BOOK REVIEW: AS ALWAYS, JULIA: THE LETTERS OF JULIA CHILD & AVIS DEVOTO. EDITED BY JOAN REARDON AND PUBLISHED BY HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT, 2010

In this age of the computer—with Facebook, Twitter, and email—handwritten letters are pretty much a thing of the past. While there are probably some holdouts who prefer pen and paper, I expect most of us communicate electronically via the computer. While this kind of communication has its good points—speed and ease—it also has one very big drawback—impermanence. Simply put, letters written on paper have much more lasting power than messages sent through email.

We can only be grateful, then, that Julia Child and her friend, mentor, and confidante Avis DeVoto did not have use of computers when they were middle-aged women. Otherwise, we never would have had the many letters they sent to each other, starting in 1952 and ending in 1988, a year before Avis DeVoto’s death. For the letters in As Always, Julia are more than just a chronicle of everyday life in Europe (Julia Child) and Boston (Avis DeVoto) in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the book ends. These letters, arranged and edited by Joan Reardon, trace the arc of a remarkable phenomenon that, like most phenomena, would seem to be a foregone conclusion but really wasn’t. I am referring, of course, to the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which did so much to change the way Americans cook. While most foodies know that Julia Child was the driving force behind Mastering the Art of French Cooking—Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle also worked on the book—few foodies realize the pivotal role that Avis DeVoto played in getting this important cookbook published. DeVoto has been called “the midwife” of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Indeed, after reading As Always Julia, I wondered if Julia Child ever would have become JULIA CHILD without DeVoto’s help. We’ll never know, of course, but it’s fascinating to think about, and this book is a terrific lesson about the importance of friends.

It’s funny and somehow appropriate that the correspondence began with a knife. Bernard DeVoto, Avis’s husband, was a historian and a journalist. In a 1951 issue of Harper’s, Bernard DeVoto bemoaned the deplorable state of American knives, which were by and large stainless steel and thus couldn’t hold an edge. Julia Child and her husband, Paul, read the article, and even though neither of them knew Bernard DeVoto, they admired his writing, and Julia decided to send him a good knife along with a short letter of explanation. At the time, the Childs were living in Paris, and it was easy for them to get good knives. Avis DeVoto, “mainstay of and secretary to her husband, the mother of two sons, a reviewer of whodunits for the Boston Globe, an editor, an accomplished cook…” answered Julia’s letter and thanked her for the knife. Something immediately clicked between the two women, which resulted in more letters and a friendship that would last until Avis died in 1989.

When Julia Child first began corresponding with Avis DeVoto, Mastering the Art of French Cooking wasn’t really Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Instead, the proposed title was French Cooking for All, and the original idea was for it to be published in five individual volumes by Ives Washburn. Julia Child decided to send a first draft to Avis DeVoto, “who immediately saw [the book’s] potential” and thought it should go to Houghton Mifflin, her husband’s publisher. The manuscript did indeed go to Houghton Mifflin, and when they eventually got cold feet because of the manuscript’s length, Avis DeVoto managed to convince Alfred A. Knopf and a “talented young editor” named Judith Jones to read the manuscript and to consider publishing it as one long book. This they did, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking was finally born. This, of course, is only the briefest summation of what really happen during the long, long gestation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

In addition to this fascinating history, the smart and witty personalities of each woman shines clearly in this book. Both were passionate, liberal Democrats who were thrown into despair by Joseph McCarthy and his thugs. Child and DeVoto were interested in books, art, and ideas, and this correspondence should put to rest the notion that the 1950s were an intellectual wasteland. While not everyone was a vibrant thinker and a brilliant conversationalist during the 1950s, the same is also true of people today. I would even venture to guess that the percentages are pretty much the same between now and then, but I don’t have any numbers to back up this hypothesis.

Finally, while I have long been a fan of Julia Child and her large, glowing personality, I became totally smitten by the intense, loyal, funny Avis DeVoto, who did so much for Julia Child. How I would have loved to have had  a conversation with the two of them.

As Always Julia is a fascinating chronicle of a critical era in American food history, and it certainly belongs in the library of anyone who loves and is interested in food.

 

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