bosses and crappy apartments and vodka gimlets, are also stories about how much she has learned as a cook.

Shapiro writes:

Julia was teaching people to use their senses when they cooked, because she thought the senses belonged in every well-run kitchen, like good knives. There was no better instrument in the service of accuracy than an attentive cook who was watching and smelling and tasting. Monitoring the progress of a syrup for candied orange peel, she made a point of listening for the “boiling sound” coming from the mixture. You can use a thermometer here, she told viewers, “but I think it’s a good thing to see and feel how it is.”

And that is exactly what Julie Powell did:

The kind of thing I really am learning from J.C. is about really paying attention to the food as it cooks. Instead of depending just on time or heat, she instructs me, for instance, to watch for “a little pearling of red juice beginning to ooze at the surface of the steak”….

You know what? She’s right. Those things really happen, and when I pay attention and my attentions result in a perfect medium-rare steak, I feel like I’m really beginning to cook.

And I think if Julia could have seen that in the print-out of the blog she was given, she would have liked it. And Julie Powell knew that, which is why she was ultimately able to take the report of Julia’s lack of interest in her project in stride, as much as it might have pained her when she first learned about it. Because she knew she was learning from Julia, and she was  becoming a serious cook. And that is all that mattered.

18 Responses to “Julia on Julie”


  1. Doesn’t matter how late you came to the party. I discovered the book first and then went back to read the blog; you’re right, the blog is better and though the movie was fun to watch, it couldn’t compare to either.

    I like reading ABOUT Julia Child and I was thrilled to find an old two-volume set of her masterpiece. And just because I wanted to, JULIE AND JULIA is shelved right alongside :)

    (But don’t read Powell’s next book, CHOPPED. HUGE disappointment.)

  2. lessisenough Says:

    It’s funny, I actually started with Cleaving (and I know I had some very logical reason for working backwards but at the moment don’t remember what it was) and could not believe how bad that book was. It has to be one of the worst books I’ve ever read. I wrote up something to post about it but either didn’t finish it or decided it wasn’t worth posting. Or just sent it as an email to a friend who I was discussing the book with. Don’t remember the details.

    But anyway, just such a terrible book on every level. And even worse now that I’ve read the other book and the blog, because the end of Julie and Julia is quite uplifting, you feel like she succeeded at this hard thing, and learned things and grew as a person. And the blog itself which is sort of the “real” Julie Powell, writing at first with no one reading, just her doing this project, and I know some people are offended by the language and thought she whined all the time but I think it’s just a person dealing with life, that’s who she is. You feel like you know her reading the blog, and maybe you like her as a person and maybe you don’t, but she’s clearly a good writer. And then to put out this awful book describing a really awful period in her life. Just so painful.

    I brought home a French Chef DVD from the library when I returned the Laura Shapiro book and looking forward to watching that. Also planning on watching Julie and Julia again when I’m through with everything. I saw it in the theater when it came out, but would like to see it again now that I’ve actually read the blog.

    But if you like reading about Julia Child you should definitely read the Joan Reardon book (As Always, Julia). It made me wonder if I would be allowed in to the Schlesinger library so I could read all of Julia and Avis’s letters. The end of the book skips forward a lot and I felt like I was missing things.

  3. anne stairs Says:

    You make some good points and I feel a little more enlightened. I’ve read ten other opinions about this and yours rings truest.

    I think the issue surrounding professional pride wasn’t particularly personal just the amazement that someone doing so little (compared to Julia) in such a haphazard fashion could achieve so much notoriety. I feel the older generations are always surprised by how much more easily recognition is sometimes gained by others for relatively less effort, and it is perceived as a drop in standards. Given her work ethic, Julia was probably put off by being associated with something so frivolous.

    I think too, when I realized that Julie Powell was really different from the movie character, and that she was emoting as much as she was cooking, I came to understand how Julia Child would distance herself from the blog.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    Sorry for the delay on approving this comment, I forgot that I hadn’t checked the comments in a few days!

    It’s funny how much there is on the internet about this topic. The reason I wrote the post in the first place is because after all of the other reading I did, I didn’t think any of them quite hit the mark. (And also because I spent 3+ months reading about Julie Powell and Julia Child, it seemed like a waste to not actually write something about it.)

    Agreed that Julia Child probably didn’t see what the big deal was, or why people were paying so much attention to it.

