IN 2002, Julie Powell was living in an apartment in Long Island City, N.Y., working long hours at a dead-end job and just about to turn 30.
"I thought that was the end of the world. I was miserable. I didn't know what to do with my life, and I had sort of a panic attack," Powell recalled.
Seven years later, she was sitting on a couch in the lobby of the Sofitel in Philadelphia, strappy sandals on the floor and feet curled up comfortably under her. She was here promoting writer-director Nora Ephron's newest film, "Julie and Julia," based on two true stories, one of them her own.
"Julie & Julia," which opens Friday, chronicles the year Powell, portrayed by Amy Adams, cooked and blogged her way through Julia Child's "The Art of Mastering French Cooking," the book that revolutionized American cooking in the 1960s. Simultaneously, the film recreates Child's culinary beginnings in Paris, as based on her memoir "My Life in France."
Powell's blog attracted a substantial following and led to her best-selling 2005 memoir, "Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen." (Recent printings have been retitled "Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.") Her second book, "Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession," will be published in December.
The side-by-side storytelling structure, mouthwatering recipes and delightful performances by Adams and Streep make the film a treat. But for Powell, it's a little odd, too.
"All these events and things that I said and things that happened to me are definitely right there on the big screen," Powell said, "And just having Amy Adams pick up the phone and say, 'This is Julie Powell,' is strange."
Cooking was always a passion of Powell's, though she never had formal training. Dissatisfied with her secretarial job, she decided one night that she would cook her way through Child's 524-recipe book. The next morning, she bought the ingredients for the first recipe.
"I felt like I had nothing that was my own, so this project was a way for me to cut out a portion of my life that was for me," she said.
Most nights, Powell would leave work and shop for ingredients, getting home between 7 and 9 p.m. She would cook for two to three hours, eat and then crash.
Powell didn't just cook Julia's recipes, she did extensive research on the legendary chef, reading all Child's memoirs and letters. Powell's blog followers weren't always happy to hear about their culinary hero's more human side.
"People think of Julia as being this motherly, entirely warm, generous, perfect person," Powell said. "And what I like about the movie and Meryl's interpretation is that Julia was steely. She was prickly. She was loud. She was this 6-foot-tall woman living in Paris in 1947 who made what needed to happen, happen. She wasn't always kind and sweet and charming. She was charming but when she knew what she wanted she went after it."
Streep gets at the sweet and the salty as she augments the creation of an icon who made French cooking techniques accessible to everyday Americans. Child's TV show "The French Chef" premiered in 1962, and she would go on to host six more cooking shows and write 17 books. She received the French Legion of Honor and U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as honorary doctorates from Harvard and Smith colleges.
Child died at age 91 in 2004, a year before Powell's book was published.
While many parts of Powell's life on the big screen are Ephron's creations, certain details do remain true to real life. Powell had never eaten an egg until she hit the egg chapter in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." And she still remembers the moment she discovered she had blog followers other than her mom. The blog eventually attracted thousands of readers.
"It was a thrill. A narcissistic thrill. The fact that something I wrote at 7 in the morning, with no thought and no editing, had made someone read and respond, and that people were following what I was doing . . . was great and unexpected, as well as an interesting way to write," Powell said. (She's still blogging at http://juliepowell.blogspot.com.)
Cooking meltdowns and moments of kitchen hysteria were common occurrences over the course of the year. The tantrums make their way into the film as well.
Romance is another common theme.
Adams and Chris Messina, as Julie's husband Eric, play out the frustrations and intimacies of a relationship challenged by a life-changing project.
Streep and Stanley Tucci, who plays Child's husband, Paul, have an unexpected but irresistible chemistry. The Childs were best friends, intimate companions dealing with the highs of book deals and Julia's success, as well as the lows of infertility.
"I like the husbands, Paul and Eric, as these strong men who are married to strong, difficult women and admire that strength, and are not intimidated by that strength, but support it and love it and know that it's part of what makes them special," Powell said. "I don't know that there are many movies out there that explore marriage in quite this way."
Beyond emotional support, Eric helped in another vital way: He did the dishes.
Along with the blog followers, the book deal and Ephron's cinematic interest, Powell's project also led her to gain 20 pounds. Given the amount of butter most of the recipes call for, she did pretty well.
A sad truth in life and film is that Child told a reporter she disapproved of Powell's project. Devastated, Powell wrote to Child and received a cordial response, but the two never met.
Powell said she didn't let Child's opinion bother her. Child's soaring, high-pitched voice and cooking genius paved the way for thousands of American chefs and transformed the life of at least one dissatisfied New York secretary.
"Of course I was deeply unhappy she felt that way, but I've come to terms with it," Powell said. "If anyone is entitled to an opinion, it's Julia Child, and I don't think she would ever let someone's bad opinion of her keep her from going. She was a strong, prickly, occasionally mulish person. I'm OK with that. That's part of what I love about her."