Last night I made fried zucchini squash blossoms. I stuffed them with cheese, dipped them in a batter of Guinness, half and half, flour, and salt, and fried them in oil. If you were reading about my squash blossoms on a food blog (just as I read about several other amateur cooks' squash blossoms on their food blogs to figure out how to make them), it would have taken you several paragraphs to get to the denouement: they were delicious. First, you would probably have to read about my past relationship with squash blossoms. Then you'd hear how I came across them in the picturesque farmer's market or my own sweet little backyard vegetable patch, and you'd see a picture of them, all pretty yellow and orange petals. Next would be the paragraph where my husband/boyfriend made an adorably skeptical remark about eating flowers, followed by a swift (and adorable) attitude reversal once he learned they'd be dipped in beer. Eight hundred words or so in, and you still wouldn't know how to fry a squash blossom, but you'd know a whole lot about me.
Which is the point of food blogs. It's also why the animosity aimed at Julie Powell, the author of the blog that begat the book that begat the movie Julie & Julia, is so misplaced. When Powell began her quest to cook every recipe in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year in 2002, she won a huge audience of readers who found her confessions of ineptitude in the kitchen and in life real and relatable. But in 2005, the book came out, and Powell suddenly had the mantle of authority thrust upon her. She went from blogger to "food personality," which meant she was fair game for a takedown. It was gleefully reported that neither Child nor her editor, Judith Jones, had thought much of Powell's project. Powell wrote an editorial for The New York Times piercing the sanctimony of the organic food movement and made herself a whole new group of enemies. (The recent report that organic food is no healthier than conventionally grown food should give her some vindication.) The news that her next book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, reveals the extramarital affair she had with an old friend was met with both eyerolls and raised eyebrows, and her publisher's decision to push back the book's release date and screenwriter Nora Ephron's omission of the affair from the film were viewed as highly suspicious. Early reviews of the film complain that the character based on Powell (played by Amy Adams) isn't nearly as likable or interesting as the Julia Child character (played by Meryl Streep), and food bloggers, many of whom were invited to advance screenings, are taking the film's release as an excuse to revisit their issues with Powell, which boil down to one complaint: she doesn't really know how to cook. In the seven years since Powell started her blog, the premise seems to have gone from Julie and Julia to Julie vs. Julia, with Julia winning.
What's unfair about this is the fact that Powell never claimed to be a great cook. She was clear, from her project's inception, that it was simply a conceit: not to get a book deal, but to get a life. She was miserable in her job, hated her apartment, and was losing faith in herself. She could have decided to build 365 birdhouses—she just needed something to do. In this way, she resembled Child before she became a cookbook author and star of her own cooking show. Child, too, was looking for something to restore her self-confidence when she moved to France with her husband, Paul. She was desperate to be more than a housewife—she just didn't know what. But the similarity ends there. Though Ephron's film depicts Child taking deep, sensual pleasure in a perfectly cooked piece of fish, the legendary chef was, at heart, a scientist. Her greatest satisfaction came from precision and clarity, so she approached her recipes like formulas, testing them endlessly, sweating the smallest details. Powell would be the first person to admit that this is not her approach; her earliest blog posts show that she was substituting and omitting, screwing things up and hoping a liberal application of butter would cover her sins. Along the way, she found herself, just as Child did. The difference is, Powell found herself as a writer, not a cook. As she wrote on The Atlantic's blog recently, "one of the great discoveries of my year cooking through Julia Child's marvelous, world-changing book and writing about it was that I could develop a voice people found engaging and humorous. (Possibly the greatest exchange of that entire year—Me: 'I never realized I was funny before!' My mom: 'I know—neither did I!')"
Whether you find Powell engaging and humorous or annoying and self-absorbed is a matter of taste, but it is her voice, not her cooking, that she should be judged by. Like it or not, her breezy, chatty, "let me tell you about my dog and my husband and what I did this weekend and oh yeah here's a recipe for fried squash blossoms" approach set the tone for most of the food blogs today, of which there are thousands. Some do it as well as she did, some do it better, some fail altogether. (And plenty are written by people who clearly know far less about food than she does.) But all owe her a debt of gratitude.