    And I have to say that I really, really enjoyed reading the full Julie/Julia project blog (found the full thing, after much searching, on the internet archive) but not the books. The first book was okay, sort of summarized the blog (though reading the blog was much better, the immediacy of it and it being a record of someone’s day-to-day during a pretty demanding project), but second book was terrible on just so many levels. I saw the movie when it came out and meant to get back to it and watch it again, after all of the other reading I did, to see what I think of it now, but I haven’t done that yet.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment and I’m glad you found the post useful.


  5. Thank you, just, thank you so much for this lovely post which I feel should be added to the end of the movie…which I just finished watching on tv, appropriately enough after Thanksgiving dinner.

    This is one of my mom’s favorite movies, so much that my dad printed out the whole blog for her to read. She’s read at least one of JC’s books as well. She’s played the soundtrack so much both my son and nephew know it by heart lol.

    I am lucky enough I found Julia’s cookbook on the library thrift table….possibly a 1st edition. I’m keeping that away from my mom ;)

    Thanks again, happy holidays.

  6. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks for this nice comment. I actually liked the blog Julie and Julia much more than the book. I’ve been meaning to watch the movie again now that I know so much more of the backstory but haven’t managed to get to it.

    Anyone who is interested in Julia Child and the making of Mastering the Art of French Cooking should read the book of letters betwen Avis DeVoto and Julia Child (As Always, Julia), especially if you like reading letters or are interested in American history. (I think if you do not like reading letters and/or are not particularly interested in American history, it might be too much). Julia Child’s autobiographical work My Life in France is also great. Julie Powell movie fans should avoid her second book, Cleaving, which is way more information than anyone needs about Julie Powell’s personal life.

    And if you’ve never seen them, you should watch some of The French Chef episodes, especially the early ones. Watching Julia is just so great.

  7. Mariana Says:

    Muito bom seu blog, parabéns!
    Apesar do seu esclarecimento eu não compreendi a Julia Child, quando assisti ao filme criei expectativas que as duas se conheceriam e se tornariam amigas.
    Abraços!

  8. Larf Says:

    Watching Julia Child now, as I write this! The early potato episode with the ” flipping”! Wondrous. One thing that amazes me here is that she is working on an electric stove – Mon Dieu!

    Watched “Julie and Julia” again the other night. I of course love it but have decided that Meryl Streep overplayed her to the point of turning her into a caricature. Had I been the director I would have had Streep dial it back. Julia was of course so very much herself and such a unique character that she was the endless butt of bad imitations, not least Dan Ackroyd’s now legendary SNL skit which of course has beome a classic.
    But I do feel that Streep overdid her in a way that borders on ridicule.
    It takes some doing to get past it.
    I know Julia’s nephew, Sam. He is a lovely fellow. Julia Child was a completely authentic person and a lady – devoted to her love affair with french cooking. She was a born teacher with a sincere dedication to her subject and through her determined efforts to learn how to cook made a lofty subject accessible to anyone sincerely interested in food. She has left a significant legacy of which this movie is a tip of the hat.
    I highly recommend making a trip down to Washington D.C. to The Julia Child Exhibit at The Smithsonian. I loved it!!

    Look forward to further explorations of the blog.

    Bon Appetit!!

  9. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks for this great comment!

    Getting to the Smithsonian to see the JC kitchen is on my list of things to do. And I’m in DC a lot — which is probably why I haven’t made it to see it yet. I feel like I could do it any time … so I don’t do it at all. Maybe this year.

    I haven’t watched Julie and Julia since I saw it in the theater. I think some reviews I read noted that Streep’s portrayal was a bit over the top. I think it was more noticeable to people who had actually seen the real Julia Child than to people like me, who only knew her because of her “legend” status (like the SNL skit). I think this is why I enjoyed reading the book of her letters so much, and going back and watching the shows, to get to see her as she was when she started. She was so great! And then I could understand why she had become so famous. Because she loved what she did so much, and believed it in, and yes, completely authentic. She was who she was.

    I’m sure I will see the movie through completely different eyes when I watch it again.


  10. […] parecia séria, enfim. Fui pesquisar sobre isso (fiquei extremamente curiosa, hahah) e encontrei esse texto, mas são apenas suposições, não dá pra garantir que tudo seja […]

  11. murf Says:

    I saw an interview with Meryl Streep and she said she was playing Julia as Julie’s Powell’s idea of who she was, not really who she was. I can kind of see that in her performance.

