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Chronicle of a Death Not Foretold*: The Shocking, Early Passing of Food Writer Julie Powell

Food writer Julie Powell’s death came as a monumental shock to me.

Her Wikipedia page is right up to date: “Powell died of cardiac arrest at her home in Olivebridge, New York, on October 26, 2022, at age 49.”

People who blow out only thirty – or fewer – candles on their birthday cakes think of forty-nine as old. But these days it’s not at all. Consider the fact that since 1980, the number of people living to be ninety or older tripled in the United States. So, hypothetically, a person who’s almost fifty could live for forty more years.

Take Gael Greene, New York magazine’s restaurant critic who recently passed at age eighty-eight. She harkened back to the days when classic French cooking stood at the apex of the dining pyramid. Even though she wrote a scandalous memoir, Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess, she was best known for upending the art of restaurant criticism, mostly in New York City.

Greene’s obiturary in The New York Times describes how she did that:

A fan of the New Journalism, she put a premium on lively prose and colorful detail, throwing overboard the pompousness of the professional gourmets who dominated the profession.

Who knows what Powell could have done with thirty-nine more years? She’d recently begun writing again, for Salon.

So why is Powell’s death such fodder for the media?

Frank Bruni, columnist for The New York Times, sums it up in his paean to Julie Powell, “Thank You, Julie Powell. I Owe You.”

But Powell and others like her had changed the terms of food writing, which was turning less preachy, more populist. The spirit of the times and of The Times was that curiosity mattered as much as erudition, that too much emphasis on classicism had too much classism in it.

I will confess I missed most of Powell’s blog, which appeared in 2002. She called it the “Julie & Julia Project,” setting herself a year-long deadline to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s massive first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, no mean feat. The idea was simply brilliant, and her writing style appealed to many readers more than the writing in, say, Gourmet magazine or other similar food-related publications. Her big break came when Amanda Hesser of The New York Times caught wind of Powell’s blog and visited her for dinner, the ensuing write-up in The Times resulting in a book contract and eventually a movie deal as well (in which Amanda Hesser played herself in the dinner scene!).

Basically a memoir, the book – Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen – focused less on the year she spent cooking and more on Julie’s inner struggles. And those were many, deep and disturbing.  One reader left an Amazon review with the phrase “self-indulgent.” That was my take on it as well. When news of the film surfaced, with Meryl Streep playing Julia Child, I had a few reservations. However, director Nora Ephron created a marvelous cinematic experience, juxtaposing both Julie’s and Julia’s search for meaning in life via food and cooking. Ephron captured the essence of both women’s inner yearnings.

I’m not one to buy films, either on DVD or through a streaming service. But I do own “Julie & Julia,” and watch it often to escape the humdrums of existence. It’s not really the story relayed in Julie’s book, but it does provide some escapism AND food for thought.

The film challenges viewers – us – with a basic question: “How do we find our way in the world?”

Nowadays, food bloggers come from everywhere, writing on every possible topic, so many that it’s really impossible to keep up with them all or to pinpoint the major influencers.

Powell no doubt inspired many of those writers. Including me.

Julie Powell, rest in peace.

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*Title a twist on Gabriel García Márquez‘s novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Crónica de una muerte anunciada)

 

 

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