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Julie and Julia
365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen
By Julie Powell
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Nearing 30 and trapped in a dead-end secretarial job, Julie Powell reclaims her life by cooking every single recipe in Julia Child’s legendary Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the span of one year. It’s a hysterical, inconceivable redemptive journey — life rediscovered through aspics, calves’ brains and cré me brûlée.
DAY 1, RECIPE 1
The Road to Hell Is Paved with Leeks and Potatoes
As far as I know, the only evidence supporting the theory that Julia Child first made Potage Parmentier during a bad bout of ennui is her own recipe for it. She writes that Potage Parmentier—which is just a Frenchie way of saying potato soup—"smells good, tastes good, and is simplicity itself to make." It is the first recipe in the first book she ever wrote. She concedes that you can add carrots or broccoli or green beans if you want, but that seems beside the point, if what you're looking for is simplicity itself.
Simplicity itself. It sounds like poetry, doesn't it? It sounds like just what the doctor ordered.
It wasn't what my doctor ordered, though. My doctor—my gynecologist, to be specific—ordered a baby.
"There are the hormonal issues in your case, with the PCOS, you know about that already. And you are pushing thirty, after all. Look at it this way—there will never be a better time."
This was not the first time I'd heard this. It had been happening for a couple of years now, ever since I'd sold some of my eggs for $7,500 in order to pay off credit card debt. Actually, that was the second time I'd "donated"— a funny way of putting it, since when you wake up from the anesthesia less a few dozen ova and get dressed, there's a check for thousands of dollars with your name on it waiting at the receptionist's desk. The first time was five years ago, when I was twenty-four, impecunious and fancy-free. I hadn't planned on doing it twice, but three years later I got a call from a doctor with an unidentifiable European accent who asked me if I'd be interested in flying down to Florida for a second go-round, because "our clients were very satisfied with the results of your initial donation." Egg donation is still a new-enough technology that our slowly evolving legal and etiquette systems have not yet quite caught up; nobody knows if egg donators are going to be getting sued for child support ten years down the line or what. So discussions on the subject tend to be knotted with imprecise pronouns and euphemisms. The upshot of this phone call, though, was that there was a little me running around Tampa or somewhere, and the little me's parents were happy enough with him or her that they wanted a matched set. The honest part of me wanted to shout, "Wait, no—when they start hitting puberty you'll regret this!" But $7,500 is a lot of money.
Anyway, it was not until the second harvesting (they actually call it "harvesting"; fertility clinics, it turns out, use a lot of vaguely apocalyptic terms) that I found out I had polycystic ovarian syndrome, which sounds absolutely terrifying, but apparently just meant that I was going to get hairy and fat and I'd have to take all kinds of drugs to conceive. Which means, I guess, that I haven't heard my last of crypto-religious obstetric jargon.
So. Ever since I was diagnosed with this PCOS, two years ago, doctors have been obsessing over my childbearing prospects. I've even been given the Pushing Thirty speech by my avuncular, white-haired orthopedist (what kind of twenty-nine-year-old has a herniated disk, I ask you?).
At least my gynecologist had some kind of business in my private parts. Maybe that's why I heroically did not start bawling immediately when he said this, as he was wiping off his speculum. Once he left, however, I did fling one of my navy faille pumps at the place where his head had been just a moment before. The heel hit the door with a thud, leaving a black scuff mark, then dropped onto the counter, where it knocked over a glass jar of cotton swabs. I scooped up all the Q-tips from the counter and the floor and started to stuff them back into the jar before realizing I'd probably gotten them all contaminated, so then I shoved them into a pile next to an apothecary jar full of fresh needles and squeezed myself back into the vintage forties suit I'd been so proud of that morning when Nate from work told me it made my waist look small while subtly eyeing my cleavage, but which on the ride from lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side on an un-air-conditioned 6 train had gotten sweatstained and rumpled. Then I slunk out of the room, fifteen-buck co-pay already in hand, the better to make my escape before anyone discovered I'd trashed the place.
