In the early 2000s, when blogging was new, writers dreamed of turning their online endeavours into media sensations. Julie Powell, who died aged 49 of cardiac arrest, was one of blogging’s earliest success stories.
Started in August 2002, The Julie/Julia Project detailed her messy attempts to cook her way through an American classic cookbook, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. Powell cooked 524 meals in 365 days, documenting the chaos of her tiny apartment kitchen and her personal life alongside her recipe-wrangling.
Pioneering the chatty, unfiltered style that would come to dominate so much of home cookery writing online, and indeed much blogging in general, Powell’s blog achieved 400,000 page views: a considerable feat when most people had dial-up internet. A month after she finished the blog, she bagged a six-figure book deal.
In the Hollywood film Julie & Julia (2009), the blog was brought to life, intertwined with the story of Julia Child, by romantic comedy royalty: Nora Ephron directed it; Amy Adams played Powell; Meryl Streep played Child.
Powell had not begun the decade with much optimism. In 2002, she was living above a diner in Long Island City, a neighbourhood of Queens, New York, with her husband, three cats and a pet python. She worked as an administrator for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, set up in the wake of the September 11 attacks to help rebuild the area around the World Trade Center. It was “an exhausting job”, Powell told the food writer Pablo Goldstein in 2020.
Disillusioned, she turned to one of her mother’s old cookbooks for comfort, and began blogging on a free platform, run by Salon.com, to give her life a sense of direction. Powell found a peculiar kinship with Child, a gregarious diplomat’s wife whose 1960s TV shows, full of chaos and mistakes, made her a US household name. Powell managed the challenge “in a state of panic for a year straight,” she told Goldstein, “and I’d be drinking the whole time to get myself through it.”
With shopping for such curios as lobster, veal kidneys and beef marrow done on the way home from work, dinner would be on the table at 10pm at the “very earliest”. She would wake up to write her blog at 6am before jumping on the subway for work. “I let peer pressure and fan pressure drive me forward, which was very helpful,” Powell added.
She was born in Austin, Texas. Her father, John Foster, was a lawyer, and her mother, Kay, a housewife who later returned to university. Julie met Eric Powell when they acted in a high school production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. They married in 1998 after she graduated from Amherst College, Massachusetts, where she studied theatre and fiction writing.
Eric, who became an editor of an archaeology magazine, featured often in his wife’s posts, and Powell spared few details about their relationship. She rarely avoided the blood and guts of life in general, always folding them in. After the success of her blog, Powell had an extramarital affair, as did he.
This was documented in Powell’s second book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession (2009), which also followed her apprenticeship as a butchery assistant. She and her husband worked through their problems, and they stayed together. Cleaving, however, received mixed reviews.
In the same year, Julie & Julia was a hit, making $130m at the box office. Powell enjoyed it but blogged about “the surreality” of seeing “a rom-com-ed, slimmed-down, considerably less foul-mouthed version” of herself on screen. She wrote sporadically thereafter from her country home in upstate New York, most recently using social media to post about her life, including her illnesses and depression. In April, she started writing for Salon again, as a TV reviewer critiquing the Food Network show The Julia Child Challenge.
Her witticisms and waspish asides were accompanied by sentiment for the woman who inspired her in the first place. “I start crying,” she said when an archive clip of Child was played. “I don’t know why. Somehow, I feel like I’m saying goodbye to her all over again.”
Powell is survived by her husband, her parents and her brother, Jordon.