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Learning to cook the Julia Child way

Bored with her job, a young New Yorker devotes a year to making meals from 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking'

By Paul ThackerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2003


Like many who come to New York City seeking fame and fortune, Julie Powell found only cheap pizza, overpriced housing, and a monotonous office job.

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She works for the organization in charge of developing the World Trade Center site - a job that might sound intriguing except that her role has involved fielding ideas for the design competition, no matter how amateur or how mundane.

The design competition for the WTC was recently awarded to Daniel Libeskind, one of the world's leading architects. But it was, by law, an open competition, which means that anyone and everyone could compete - and Ms. Powell had to dutifully listen to every caller, make a note of the idea, and file it away.

Feeling creatively stymied, Powell searched for a project to enrich her life. Then she came across a 35-year-old copy of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (written with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, Alfred A. Knopf, 684 pp., $40).

Why not give the book a test run, she thought, to see if a lowly office worker with little to no cooking skills can become an accomplished cook.

Every day since then, after taking the subway home, she has made a meal from this culinary classic. And she documents her travails on a web log or "blog" - an online diary. Now, hundreds of readers visit her site to see if her nightly forays become food for her husband or a meal for the cats, and to read her harangue on aspic.

"I chose Child's book because I enjoy her writing and attitude to life," says Powell. "She's a populist who believes that you can eat well without spending a lot of money - even if you're living in Ohio in 1962, where all you can get is iceberg lettuce."

That Powell can bond with Ms. Child is remarkable considering that this cookbook first came out in 1961, long before Powell was born. In fact, for Powell's generation, Child is less of a celebrity chef than a pop-culture icon - that woman with the funny voice who accidentally chops off her fingers in a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

At first, Powell flipped through the book, choosing recipes at random. Then she realized it doesn't work that way. "It's set up like a cooking class. You start with a simple technique and then build on it until it becomes more elaborate."

What was first hard becomes easy, both with patience and practice. "The first time you do a certain dish there's too many steps, and it's really frustrating," she says. "But eventually everything - for instance, peeling tomatoes - becomes easier. That's right. I peel tomatoes!"

"I think it's delightful that someone is doing all these recipes," says Judith Jones, editor of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

"French [cooking] is the backbone of Western cuisine, and it has rules," says Ms. Jones, "so if you really want to learn to cook well, this is the place to start. I don't think there has really been a book to surpass it."

Jones isn't alone in her opinion. When Child's book first came out, culinary giant James Beard commented: "I only wish I had written it myself." Today, chefs still hail the cookbook as one of the most influential of the 20th century.

Diversifying dinner

Powell's husband, Eric, is elated that his wife took on this project. The couple had fallen into a rut of eating alternate dinners of Mexican food, Cajun, and pasta. Mr. Powell rounded out the weekly menu with a couple of dishes: London broil, chicken, and a pork chop dish. "We were recycling the same things," he says. "Now we never eat the same thing twice."