As soon as I got belowground, I knew there was a problem. Even before I reached the turnstiles, I heard a low, subterranean rumble echoing off the tiled walls, and noticed more than the usual number of aimless-looking people milling about. A tangy whiff of disgruntlement wafted on the fetid air. Every once in a great while the "announcement system" would come on and "announce" something, but none of these spatterings of word salad resulted in the arrival of a train, not for a long, long time. Along with everyone else, I leaned out over the platform edge, hoping to see the pale yellow of a train's headlight glinting off the track, but the tunnel was black. I smelled like a rained-upon, nervous sheep. My feet, in their navy heels with the bows on the toe, were killing me, as was my back, and the platform was so crammed with people that before long I began to worry someone was going to fall off the edge onto the tracks—possibly me, or maybe the person I was going to push during my imminent psychotic break.
But then, magically, the crowd veered away. For a split second I thought the stink coming off my suit had reached a deadly new level, but the wary, amused looks on the faces of those edging away weren't focused on me. I followed their gaze to a plug of a woman, her head of salt-and-pepper hair shorn into the sort of crew cut they give to the mentally disabled, who had plopped down on the concrete directly behind me. I could see the whorls of her cowlick like a fingerprint, feel the tingle of invaded personal space against my shins. The woman was muttering to herself fiercely. Commuters had vacated a swath of platform all around the loon as instinctually as a herd of wildebeests evading a lioness. I was the only one stuck in the dangerous blank circle, the lost calf, the old worn-out cripple who couldn't keep up.
The loon started smacking her forehead with the heel of her palm. "Fuck!" she yelled. "Fuck! FUCK!"
I couldn't decide whether it would be safer to edge back into the crowd or freeze where I was. My breathing grew shallow as I turned my eyes blankly out across the tracks to the uptown platform, that old subway chameleon trick.
The loon placed both palms down on the concrete in front of her and—CRACK!—smacked her forehead hard on the ground.
This was a little much even for the surrounding crowd of New Yorkers, who of course all knew that loons and subways go together like peanut butter and chocolate. The sickening noise of skull on concrete seemed to echo in the damp air—as if she was using her specially evolved resonant brainpan as an instrument to call the crazies out from every far-underground branch of the city. Everybody flinched, glancing around nervously. With a squeak I hopped back into the multitude. The loon had a smudgy black abrasion right in the middle of her forehead, like the scuff mark my shoe had left on my gynecologist's door, but she just kept screeching. The train pulled in, and I connived to wiggle into the car the loon wasn't going into.
It was only once I was in the car, squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, the lot of us hanging by one hand from the overhead bar like slaughtered cows on the trundling train, that it came to me—as if some omnipotent God of City Dwellers were whispering the truth in my ear—that the only two reasons I hadn't joined right in with the loon with the gray crew cut, beating my head and screaming "Fuck!" in primal syncopation, were (1) I'd be embarrassed and (2) I didn't want to get my cute vintage suit any dirtier than it already was. Performance anxiety and a dry-cleaning bill; those were the only things keeping me from stark raving lunacy.
That's when I started to cry. When a tear dropped onto the pages of the New York Post that the guy sitting beneath me was reading, he just blew air noisily through his nose and turned to the sports pages.
When I got off the subway, after what seemed like years, I called Eric from a pay phone at the corner of Bay Ridge and Fourth Avenue.
"Hey. Did you get anything for dinner?"
Eric made that little sucking-in-through-his-teeth sound he always makes when he thinks he's about to get in trouble. "Was I supposed to?"
"Well, I told you I'd be late because of my doctor's appointment —"
"Right, right, sorry. I just, I didn't . . . You want me to order something in, or —"
"Don't worry about it. I'll pick up something or other."
"But I'm going to start packing just as soon as the NewsHour's done, promise!"
It was nearly eight o'clock, and the only market open in Bay Ridge was the Korean deli on the corner of Seventieth and Third. I must have looked a sight, standing around in the produce aisle in my bedraggled suit, my face tracked with mascara, staring like a catatonic. I couldn't think of a thing that I wanted to eat. I grabbed some potatoes, a bunch of leeks, some Hotel Bar butter. I felt dazed and somehow will-less, as if I was following a shopping list someone else had made. I paid, walked out of the shop, and headed for the bus stop, but just missed the B69. There wouldn't be another for a half hour at least, at this time of night, so I started the ten-block walk home, carrying a plastic bag bristling with spiky dark leek bouquets.
