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BOOK REVIEW

Finding a recipe for meaning in a cookbook

It's not about the mayonnaise. Even as she wrestles with eggs and oil that refuse to meld and gelée that ''tastes slightly of hoof," trying to follow all 524 recipes in Julia Child's ''Mastering the Art of French Cooking," young Julie Powell -- dissatisfied temp turned blog goddess -- senses that her struggle is not really over plating the perfect meal. Powell is cooking up a plan to rescue herself from depression by taking on a quest. And if her quest compels her to reproduce recipes from a 40-year-old cookbook within one year in a crappy New York City apartment kitchen, well, how often do heroes really choose their own journey?

Instead, in her lively, often laugh-out-loud funny memoir, Powell recounts a project that found her. Depressed and underemployed, the young writer is facing 30 without any form or meaning in her life (although she has maintained a happy marriage to her high school sweetheart, Eric). To make matters worse, she has a medical condition that means ''I was going to get hairy and fat, and I'd have to take all kinds of drugs to conceive." When three medical professionals in a row advise her to start listening to her biological clock, she freaks. Her husband advises her to return to her Texas family for a while. There, she stumbles upon her mother's copy of the Child book. It awakens memories of comfort and also sex. Before she even realizes what she's doing, she's back in Long Island City, making Potage Parmentier and a plan. The resulting blog (www.juliepowell.blogspot.com/) turned Powell into a celebrity of sorts, featured everywhere from CNN to The New York Times.

This might not have been so odd if Powell were already a foodie. For, say, The New York Times writer Amanda Hesser (who has a cameo in the book), it might be a normal way of working through an early midlife crisis. But Powell is no Hesser. She's a fan of Domino's bacon and jalapeno pizza. She's never knowingly eaten an egg before she starts what becomes known as the Julie/Julia Project. She has certainly never killed a lobster, split open a marrowbone, or sautéed brains and kidneys on her tiny gas stove. And if anyone begins to suspect that she's just a little more accomplished than she lets on, the maggot episode will confirm that Powell is nobody's Martha Stewart.

What she is is a writer. Although the transition from blog to book could have been horrible, overloaded with the kind of irrelevant asides that give such Web journals their immediacy, ''Julie & Julia" instead glides by on prose that alternates between buttery smooth and exceedingly, but hilariously, salty. Writing about her life, she's funny as hell, often obscene, with a largely unquotable vocabulary. Writing about food, she's sensual, deliberate, and original, whether describing the ''feral fleshiness" of liver or the ''smackery texture" of pan-fried brains.

Larded with excerpts from Child's letters and riding lightly on crises in her own marriage and her single friends' romances, ''Julie & Julia" just may be a contemporary masterpiece. Yes, it came from a blog, that most current of fads. But in these pages is the story of how one young woman, a self-described ''vapid secretary with a butter fetish," found a way to live. As she charts her progress from that first leek-potato soup to the final offering, a box of Land O'Lakes butter left at the Smithsonian's Julia Child exhibit, Powell saves herself, with a side of sauce.

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