FOOD: THE SCHOOL OF JULIA

In the summer of 2002, Julie Powell's prospects seemed bleak. Despite a degree from Amherst and "seven years of three-quarters-finished novels in drawers," she was still a 29-year-old New York secretary with rapidly fading big dreams. "As 29-year-olds are wont to do," says Powell, "I started obsessing over all of this, spinning my wheels and getting all bent out of shape." Out of "this stew of angst and anxiety" popped an idea--a rather bizarre idea. Over the next year, the lifelong picky eater and indifferent chef would cook every recipe in her mother's dog-eared copy of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

What's really bizarre about Powell's idea is that it turned out to be her salvation, thanks in part to her husband, Eric's suggestion that she start a blog to chronicle her occasionally triumphant but always hilarious attempts to channel her inner Julia. The blog, called The Julie/Julia Project, created an online community that kept her going all the way from Potage Parmentier (potato soup) to Reine de Saba (chocolate cake). Now Powell has turned her story into a book, "Julie & Julia" (320 pages. Little Brown. $23.95), and considers herself a real writer at last.

Selecting Julia Child as her guru was a bit arbitrary; Powell happened on her mother's copy of the cookbook on a visit home to Austin, Texas. She'd flipped through it as a child but on this visit, in the midst of her spiritual crisis, it assumed new meaning. "I thought this was what prayer must feel like," she writes in her book. "Sustenance bound up with anticipation and want. Reading [the book] was like reading pornographic Bible verses." It turned out to be a felicitous choice. Unlike more modern pop-culture icons, whose every move is in the tabloids, Child remains something of a mystery figure. "She reflects what we want to find in her," says Powell.

Powell feels an intense connection to Child, even though she never met her. "Julia was so impressive, so instructive, so exhilarating, because she was a woman, not a goddess," Powell wrote in an online obit. "Julia didn't create armies of drones, mindlessly equating her name with taste and muttering 'It's a good thing' under their minty breath. Instead she created feisty, buttery, adventurous cooks, always diving into the next possible disaster, because goddammit, if Julia did it, so could we." Fortified by her triumph over "Crepe Hell" and other culinary Everests, Powell is currently working on a novel and another nonfiction book and mulling over what to make for dinner tomorrow night when some friends are coming over. But on this night, she won't be cooking. It's her husband's birthday, and how do they plan to celebrate? "We're going to Nobu."

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