Poor Man’s Feast: Julie, Not Julia

Posted inCreative Voices

Like most of us who have, for almost two decades, lived in and out of the world of narrative food writing and blogging, I was shocked by the death of Julie Powell on October 26th. My DMs and text messages came roaring in: was she ill? Did you know her? What happened? I have long ceased being a member of the inner circle food bloggerati, so I’m writing this for her.

All I can say with any clarity is this: in preparation for the Women’s March on Washington in March 2017, Julie knitted me a pink pussy hat in mere days, since I am a danger to myself with knitting needles. And the last exchange we had was in on July 3, 2019, when she was leaving for rehab; she posted about it publicly, on social media, so I’m comfortable mentioning that here.

Julie and I first started communicating in 2008, when my beloved cousin Harris Wulfson took his own life; Julie was a year behind Harris at Amherst College, and remembered him to me as an otherworldly musician, always with an instrument in his hand. This is what broke the ice of conversation for us: a commonality, a weird sort of safety born of unthinkable loss. We didn’t talk much about Julie & Julia (the blog) at first, but did go back and forth a lot about her book based on the blog, later adapted for a movie that she was hugely excited about, but ultimately less than thrilled by. I don’t yet know if this is a thing— if it’s par for the course that authors of big, adapted books become disgruntled when they’re not involved as script consultant or screenwriters— but I suppose that it is key to be able to let go of what you can’t control, which is a very hard thing for a creative to do. For any of us to do. I remember telling her that it was in the best creative hands possible, and I still believe it was.

Amy Adams’ Julie wasn’t much like the actual Julie, and I honestly do not know what it is like to sit in a darkened room and stare up at a screen adaptation of your actual self; I suspect that it is not easy. Julie, I got the sense, wanted to have more involvement with the real-life versions of the people she’d written about on the blog, and in the book: the Judith Jones character in the movie, who is supposed to come to Julie and Eric’s apartment for an elaborate dinner with a Christian Science Monitor reporter, cancels at the last minute because of a rainstorm. The real-life Jones, still working as an editor, was also a no-show when the Cordon Bleu presented Julie with an honorary degree; it stung, Julie told me, but it was also awarded to her in France, and Jones was already older at that point. Julia herself, who, at the time of the blog in 2002 was 89 years old, and shielded by a small army of protectors, was widely purported to have disdained the blog and Julie’s project, and this upset Julie mightily. (Having had my own firsthand experience with the same small army of protectors, as well as [the brilliant] Jones, and also knowing many [many, many] young people who were inspired by Julia, and to whom she was extremely supportive when the small army was not present, I question Julia’s derision because, simply, it doesn’t sound like her to any of us authors who were remotely connected to her. She is widely known to have liked and supported the work of younger people who were directly inspired by her. Her protectors, however, are another story.)

I distinctly remember Julie’s sadness over the fact that this thing she had created had become something else; that the reason for creating it— out of profound respect and a need for healing— had been construed as something somehow less than appropriate, as though the creator had nefarious intentions. Nothing could be less accurate, and I know that Julie was upset that the fact of her project was supposedly found distasteful by the very person she idolized, and whose food was helping her put one foot in front of the other as she worked during the day at the great gaping hole left in the hearts of New Yorkers after 9/11.

Julie’s second book, Cleaving, took a different tone and a turn, and was read in a different way. It felt angry; Julie’s narrative voice had changed, and many readers wanted the other Julie back. This happens in the world of writing books: it’s called second book-itis. Cleaving referred to the work that she was doing with a butcher in upstate New York, but also to the affairs that both she and her husband had. I think of Cleaving, too, as a formal separation— a splitting— from the project and its persona that had thrust her into the limelight, and the food people she loved on the page and in her heart, but who, in real life, didn’t quite love her back. And that is incredibly, ironically heartbreaking. Now that she is gone, I expect that her work will experience a resurgence in popularity— this is the thing that happens. When it does happen, which it will, I will wish that she could see it. Because honestly: Julie was a fine, fine writer, and a good person.

There are a lot of I wishes here: I wish I’d reached out more. I wish I’d gotten into the car and had lunch with her upstate. I wish I’d checked on her when she got home from rehab. I wish I’d asked what she was working on now. I just wish I’d called and said the three words that we all need to hear: How are you.

This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.

Header image by Alone Tabito on Unsplash.