As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto
Selected and Edited by Joan Reardon
Photos by Paul Child, C.H. Dykeman and Rigmore Delphin
Facts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 432 pages, $26.00 (or $15.60 at Amazon)
Photos: 28 black and white (including one of Paul & Julia in their bathtub!)
Recipes: None
Give to: fans of Julia Child; yourself.

In this post holiday (perhaps diet) season when you may be taking a short hiatus from serious cooking, I’d like to introduce you to a book for cooks rather than a “cookbook” this month. Actually this book is for anyone interested in reading about a different era and having the opportunity to know the private side of Julia Child through letters written between 1952 and 1961. The collection of letters went beyond 1961 but Joan Reardon chose those which cover the time and story of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume 1)

Reardon is a culinary historian and a friend. By 2006 she had read and collected most of the letters written by Avis DeVoto to Julia but Julia’s letters to Avis had been sealed for thirty years and archived in the Avis DeVoto Papers.When Julia’s letters were unsealed, Joan spent a week at Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has done a remarkable job bringing this story to us.

The introduction of Julia and Avis began when Julia wrote a sympathetic letter to Avis’ husband, Bernard DeVoto (a Pulitzer Prize winning writer), after reading his article in Harper’s magazine and agreeing with his frustration that American stainless steel knives wouldn’t hold a sharp edge. Julia kindly enclosed a small French knife with the letter to Bernard. That was March, 1952.

Avis responded in her husband’s stead as he was preparing for a five-week trip. The exchanges began and by Christmas, 1952 the salutations had changed from Mrs. Child and Mrs. DeVoto to Dear Julia and Dear Avis. (Bear in mind that this was snail mail. While reading the book, I wondered if any of this would have been captured had they corresponded by email.)

It is no wonder these two well-educated, well-traveled ladies friends became close friends. They are sassy, they don’t mince words, they are funny and it doesn’t surprise me that their conversations, albeit in writings, are as real and intimate as we women are.

I need to go off on a tangent here. A few months ago I came home from having my hair cut by a new person.I told my husband that the hairdresser was 43 years old, divorced, was having trouble paying her rent, just started dating someone… his mouth was agape. When I asked what was wrong, he said “I’ve been going to the same barber for 40 years and I don’t know that much about him.”And your point is? Hey, we’re women, we support each other, we’re not uptight about sharing and there’s nothing better than someone who will listen…. but I digress… back to the women in my spotlight, Julia and Avis.

This book begins at the time when Julia, Simone Beck (Simca) and Louisette Bertholle began teaching French cooking to American women and they began working on a cookbook with the same goal.  Avis was the yin to Julia’s yang. Avis was Julia’s pipeline to what was happening on the American culinary scene and Julia’s outlet when she was frustrated with Simca. And, more importantly, she was integral to having Mastering the Art of French Cooking published by Houghton Mifflin.

There are nothing like quotes to give you great insight to Julia:

  • about her relationship with Paul: “Before marriage I was wildly interested in sex … but since joining up with my old goat, it has taken its proper position in my life”;
  • their encounter with McCarthyism (Paul was called to be interviewed by the McCarthy people): “My, what a loathsome creature McCarthy is right down to the smudge between his toes”.
  • and Julia’s summation of her relationship with Avis: “That you have taken all this time and devotion and energy to promote something by people you only know through two pieces of cutlery, rustable at that…. But how nice it is that one can come to know someone just through correspondence, and become really passionate friends.”

This is a book that you can read at a leisurely pace. Since it is an exchange of letters, it’s easy to put down as time dictates and pick up whenever. In a word? Charming.

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