Goodbye to My Friend Julie Powell, Who Was So Much More Than Her Food Writing
In 2007, my boyfriend’s mother handed me a paperback with a yellow cover.
“You’re going to love it,” she gushed. “You’re going to love her.”
The book was Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, a memoir based on a blog called the Julie/Julia Project in which Julie Powell documented her year-long attempt to cook through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
My boyfriend and I broke up a few days later, but his mom was right about the book, and about Julie. Her misadventures in the kitchen were endearingly relatable, especially to this foul-mouthed wannabe food writer.
Following Julie’s untimely death by cardiac arrest at only 49 years old on October 26, the collective mourning has focused on the legacy of her career. As Kim Severson and Julia Moskin noted in the New York Times, the Julie/Julia Project became a popular model for other blogs, and in his newsletter, Frank Bruni wrote that he owes her for democratizing and demystifying the food world.
But Julie Powell was so much more than a trailblazer. She was a friend. A brilliant, generous, complicated person. And I doubt I’d be where I am today without her encouragement and support.
I met Julie first as a fangirl. After finishing Julie & Julia, I decided she was the perfect person to pen the foreword to a casserole cookbook I had just started writing. So when I saw that she would be doing a live reading at a cozy bar a few blocks from my Greenpoint apartment, I planned my approach. It involved ordering a vodka gimlet—her favorite drink as she’d mentioned many times in her book—and handing it to her as she left the stage.
If someone did that to me today, I’d probably grab the drink and run the other way, but somehow it worked. Julie not only agreed to write the foreword, she suggested we have lunch the following week. The morning after we met, she even joked about my amateur stalking skills on her blog, implying she’d done much worse.
I was shocked she was so open to me, but I got the sense she needed a friend, and after a melodramatic breakup, I did too.
We grew close and bonded over stories of heartbreak, as well as our mutual love of unfussy food and animals. (We both had cats, and while I wasn’t yet in a place to have a dog of my own, I was grateful to hang out with her big, slobbery rescue, Robert.) Sometimes we drank wine at her apartment and tried to find me a new boyfriend on OkCupid, then we’d drink more wine and start searching the internet for our old crushes. During the day, we G-Chatted about outfits and relationships even though we both had deadlines and should have been writing instead. Occasionally, she’d send me sneak peeks of her second book as she completed some of the juicier chapters.
I coveted her big apartment, successful career, and loving (if unconventional) marriage, but she never once made me feel like we weren’t equals. Not early in our friendship when I was a hot mess about my ex, and not months later when she invited me over for carbonara and I replied, “Wait…what’s carbonara?” She explained the recipe without an ounce of judgment, just as casually as she threw it together for a Friday afternoon lunch.
Despite my ignorance about pasta that didn’t go into a casserole, Julie was enormously supportive of my writing and introduced me to some of the big players in food media. Instead of gatekeeping, she held the door wide open.
Our mutual friend and Bon Appétit contributor Cathy Erway shared similar sentiments in a Facebook post about Julie’s death. “I’m so grateful for the support she gave me as a young blogger-turned-memoirist, writing a blurb for my first book and cheerleading me on at such an important time in my career,” she wrote.
Julie’s penchant for helping young writers was invaluable to me, but I’m just as grateful that she was like a big sister in my everyday life, too.
When I was broke and in between apartments, she paid me to house-sit when I probably should have been paying her to sublet. When I cracked the screen on my laptop a few weeks before my book was due, she took me to the Mac store and fronted me the money for a new one until I got my next advance check from the publisher. And when I found myself without a place to stay in Austin while covering a food blogging panel, she sent me to her parents’ house.
Even when her life got messy, both personally and professionally, she continued to give—to me, to her other friends and family, to animal rescue organizations, and to a public that seemed to turn on her when she showed them more of who she really was.
In 2009, the Nora Ephron adaptation of Julie & Julia came out, starring the doe-eyed Amy Adams as Julie and Meryl Streep as Julia Child. In both the book and the movie, Julie was comfortably, safely edgy. But that same year, her second memoir Cleaving debuted, braiding Julie’s attempts to learn butchery with a very raw chronicle of her extramarital affair. That book went all the way over the edge with details about BDSM and her unapologetic longing for someone other than her husband, and it took many fans by surprise. Even the usually level-headed NPR ran a review with the headline, “What’s Wrong With Julie Powell’s ‘Cleaving.’”
But the warmth and generosity that Julie showed me had always been accompanied by a delightfully dark sense of humor. I remember she once sent a friend The Book of the Dead, a compilation of New York Times obituaries, as a thank-you gift, and when we started looking up old love interests, it didn’t take me long to learn that she was, indeed, a much more gifted online stalker than I could ever hope to be.
Julie and I both eventually left New York City and as it often does, life got in the way of us staying in touch. We hadn’t talked much for the last few years, but I continued to pay close attention to her Twitter, where she was very open about her struggles with depression, among other things. She was still the same talented, voicey Julie who once blogged about aspic and freaked out when she had to split a live lobster in half, but the content was darker. It sometimes made me worry about her, but for the most part, it was in line with the Julie I knew and loved.
Monday afternoon, about an hour after I filed the manuscript for an upcoming essay collection, I got a message from Julie’s husband, Eric. He was reaching out to her friends ahead of the New York Times obituary, which would run the next day. I was grateful to receive the devastating news before I saw it in a headline, but I also couldn’t help but note the eerie timing. I was introduced to Julie through her first memoir and as I finished mine, she was gone.
Books bookended our friendship, but Julie Powell was so much more than what people saw on the page. She always was.
Julie and Julia: My Years of Cooking Dangerously