Julie Powell Was a Messy, Exuberant Keeper of Both House and Head

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“Personal writing” is often a misnomer for the first-person, nonfiction work it describes. It purports to grant us access to that most tantalizing spot, the inside of someone else’s head, and it rarely does. Memoirists and essayists just have too many other loyalties: to their dignity, say, or to their loved ones. Not so for Julie Powell, the late author of Julie & Julia and Cleaving, and the last of the truly personal writers. She died of cardiac arrest on October 26 at the age of 49.

It’s hard to overstate Powell’s impact on food writing at the turn of the millennium. How much glorious writing would be explicitly devoted to home cooking without her? Would we have a Deb Perelman? A Samantha Irby? Like Powell, I find that the emotional truth in an interpretation of the world is more important than the factual one and, anytime the two are in conflict, it’s best to hew to the emotional. Here, the emotional truth is that Powell’s bighearted, raucous voice was all blog, no tradition. When she didn’t know, she vamped; and if her vamping betrayed a lack of culinary authority, all the better.

In the lawless international waters of the early blogosphere, Powell’s blog, The Julie/Julia Project, was notable for its humor and for the really great bit at its core. She was going to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s beloved cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking! In a Long Island City apartment with only three working burners! Readers gawked the same way people once gawked at chain-saw jugglers or tightrope teeterers: because they wanted to see her accomplish the impossible, and they wanted to see her fail at it. She didn’t. At all.

She was a messy keeper of both house and head. Her writing was all appetites: food and sex. Cleanliness, that tiresome neighbor of godliness, would have only gotten in her way. She had a knack for turning critics into gasping prigs. David Kamp’s New York Times review of Julie & Julia is really about how the critic wishes today’s young women would not be so crass as to write about things like donating eggs to pay off debt and living in squalid apartments. He claims that this is their effort to “give texture and depth to their work,” seemingly unaware that these things give texture and depth to life, and must be discussed. Later, reviewing Powell’s 2009 follow-up memoir Cleaving for the same publication, Christine Muhlke takes much the same tone: “The squeamish — morally and otherwise — should read elsewhere.” Indeed they should. And good riddance.

Powell started her blog in 2002 and turned it into a book in 2005. In August 2009, Nora Ephron’s film adaptation boosted her profile even more. She was unstoppable. Then her second memoir, Cleaving, appeared at the end of 2009 — a publication move that Muhlke’s review characterizes as canny, because Cleaving would likely undo all the goodwill that Powell had racked up from being played by Amy Adams.

If Julie & Julia had made Julie Powell a hero to bored home cooks everywhere, Cleaving made her an anti-hero. Reviews were chilly, focusing on the author’s bad behavior. Cleaving tells the story of Powell’s destructive extramarital affair and her apprenticeship as a butcher. She learns, she travels, she stalks, she fails to reconcile. She’s no messier in this book than she is in her first, really. But in her first book she makes a mess of her own life, and in her second she makes a mess of her husband’s — and, worse, does not waste one sentence on castigating herself for it.

It’s a shame that Powell’s sins are what people remember most about Cleaving, because what I remember is exuberant, bubbling prose. How about the insipid, plastic-wrapped supermarket pork chops that Powell describes as “deracinated”? Or if pork chops aren’t to your taste, maybe you’ll prefer Powell’s freshly trussed crown roast, a “sexy little she-roast” that she can’t resist describing as “sluttish.” These aren’t the food words we know, explaining how a food will taste or how it’s cooked. Powell has thought about what it would be like to fuck these foods, you just know it — and, with her permission, you spend a moment thinking about fucking them, too.

That’s what Powell’s writing does best: It speaks honestly and gives permission. It isn’t respectable. It doesn’t wink and it has no use for innuendo. It makes its author look like a cruel, heartless person a lot of the time. Readers peek through their fingers, squirrelly and nauseated. Even I read parts of Cleaving as if watching a bad horror movie. “Don’t send your lover another unanswered email,” I groaned, turning pages faster than I could read them. “Jesus Christ, don’t buy him a present!” But there, isn’t that the best part? If a writer is generous enough to expel her brain onto the examination table for us, it’s only polite to be shocked.

The promise of personal writing is that readers get to actually fulfill their desire for the point of the story — the real story, I mean, the thing that we all live at once and don’t get to edit. A memoir offers us something real by virtue of being nonfiction, and something meaningful by virtue of being constructed by a trusted author. Done well, it tells us the point.

Powell told us the point. In the ebullient too-muchness of her life as she shared it with us, she caused wrecks and embarrassed herself and reported on it like we were her pals and she was dishing out the gossip. There seemed to be nothing she wouldn’t share. She knew there’s no shame in being the same messy, in-love fool that everyone is deep down. Knowing as she did that tomorrow is another day to maybe get it right.

Or, to borrow an instruction from one of her own recipes: “Eat in front of the TV, with more wine — something cheap and pink and reliable — until you fall asleep. Tomorrow, start trying to live your life again.”

A Messy, Exuberant Keeper of Both House and Head