Tacos and Gimlets

Treating the author of Julie & Julia to a little taste of San Francisco

I know Roz Chast meant it ironically, but her New Yorker cartoon titled "Another Day in the Salt Mines" seemed just like real life to me. In it, a waiter asks a woman seated at a banquette with a half-filled plate on the table in front of her, "Are you still working on that?" and she replies, "No. In fact, I'm completely exhausted. Maybe if you wrap it up, I can finish working on it at home."

I'm not exhausted. But when I ask for the remains of my meal to be wrapped up, I will be deconstructing it later.

At home, it seems lately that an awful lot of extracurricular food homework is always waiting for me: the TiVo teeming with the real Anthony Bourdain, in both reruns of Cook's Tour and new episodes of No Reservations, as well as the mock Anthony Bourdain, in the three episodes of Kitchen Confidential that Fox let escape before putting it on hiatus ("Returns 11/14," and a grateful nation says thanks).

Not to mention The Biggest Loser, whose credit sequence features cheeseburgers, fried chicken, and doughnuts, and whose "temptations" include Twinkies, hot dogs, pizza, and doughnuts again; and, I can't help myself, now it's Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels instead of her $40 a Day (one wonders when and if the New Orleans episode featured in the opening titles and on the Food Network Web site will air). Thank God Gordon Ramsay's three shows seem to have played out, for the moment (Hell's Kitchen, indeed).

And there are the newest additions to the 500-foot shelf: not only cookbooks, but also Turning the Tables: Restaurants From the Inside Out by Steven A. Shaw, aka "The Fat Guy," who loves restaurants with an almost embarrassing fervor, and who specializes in demystifying the not very mysterious; The Seasoning of a Chef: My Journey From Diner to Ducasse and Beyond by Doug Psaltis with Michael Psaltis, a "tell-all" memoir by a guy nobody had ever heard of; and Don't Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes From the World's Greatest Chefs, edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman, its most hyperbolic entry courtesy of, you guessed it, Anthony Bourdain.

If I get tired of books, there's always the pile of food-porn magazines. Or maybe I can spend an hour or two clicking away at Chowhound.com, the stickiest Web site I know. Or, hey, is Waiting ... still playing anywhere?

What I can't do is rush to the computer to read a blog that, for many halcyon months a couple of years ago, was the most dependably delightful part of my day. A young woman about to turn 30, once an aspiring actress and now stuck in a tedious office job in Lower Manhattan and living in Long Island City, was struck by lightning (metaphorically speaking) and decided not only to cook her way through Julia Child's magisterial 1961 Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year, but also to blog about it as she went.

I stumbled upon the site when Julie (felicitous coincidence, hence the blog's name: "The Julie/Julia Project") Powell was some months into her quest, and I fell in love -- with the idea; with nostalgia for the person I was when I first cooked from the Book many years ago; with the dispiriting shopping trips Powell took after work in search of bone marrow, celery root, and truffles; with the meals she served while watching Buffy or a Netflix DVD at 10:45 p.m.; most of all with the enchanting voice of the intrepid cook.

I loved the rants ("Dean & DeLuca ... Listen to me, people. Do as I say, not as I do, and stay away from that evil place"), the swearing, the casual revelations ("At least, I think they were peas. Neither I nor anyone I'd ever known had, so far as I heard, ever bought fresh peas before"; "I have eaten three eggs in the last three days; more or less the only eggs I have ever eaten in my life"). This woman is a born writer. I was as taken with her serial as was anyone reading Dickens in installments 150 years ago.

So I was not at all surprised when, as the "Project" neared its end, its entries began to include mentions of radio interviews, newspaper articles (including one in the New York Times by Amanda Hesser, whose own bloglike Food Diary, about cooking for her eventual husband, had been collected in Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, With Recipes), and, ultimately, a book deal.

I couldn't wait for the book. But I did. Of course, when I read it, 20 minutes after it was published (Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, Little, Brown, $25.95), I was initially disappointed that it's different from the blog. The narrative begins with Julie selling her eggs, for God's sake -- and I mean from her ovaries, not poached in red wine and napped in Sauce Bourguignonne ("The eggs wore blue; the sauce wore gray," as on Page 47).

In truth, the book begins with the first of several imaginary episodes in the life of Julia and Paul Child, which are written in a stiffer, less supple style than the rest of Julie & Julia but eventually lead to the "Aha!" moment in Julia's life: to write the Book, as a parallel to Julie's own "aha." ("HELL AND DAMNATION, is all I can say. WHY DID WE EVER DECIDE TO DO THIS ANYWAY?" wrote Julia in real life to one of her co-authors, neatly quoted by Julie, who often felt the same way during the "Project.") But then I relaxed, realized that the blog still exists (blogs.salon.com/0001399), and learned to enjoy this new voice, these new characters.

When the tall and beautiful Julie Powell comes to town (for events in Santa Rosa and Corte Madera, oddly skipping S.F.), I want to wine and dine her, shower her with truffles and bone marrow, and take her to a musical based on Buffy, but settle for an hour between other engagements. She's fresh off the plane from a big reading in New York the night before, worried about her husband, Eric, who's hung over from the same festivities back at home, and wins my heart immediately as we stroll through the Ferry Building Marketplace, one-stop shopping for the kind of luxury items she subwayed all over New York searching out. I say, "What would you like to eat? Caviar? Oysters? Mexican food?" and she replies, "Mexican." We go to Mijita Cocina Mexicana, which I wish had brain tacos in homage to Julie's own struggles with the organ, and have flawless, juicy, porky carnitas and al pastor tacos. I would have liked to have taken her to one of the El Tonayense taco trucks, where the 11 different fillings include sesos (brains) as well as flawless, juicy carnitas (oddly translated as "brief pork"), al pastor, cabeza (head, which is mostly beef cheeks, tasting like the world's best pot roast), lengua (garlicky tongue, tasting like it came from my grandma's kitchen), and tripitas (not tripe but chunks of grilled intestine, chewy and strong). I figure Julie, now an aspiring butcher (and, perhaps, chronicler of adventures in meat) would be happy there. At $1.50 each, El Tonayense's tacos are a third the price of Mijita's excellent ones.

The hour becomes two. We linger over vodka gimlets, described in Julie & Julia with religious fervor ("with an almost-not-there shade of chartreuse lingering in their slightly oily depths"), at MarketBar; she says she prefers Rose's Lime Juice to the freshly squeezed juice used here, but it'll do, it'll do. And I tell her that I cried again when I read in the book's epilogue what she wrote about Julia Child when Child died, which brought Powell back to her blog almost exactly two years after she started it, for one final entry: "I have no claim over the woman at all, unless it's the claim one who has nearly drowned has over the person who pulled her out of the ocean."

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