As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece
by Joan Reardon
Reviewed by Peggy McMullen
In March of 1952, Julia Child wrote a fan letter to Bernard DeVoto about a column he'd written for Harper's magazine a few months earlier on American knives. The stainless steel implements, he remarked, would not hold an edge and were impossible to sharpen.
"Your able diatribe against the beautiful-beautiful-rust-proof-edge-proof American kitchen knife so went to my heart that I cannot refrain from sending you this nice little French model as a token of my appreciation," Child wrote the historian and prolific journalist.
When she wrote the letter, Julia was living in Paris with her husband, Paul, who worked for the State Department's U.S. Information Service. They had met while working for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II in what is now Sri Lanka. She'd grown up not knowing how to cook. Living in Sri Lanka and China had awakened an interest in food that, in France, burst into a passion with the country's splendid food. In her letter, Child told DeVoto she'd spent the past three years in Paris studying French cooking (she began taking classes at Le Cordon Bleu in 1949).
A few weeks later, she got a letter back from DeVoto's wife, Avis, who apologized that her husband, swamped with work and trying to get ready for a five-week trip, did not have time to write Julia himself.
Avis' letter was no mere thanks and buh-bye. The chatty response expanded on the topic of knives and sharpening and asked Julia some more questions, ending: "Thanks again for the knife, which is a little gem. My husband, I regret to say, has snitched it for his own use -- cutting the lemon peel the proper thinness for the six o'clock Martini -- but it will be mine while he is in California."
Thus began a correspondence, friendship and melding of like minds that lasted the rest of their lives -- and helped in the publication of Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
While in Paris, Julia had made friends with Simone "Simca" Beck ("a Parisian who was well versed in the cuisines of Normandy, Alsace, and Provence") and Louisette Bertholle. The three, in January of 1952, began teaching French cooking to American women, dubbing their "school" L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes. Before meeting Julia, Simca and Louisette had worked together on a cookbook of some 600 recipes. The U.S. publishing house they'd contracted with made a small book of some of the recipes but had no interest in a larger project, telling the women it did not think such a large book would appeal to American cooks. In 1952, they asked Julia to bring a U.S. perspective to the project.
As the friendship blossomed between the pen pals, Julia asked Avis, who knew the staff at Houghton Mifflin because it published Bernard's work, for advice. She sent Avis the first draft of the book the three women were working on. Avis immediately recognized the potential in the manuscript and jumped in to help. To know that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961 is to hint at a little of the cumbersome path ahead.
But, oh, the delightful journey of As Always, Julia, the collection of letters between Julia and Avis from that first missive in 1952 through 1961 and the book's publication. Joan Reardon -- a biographer, cookbook author and culinary historian -- culled through a wealth of correspondence archived in collections at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Mass., arranging the letters to let the women speak for themselves, adding only brief introductions to different sections and footnotes on the parade of people and current affairs the women refer to.
More fascinating than that, however, is the shared discussion of life and food in America and in France. In one letter, Avis talks about the shallots Julia has sent her -- "bigger and healthier" than those available in her Cambridgemarket, and other onions she has access to: red Italian onions, white, yellow and scallions (which Julia does not have in her local market). In the next paragraph, she says the now "wildly popular" seasoning in U.S. markets is monosodium glutamate sold as Accent. Kitchen tools are undergoing a bit of a revolution with the advent of the electric mixer and blender which -- like the food processor in later years -- make it possible to re-create dishes in a short period of time that before would take hours to prepare. The electric dishwasher is just coming into its own in the 1950s.
Falling into the world of the letters between Avis and Julia is also a reminder of how different things are today. They corresponded with typewritten, mailed letters. If one of them wanted to share something they'd read with the other, they had to copy it -- there were no faxes, Xerox machines or smart phones. They did not get to meet until three years after they first began writing, previously exchanging photographs in girlish delirium of getting to know each other better. The two had become "soul mates," as Julia declared, with the distance and the letter-writing enabling them to share more than they might have had they been next-door neighbors.
The book is a reminder of the power of persistence, of a dream or a friendship, and of the lost art of writing a letter. The immediacy of e-mail, Twitter and blogging makes communication a breeze. But for Avis and Julia, such notes came at the end of a long day of work, when they would sit down to a typewriter and commune with a friend a world away, then put a letter in the mail and wait days or weeks for a reply. There was little frittering as thoughts and anecdotes simmered between missives, and such correspondence brewed patience.
Avis ever encourages Julia to persist with her vision of the book despite some admonishment from American testers and publishers that modern cooks won't want to take the time to prepare complex recipes.
"Nobody who reads the book is going to turn overnight into a French cook who does no other kind of cooking," Avis wrote her. "We are all going to do a lot of American cooking all our lives. But when we cook French, we want a clear uncluttered classic line and no compromises. Here it is, girls, take it or leave it ... I know ... this kind of cooking, this kind of eating, this kind of life is on its way out. But let's preserve what we can of it, for as long as we can, before we are all reduced to proteins grown in shallow sea-water."
In the foodie world of today, we can see that Avis couldn't have been more wrong. The cookbook they both envisioned (and the following influential TV series of Julia as "The French Chef") were all part of the reason why we still embrace the idea of "bon appetit."