It wasn't until almost fifteen minutes later, as I was walking past the Catholic boys' school on Shore Road one block over from our apartment building, that I realized that I'd managed, unconsciously, to buy exactly the ingredients for Julia Child's Potage Parmentier.
When I was a kid, my dad used to love to tell the story about finding five-year-old Julie curled up in the back of his copper-colored Datsun ZX immersed in a crumpled back issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He told that one to all the guys at his office, and to the friends he and my mom went out to dinner with, and to all of the family who weren't born again and likely to disapprove. (Of the Atlantic, not Z-cars.)
I think the point behind this was that I'd been singled out as an early entrant to the ranks of the intellectually superior. And since I was awful at ballet and tap dancing, after all, always the last one to make it up the rope in gym class, a girl neither waifish nor charming in owlish red-rimmed glasses, I took my ego-petting where I could get it. But the not-very-highbrow truth of the matter was that the reading was how I got my ya-yas out.
For the sake of my bookish reputation I upgraded to Tolstoy and Steinbeck before I understood them, but my dark secret was that really, I preferred the junk. The Dragonriders of Pern, Flowers in the Attic, The Clan of the Cave Bear. This stuff was like my stash of Playboys under the mattress. I waited until my camp counselor left the cabin to steal the V. C. Andrews she stashed behind her box of Tampax. I nicked my mom's Jean Auel, and had already gotten halfway through before she found out, so she could only wince and suppose there was some educational value, but no Valley of Horses for you, young lady.
Then adolescence set in well and proper, and reading for kicks got shoved in the backseat with the old Atlantics. It had been a long time since I'd done anything with the delicious, licentious cluelessness that I used to read those books—hell, sex now wasn't as exciting as reading about sex used to be. I guess nowadays your average fourteen-year-old Texan possesses exhaustive knowledge of the sexual uses of tongue studs, but I doubt the information excites her any more than my revelations about Neanderthal sex.
You know what a fourteen-year-old Texan doesn't know shit about? French food.
A couple of weeks after my twenty-ninth birthday, in the spring of 2002, I went back to Texas to visit my parents. Actually, Eric kind of made me go.
"You have to get out of here," he said. The kitchen drawer that broke two weeks after we moved in, and was never satisfactorily rehabilitated, had just careened off its tracks yet again, flinging Pottery Barn silverware in all directions. I was sobbing, forks and knives glittering at my feet. Eric was holding me in one of those tight hugs like a half nelson, which he does whenever he's trying to comfort me when what he really wants to do is smack me.
"Will you come with me?" I didn't look up from the snot stain I was impressing upon his shirt.
"I'm too busy at the office right now. Besides, I think it's better if you go by yourself. Hang out with your mom. Buy some clothes. Sleep in."
"I have work, though."
"Julie, you're a temp. What's temping for if you can't run off and take a break sometimes? That's why you're doing it, right?"
I didn't like to think about why I was temping. My voice went high and cracked. "Well, I can't afford it."
"We can afford it. Or we can ask your parents to pay." He grabbed my chin and lifted it up to his face. "Julie. Seriously? Go. Because I can't live with you like this anymore."
So I went—my mom bought me the ticket for a late birthday present. A week later I flew into Austin, early enough to grab lunch at Poke-Jo's.
And then, right in the middle of my brisket sandwich and okra, less than a month after I turned twenty-nine, Mom dropped the Pushing Thirty bomb for the very first time.
"What?" My mother has this bright, smiling, hard tone that she always uses when she wants me to face facts. She was using it now. "All I'm saying is here you are, miserable, running away from New York, getting into a bad place with Eric, and for what? You're getting older, you're not taking advantage of the city, why do this to yourself?"
This was exactly the one thing I had come to Austin to not talk about. I should have known my mother would dig in like a goddamned rat terrier.
