Without "Julie & Julia," there would be no "Addie & Nigella"
Remembering the food blogger whose imperfect earnestness inspired a movie — and a food writer movement— with a little less je ne sais quoi.
I saw the news earlier this week that Julie Powell, the blogger who cooked Julia Child recipes for a year and wrote a bestselling memoir about it, died at age 49.
The movie that made her story famous came out in 2009, the year after I started writing about food at the Austin American-Statesman. Part of my whole pitch to the editors at the time was that we needed to have a food blog. Maybe not exactly like “The Julie/Julia Project,” but a place to publish first-person stories that were often experimental or out-of-the-ordinary.
It’s easy to forget that slice-of-life food writing wasn’t nearly as common in the 2000s, when Powell, living in a post 9/11 New York and miserable at her job, sought solace in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” a book Julia Child published 40 years earlier.
The only people writing about food at the time were people who were paid to do so by a publication or TV station. Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Saveur had the market cornered, as did every newspaper and regional magazine, where food editors ran tight ships that didn’t leave much room for the emotion Powell so freely displayed in her near-daily posts that year.
There were a few online food chat groups or listservs at the time, but no social media where people could share easily share photos, recipes or cooking tips.
If you wanted to learn how to cook, you had to do what folks did: Cook using a recipe from a physical book.
But then, she did a very 21st Century Thing: She decided to tell the world about it.
Instead of simply telling her co-workers at the call center the next day about her third attempt at coq au vin, she started posting online, without any idea how people would even find her blog, much less if they’d read it.
This was still the Blackberry era. We didn’t have mobile data that allowed us to read headlines or click on links while sitting on a bus or on a lunch break.
If you wanted to read Julie Powell’s blog, you visited her website.
(Funny to think that that visit generated “a pageview,” a newfangled way to track how many people read your stuff online. Twenty years later, the page view concept now haunts every writer who has tried to make a living putting digital pen to the virtual paper.)
Powell watched her pageviews grow over that year. By the end of the experiment, she knew that people were watching her cook and write, cook and write. She was pouring so much of herself into the posts, not only about what she cooked, but what it was like and the emotion behind it.
I’m not sure how she mustered so much writing after all that cooking, but she did. And it changed her life.
I interviewed Powell for a story when the movie came out, and she was kind and talkative. Her mom still lived in Austin, where Julie was born, so I went to their house and got a little tour and heard all about how the movie was a fun brush with stardom for the whole family.
I thought of them when, a few years later, I wrote a fairly negative review of her second book, which I thought was a bit too tell-all, even for a memoir. But I came to regret the heaviness of my critique. It was the story that helped me get clearer on the concept of criticism by omission.
I still think about that personal lesson all these years later, but upon her death, I’ve been thinking about her influence on food culture at large and what it was like as a writer-food blogger back in 2009.
That was the year, thanks in no small part to this movie, when the concept of food blogging went mainstream. I was thrilled to see so many people expressing themselves through this medium. (For years, I kept track of all the food blogs in Austin for years and stopped counting somewhere around 300.)
Bonding with food bloggers, finding my “blogging” voice — and differentiating it from my “reporter” voice — and working with those writers to start the Austin Food Blogger Alliance in 2011 absolutely changed the course of my career.
Food blogging made food writing more accessible to both writers and readers, and now the line that divides them isn’t so clear. That’s one of the reasons food blogging has fallen a little out of the spotlight, but when you google a recipe today, chances are high that you’ll land on a food blog with a recipe — and a story.
It’s funny how people complain about the story on top of the recipe now.
Julie Powell emphasized her messy story. She didn’t have an expense account. She made typos and pissed off lots of people and created a new format that millions of other passionate, creative writers-types have made their own in the past 20 years.
It’s sad that Powell won’t be here to see what’s next in this world she so clearly influenced, but her spirit lives on in TikTok videos about Jell-O salad and the history of fried chicken and Instagram stop-motion Reels for making apple pie.
But there will forever be only one “Julie/Julia Project.”
There are so many departed folks to honor and think about today. I wasn’t planning on writing about Julie Powell, but when I sat down to write this afternoon, words about her wanted to come out.
Her death at such an early age has caused a number of folks, especially from the food world, I know to reflect back on their own experiences with blogging.
By coincidence, earlier today, I met up with Michelle Cheng, whose blog, Foodie is the New Forty, which she started in that pivotal year of 2009. Cheng was a founding member of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance, so we spent many years in board meetings and happy hours together.
Her blog is still active, but, she doesn’t write as often as she did. She’s cooking more than ever, eating dinner with her husband, Chris, and friends or her mom, who moved to Austin during the pandemic, most nights.
We talked a little about Powell, but we mostly talked about how our lives have evolved over this decade and change. How the pandemic shaped us. What threads from the past are still present.
I was excited to talk with her about this upcoming event I’m doing with Nigella Lawson at the Long Center. I’ve done a bunch of these onstage interviews with food celebrities over the years, and they never grow old.
There is something special about having conversations with people I don’t know, but kinda know, thanks to the pop culture zeitgeist.
I’m not a perfect interviewer, but I enjoy getting to dig in deep with someone over the course of an hour. I’m hoping Nigella and I can touch on issues and topics that are relevant today but talk about some of the sweeping changes we’ve seen in the past 30 years. We’ll have a lot of ground to cover. I hope you’ll consider joining us on Nov. 22.
Thank you for joining me this week on this exploration of life through a generational lens. I hope you and you and your ancestors are well. Your support makes this newsletter possible. Thank you.
PS: One last shout out: Thank you to Mica McCook for having me on her “Savory Shot” podcast this week. She did an excellent job of asking questions I’d never been asked and being willing to take the conversation way beyond “What is it like to be a food writer?” I hope you enjoy the episode!