  12. lessisenough Says:

    Hmm, that is interesting. I could see that.

    I still haven’t re-watched the movie yet. It’s on the list.

    Thanks for the update.

  13. Heather Stuebe Says:

    I loved this post. I have been a long time fan of Julia. I already owned her TV series on DVD and did a halfway decent impression of her, when JULIE & JULIA came out. I devoured the novel promptly and was incredulous that Julia and Julie never met, and saddened that Julia never gave Julie the proud pat on the back she so obviously sought. How could Julia have missed out on an opportunity to encourage a new generation of servantless cooks?

    This question haunted me. It was incongruous that the champion of “American cooks learning to pull themselves up by their bootstraps” would just shoot down “never ate an egg before” Julie. Had Julia become senile and cranky? No. Was she only partly informed? No. Was her agent managing her response? Maybe. Nothing adequately explained her disappointing reaction, though. Your treatment on the subject is the most thorough I’ve found online.

    Whatever the reason, I imagine Julia is kicking herself up in heaven for not being more supportive of the vehicle that brought her genius back to the forefront of American culture. She got portrayed by Meryl Streep, for Christ’s sake!

    After watching the movie again and again, the irony struck me that Julia had come full circle at the end of her days. In 1940’s Paris, she had her own brush with discouragement when she began studying at the Cordon Bleu.Then, at the end of her life, she unwittingly channeled her inner Madame Brassart and (pardon the expression) shit down Julie’s throat. I guess what goes around comes around. I would have much prefered Julia be a hero than a villian.

  14. lessisenough Says:

    @Heather Stuebe,

    Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad the post helped answered some questions. Clearly you are not the only person bothered by this question as this post is by far the most-visited post I have on this blog. I think I could chart tv showings of Julie and Julia based on blog traffic.

    Julia Child died in the summer of 2004. The Julie/Julia project started in 2002 and ended in 2003. The movie came out in 2009.

    Julia’s health was not great in the last years of life, and I’m chalking up some of her lack of support for Julie’s project to the fact that she wasn’t completely herself. I think if she had been even a little bit younger or in better health, she might have been able to follow the project more directly, or to delve into it more deeply, and see how it did reflect her legacy, and how it brought her to the attention of a new generation of cooks, instead of seeing the more superficial elements of it (i.e., the “gimmick” of making all of the recipes in a year). Which I think is what she saw when she looked at the materials she was given.

    It’s hard for me to fault a 91-year-old in poor health for not fully appreciating a blogging project by someone who swore like a sailor, and who ended up with maggots in her kitchen after letting the dirty dishes sit for too long.

    I mean yes, it would have been nice if she could have seen the good parts about it and embraced it and provided encouragement. But that didn’t happen, and I think that Julie Powell took it in stride. And she did accomplish the goal of bringing Julia Child to the attention of a new generation of cooks and that is something we can all be thankful for.

  15. Really? Says:

    Julie Powell shouldn’t of called Julia Child a bitch…
    “the bitch lied”‘ comment in the movie. I mean seriously, if she wanted respect from Julia Child she should of been more respectful to her in the first place.

  16. lessisenough Says:

    I don’t actually remember the details from the movie, and I did everything with Julie Powell backwards — I saw the movie, then I read the second book, then the first book, then the blog ( though I did read the blog in proper chronological order) — so I may be biased from reading the blog, but in that, Julie Powell was very respectful towards Julia Child, she really loved her and makes clear that she did the project out of wanting to learn to cook and also to help bring Julia Child back to her rightful place in the pantheon of American cooks. Julie Powell pointed out that the Food Network and all of its celebrity chefs would not be here had Julia Child not paved the way.

    Julia Child died in August 2004, which was well before the movie came out, and was even before the book was published, so any comments in the movie about Julia Child are irrelevant to how Julia Child felt about Julie Powell or the project.

  17. T Ross Says:

    Well said. I’m watching the movie right now, and it just struck me as out of character that someone like Julia Child would feel that way toward someone with such devotion (I have never read the blog or the book, just going based on the movie). Thank you for doing the research and putting it in perspective. :)

  18. Nelly Says:

    Loved loved loved reading this post. Thank you for writing this!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s