I had gone to New York like everybody else goes to New York—just as the essential first step for a potato destined for soup is to have its skin peeled off, the essential starting point for an aspiring actor is to move to New York. I preferred jobs that did not require auditions, which, since I neither looked like Renée Zellweger nor was a terribly good actor, proved to be a problem. Mostly what I'd done was temp, for (to name a few): the photocopier contractor for the UN; the Asian American businesses underwriting department at AIG; the vice president of a broadband technology outfit with an amazing office looking out onto the Brooklyn Bridge, which folded about two weeks after I got there; and an investment firm specializing in the money matters of nunneries. Recently, I'd started work at a government agency downtown. It looked like they were going to offer to bring me on permanently—eventually all the temp employers offered to let you go perm—and for the first time, I was considering, in a despairing sort of way, doing it. It was enough to make me suicidal even before my mom started telling me I was getting old. Mom should have known this, but instead of apologizing for her cruelty she just popped another piece of fried okra into her mouth and said, "Let's go shopping—your clothes are just awful!"
The next morning I lingered at my parents' kitchen table long after they'd both left for work, wrapped up in a well-worn gray flannel robe I'd forgotten I had, sipping coffee. I'd finished the Times crossword and all the sections except for Business and Circuits, but didn't yet have enough caffeine in my system to contemplate getting dressed. (I'd overindulged in margaritas the night before, not at all an unusual occurrence when visiting the folks in Austin.) The pantry door stood ajar, and my aimless gaze rested on the bookshelves inside, the familiar ranks of spines lined up there. When I got up to fill my cup one last time, I made a detour and took one of the books—Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, my mom's old 1967 edition, a book that had known my family's kitchen longer than I had. I sat back down at the table at which I'd eaten a thousand childhood afternoon snacks and began flipping through, just for the hell of it.
When I was a kid, I used to look at MtAoFC quite a lot. Partly it was just my obsession with anything between two covers, but there was something else, too. Because this book has the power to shock. MtAoFC is still capable of striking deep if obscure zones of discomfort. Find the most pale, pierced and kohl-eyed, proudly pervy hipster you can and ask her to cook Pâté de Canard en Croûte, aided only by the helpful illustrations on pages 571 through 575. I promise you, she'll be fleeing back to Williamsburg, where no one's going to make her bone a whole duck, faster than you can say, "trucker hats are soooo five minutes ago."
But why? What is it about this book? It's just an old cookbook, for God's sake. Yet vegetarians, Atkinsers, and South Beach bums flare their nostrils at the stink of apostasy between its covers. Self-proclaimed foodies spare a smile of fond condescension before returning to their Chez Panisse cookbooks. By all rights, I should feel this way too. I am, after all, that ultimate synthesis of urban flakiness and suburban self-righteousness, the New York actress.
Well, actually, I guess I can't say that, since I've never had a real acting job. And to tell the truth—it's time I faced facts here—I never really even tried. But if I'm not a New York actress, what am I? I'm a person who takes a subway from the outer boroughs to a lower Manhattan office every morning, who spends her days answering phones and doing copying, who is too disconsolate when she gets back to her apartment at night to do anything but sit on the couch and stare vacantly at reality TV shows until she falls asleep.
Oh God. It really was true, wasn't it? I really was a secretary.
When I looked up from MtAoFC for the first time, half an hour after I opened it, I realized that deep down, I'd been resigned to being a secretary for months—maybe even years.
That was the bad news. The good news was that the buzzing in my head and queasy but somehow exhilarating squeeze deep in my belly were reminding me that I might still, after all, be something else.
Do you know Mastering the Art of French Cooking? You must, at least, know of it—it's a cultural landmark, for Pete's sake. Even if you just think of it as the book by that lady who looks like Dan Aykroyd and bleeds a lot, you know of it. But do you know the book itself? Try to get your hands on one of the early hardback editions—they're not exactly rare. For a while there, every American housewife who could boil water had a copy, or so I've heard.
It's not lushly illustrated; there are no shiny soft-core images of the glossy-haired author sinking her teeth into a juicy strawberry or smiling stonily before a perfectly rustic tart with carving knife in hand, like some chilly blonde kitchen dominatrix. The dishes are hopelessly dated—the cooking times outrageously long, the use of butter and cream beyond the pale, and not a single reference to pancetta or sea salt or wasabi. This book hasn't been on the must-have list for enterprising gourmands in decades. But as I held it in my hands that morning, opened its cover spangled with tomato-colored fleurs-de-lys, skimmed through its yellowed pages, I felt like I'd at last found something important. Why? I bent again over the book's pages, searching for the cause of this strange feeling. It wasn't the food exactly. If you looked hard enough, the food started to feel almost beside the point. No, there was something deeper here, some code within the words, perhaps some secret embedded in the paper itself.
