Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cooking and blogging about it

I must admit that, when I'm channel surfing, I end up watching cooking shows at the Food Network and the Asian Food Channel. These cooking shows are my brand of reality TV. Because of them, I now know more about escargots, pigs' brains, and fennel than I need to. Although, I believe that I'll never be able to test this theoretical knowledge in the kitchen, since the only time I go there is when I'm hungry and have to raid the fridge for some leftovers. At home, the kitchen is mom territory.

Perhaps it's the respect that I have for chefs and cooks that glues my eyes on the TV. I admire how they make elaborate recipes seem effortless. This respect and admiration also translates to books about cooking, eating, and anything that has to do with food. When I saw Julie Powell's memoir entitled Julie & Julia in Fully Booked the other week, I was intrigued by the premise. Julie Powell, who works as a secretary by day, decides to cook every single dish in Julia Child's bestselling cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 1, for one whole year. Powell also decides to blog about it, after much prodding by her husband Paul. She eventually gives the whole endeavor a brand -- the Julie/Julia Project.

Powell is a first-time author, and it shows in this memoir. Most of the time, I end up re-reading certain passages just to get the idea right. Powell does have a gift for capturing vivid imagery, especially when she writes about her difficulties following Child's recipes to a T. When she recounts how difficult it is to obtain bone marrow in NYC, you empathize with her predicament. Other times though, she just rambles on.
I chilled it and served it the next night, in the coffee cups with the Raphael cherubs on them that we bought in a cheap souvenir shop outside the Sistine Chapel during our honeymoon, after a long, long walk, which we then used to drink wine with the cheese we had for lunch, on a green square, as we did every day during our honeymoon. And eating it that night reminded us that there was such a thing as fun, which was a good thing to remember right then.
And here's another reason why blurbs aren't to be trusted. Entertainment Weekly describes Julie & Julia as hilarious. I don't think it is. The attempts at humor feel somehow affected and generally fall flat. Powell does write about several self-deprecating instances which could've been funnier if these appeared in manageable doses throughout the book's 300 or so pages. As it is, Powell pokes fun at herself and at the disastrous results of her dishes so many times it just feels tiring.
(Also -- and I didn't mention this before because it's rather embarrassing -- but under my too-tight dress I was also wearing an extremely binding corset/girdle sort of thing. I had bought it in college for -- God, this part is really embarrassing -- a musical theater troupe I was in, because we were performing -- this is mortifying -- "Like a Virgin." ...Since the Project, though, I've been wearing it because it's the only way I can squeeze into a lot of my clothes.)
There are so many recipes in MtAoFC (I think there are more than 500 of them), so Powell focused on a few in her book. In these few occasions, you get a glimpse of how Child's recipes can be deceptively simple. Powell writes about how she's challenged by them and recounts the circumstances she's in as she's doing them. You get to know her close friends, her family who supports her throughout the project, and her job, which finds itself standing in the way of the Project.

If you're looking to be inspired to sample Child's recipes in MtAoFC, you may be better off buying Child's cookbook. Powell's descriptions of the dish she managed whip up tastes bland on the palate. Perhaps this may be the result of focusing too much on the complexity of the recipe rather than the final output itself. Nevertheless, what is enjoyable to read is when Powell relates all her cooking adventures into her personal life and the people around her.
My husband cooed as he dug into his plate of delicious flambeed crepes. If there's a sexier sound on this planet than the person you're in love with cooing over the crepes you made for him, I don't know what it is. And that blows Botox and ropy necks to hell.
The thread that connects Powell's narrative in Julie & Julia to Child's biography is thin. Powell just injects snippets of Child's personal history between chapters, and these biographical bits focus on a time when Child hasn't begun cooking yet. The technique works though, and it propels Powell's thesis to full effect -- one woman finishing a project based on another woman's work, who, in another time element, is just starting out her own.

Julie & Julia isn't really a food about the joys of eating or food. Powell's memoir touches on these superficially. Often, these simply serve as a backdrop to what's happening around her -- her ongoing attempt at having a baby, her relationship with her husband, her frustration with her dead-end job. Still, Julie & Julia is a good memoir, providing you with an honest glimpse of the unglamorous life of the memoirist. But if you're looking to read about food and the joys of eating, I suggest that you check out Jeffrey Steingarten's wonderful books The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must Have Been Something I Ate.

Read this book if:
  1. You've always been fascinated by French cooking.
  2. You love watching all those cooking shows.
  3. You're a blogger and you're participating in challenges.


Stepford Mum said...

I bought this book hardbound on sale at Fully Booked, partly because I have the eggbeater on the cover (and its siblings, a potato masher and egg cups), partly because it was cheap and partly because a foodie friend recommended it. It was an entertaining enough read, and now that there is a movie coming out I'm sure I'll read it again.

Peter S. said...

Hello, Stepford Mum! Actually, the only reason I wanted this book was that I saw Amy Adams on the cover! I love Amy Adams.

Anonymous said...

I had no desire to read this book until I saw the promo for the movie. Now I want to read it first, even if my expectations are dashed due to your review.

Peter S. said...

Hello, stacybuckeye! The book is still entertaining. I just found some of it not to my liking.

Tina said...

Hi Peter...good review of this rather bizarre book. I read it last year and had several different reactions--at times I wanted to shout "Get over it!" and other times I laughed myself silly.

I just had trouble buying her whole premise..I love cookbooks, cooking shows, reading about food and Eating (see last weeks post) but to take a cookbook--any cookbook--and try to do every recipe is just plain idiotic, IMHO.

Peter S. said...

Hi Tina! I completely understand where you're coming from. The book does evoke a range of feelings from the reader -- from frustration to hysterics.

The whole premise does indeed sound idiotic, come to think of it. Although, I feel sad for the author for not having met Julia Child herself.

Jessica (BookLover) said...

Great review! I have been really curious about this book since I found out it was being turned into a movie. I do like to watch cooking shows (I find it very relaxing to watch someone else cook... hehe). But I'm not sure if this book is for me. Thanks for reviewing.

line of flight said...

thanks. i'll just watch the movie and skip the book.

Peter S. said...

@Jessica and line of flight: Thanks. You should all just wait for the movie.

Jm Benavidez Estoque said...

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If you have some time, I invite you to please care to visit my site and take a time to leave some comments

Sentimental poetry,
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Peter S. said...

Hello, JM. Sure, why not? I love blog hopping.

Anonymous said...

Julie and Julie is sitting on my TBR shelf and your review makes me want to pull it down right now and start reading (forget that I have 4 books I am currently at different stages of completion on.... LOL)

I like your suggestions of food related books and may need to watch for these! :)

Peter S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter S. said...

Hi Bookjourney! Steingarten's books are wonderful. His essays are highly enjoyable and informative at the same time.