I have never looked to religion for comfort—belief is just not in my genes. But reading Mastering the Art of French Cooking—childishly simple and dauntingly complex, incantatory and comforting—I thought this was what prayer must feel like. Sustenance bound up with anticipation and want. Reading MtAoFC was like reading pornographic Bible verses.
So naturally when I flew back to New York that May, I had Mom's copy of the book stashed in my bag.
The thing you learn with Potage Parmentier is that "simple" is not exactly the same as "easy." It had never occurred to me that there was a difference until Eric and I sat down on our couch the night of my appointment at the gynecologist's, three months after stealing my mother's forty-year-old cookbook, and took our first slurps of Julia Child's potato soup.
Certainly I had made easier dinners. Unwrapping a cellophane-swathed hunk of London broil and tossing it under the broiler was one method that came immediately to mind. Ordering pizza and getting drunk on Stoli gimlets while waiting for it to arrive, that was another favorite. Potage Parmentier didn't even hold a candle, in the easy department.
First you peel a couple of potatoes and slice them up. Slice some leeks, rinse them a couple of times to get rid of the grit—leeks are muddy little suckers. Throw these two ingredients in a pot with some water and some salt. Simmer it for forty-five minutes or so, then either "mash the vegetables in the soup with a fork" or pass them through a food mill. I didn't have a food mill, and I wasn't about to mash up vegetables with a fork. What I had was a potato ricer.
Well, technically it was Eric's potato ricer. Before we were married, years ago, before Atkins hit, mashed potatoes used to be Eric's specialty. For a while, before we learned the value of Brooklyn storage space, we'd had this tradition where I'd get him arcane kitchen gadgets, the not-very-funny joke being that he didn't actually cook at all, except for the mashed potatoes. The ricer is the only survivor from this period. It was his Christmas present the year we were in the railroad apartment on Eleventh between Seventh and Eighth—this was before we got priced out of Park Slope entirely. I'd sewn stockings for the both of us out of felt—his is red with white trim, mine white with red—from a pattern in the Martha Stewart Living holiday issue that year. We still have them, even though I can't sew and they're totally kattywhompus: the stitching uneven, the decorative cuffs bunched and crooked. They're also way too small for things like ricers. I stuffed it in anyway. Hanging on the mantel of the nonfunctional fireplace in the bedroom, the stocking looked like Santa had brought Eric a Luger. I've never been much good at stocking stuffers.
Once the leeks and potatoes have simmered for an hour or so, you mash them up with a fork or a food mill or a potato ricer. All three of these options are far more of a pain in the neck than the Cuisinart—one of which space-munching behemoths we scored when we got married—but Julia Child allows as how a Cuisinart will turn soup into "something un-French and monotonous." Any suggestion that uses the construction "un-French" is up for debate, but if you make Potage Parmentier, you will see her point. If you use the ricer, the soup will have bits—green bits and white bits and yellow bits—instead of being utterly smooth. After you've mushed it up, just stir in a couple of hefty chunks of butter, and you're done. JC says sprinkle with parsley but you don't have to. It looks pretty enough as it is, and it smells glorious, which is funny when you think about it. There's not a thing in it but leeks, potatoes, butter, water, pepper, and salt.
One interesting thing to meditate on while you're making this soup is potatoes. There's something about peeling a potato. Not to say that it's fun, exactly. But there's something about scraping off the skin, and rinsing off the dirt, and chopping it into cubes before immersing the cubes in cold water because they'll turn pink if you let them sit out in the air. Something about knowing exactly what you're doing, and why. Potatoes have been potatoes for a long, long time, and people have treated them in just this way, toward the end of making just such a soup. There is clarity in the act of peeling a potato, a winnowing down to one sure, true way. And even if afterward you do push it through some gadget you got at Crate and Barrel, the peeling is still a part of what you do, the first thing.
I was supposed to have spent my twenties (a) hammering away for ninety hours a week at some high-paying, ethically dubious job, drinking heavily, and having explosive sex with a rich array of twenty-something men; (b) awaking at noon every day in my Williamsburg loft to work on my painting/poetry/knitting/performance art, easily shaking off the effects of stylish drugs and tragically hip clubs and explosive sex with a rich array of twenty-something men (and women if I could manage it); or (c) pursuing higher education, sweating bullets over an obscure dissertation and punctuating my intellectual throes with some pot and explosive sex with a rich array of professors and undergrads. These were the models, for someone like me.
But I did none of these things. Instead, I got married. I didn't mean to, exactly. It just kind of happened.
Eric and I were high school sweethearts. Wait, it gets worse. We were in a high school play together. Our courtship was straight out of one of the ickier films from the John Hughes oeuvre, Some Kind of Wonderful, maybe—all kinds of misunderstandings and jealous boyfriends and angst-ridden stage kisses. In other words, the sort of too-typical high school romance that people of our generation are meant to get over and cover up later on. But we didn't. Somehow we never got around to the breaking-up part. At the age of twenty-four, when we were still sleeping together and reasonably satisfied with the whole toilet-seat-and-toothpaste-cap situation, we went ahead and got married.
Please understand—I love my husband like a pig loves shit. Maybe even more. But in the circles I run in, being married for more than five years before reaching the age of thirty ranks real high on the list of most socially damaging traits, right below watching NASCAR and listening to Shania Twain. I'm used to getting questions like "Is he the only person you've ever had sex with?" or, even more insultingly, "Are you the only person he's ever had sex with?"
All this to say that sometimes I get a little defensive. Even with Isabel, who I've known since kindergarten, and Sally, my freshman-year roommate, and Gwen, who comes over to eat at our apartment every weekend and adores Eric. I would confess to none of them the thing I sometimes think, which is: "Eric can be a little pushy." I couldn't hack the hastily smothered expressions of dismay and smug I-told-you-so eyebrows; I know my friends would imagine something between the The Stepford Wives and a domestic abuse PSA narrated by J-Lo. But I mean neither shoving matches nor domineering at dinner parties. I just mean that he pushes. He can't be satisfied with telling me I'm the most gorgeous and talented woman on the planet and that he would die without me, while mixing me a dry Stoli gimlet. No, he has to encourage. He has to make suggestions. It can be most annoying.
So I made this soup, this Potage Parmentier, from a recipe in a forty-year-old cookbook I'd stolen from my mother the previous spring. And it was good—inexplicably good. We ate it sitting on the couch, bowls perched on knees, the silence broken only by the occasional snort of laughter as we watched a pert blonde high school student dust vampires on the television. In almost no time we were slurping the dregs of our third servings. (It turns out that one reason we're so good together is that each of us eats more and faster than anyone either of us has ever met; also, we both recognize the genius of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Earlier that evening, after the gynecologist appointment, when I was standing in the Korean deli staring at produce, I'd been thinking, "I'm twenty-nine, I'm never going to have kids or a real job, my husband will leave me and I'll die alone in an outer-borough hovel with twenty cats and it'll take two weeks for the stench to reach the hall." But now, three bowls of potato soup later, I was, to my relief, thinking of nothing much at all. I lay on my back on the couch, quietly digesting. Julia Child's soup had made me vulnerable.
"Hilarious and ferociously articulate. Powell wrote candidly and vividly about her antic adventures with Child's recipes... But perhaps more importantly, she wrote about food in a rich and raucous context, about putting pot-au-feu on the table through plumbing crises and existential desperation; about both Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom and the difficulties of finding marrow bones."
"Bracingly original, JULIE & JULIA is clearly the work of a writer who has reclaimed her soul." -People
"Powell is not a domestic goddess; she's emphatically, unembarrassedly a domestic mortal. But she is also a genuinely gifted thinker and writer about food." -Time
"You don't have to like cooking or French food to enjoy the zippiness of Ms. Powell's prose or to admire the purpose of her project....And she really did change her life. Now she's a writer. A good one."
-The Wall Street Journal
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2005
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company