As Always, Julia
The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto
Food, Friendship & the Making of a Masterpiece
Edited by Joan Reardon
Houghton MIfflin Harcourt
While reading As Always, Julia, an always entertaining collection of the letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, it is impossible not to mourn the lost art of letterwriting. Today’s digital communications — texts, emails, tweets of 140 characters, facebook posts — have rendered the old-fashioned letter, well, old-fashioned. That’s a shame — or “hmmph” as Julia would write.
It all began in 1952, when Julia Child sent historian and journalist Bernard De Voto a French kitchen knife, after she’d read a Harper’s coumn in which he despaired of finding a proper kitchen kinife. DeVoto’s wife Avis wrote to thank Child, launching what would grow into a deep, lifelong friendship. It is a rare privilege to read these letters that are, in fact, a case study in friendship.
Subtitled Food, Friendship & the Making of a Masterpiece, many of these letters chronicle the nearly decade-long process that brought Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to press. A case could be made that this would never have happened without Avis’s encouragement, support and connections. It was Avis who placed the manuscript at first with Houghton Mifflin and then, nearly ten years later, with Knopf, its eventual Manhattan-based publisher.
Julia shares her insecurities and doubts with her pen-pal: “So I am deeply depressed, gnawed by doubts, and feel that all our work may just lay a big rotten egg.” Avis responds as a true friend would: “You are right and you must be stubborn. . . . What you are doing is casting a great light over the mysteries of French cooking. Stand by your guns. . .”
Like Julia, Avis relished food. Her idea of the perfect meal? Lobsters, preceded by “dry Martinis a la DeVoto . . . . Nothing whatever else should be served — we are eating all the lobster we want, we are not fooling around with salad or strawberry shortcake or even coffee. All you need are the martinis, plenty of lobsters, milllions of paper napkins and a view.” What could be better than that?
Ever wondered what foods Julia really likes and dislikes? Here Julia confesses that “And furthermore, I don’t like turkey!” Her distaste didn’t prevent her from delivering foolproof recipes.
Food was the foundation of their relationship. The women exchange recipes, discuss the finer points of the recipes that would find their way into Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But the bricks and mortar were the stuff of any solid friendship between women: from gossip about the “bigwiggery” that both Julia and Avis and their husbands knew, to politics — both women were liberal Democrats — from frank talk about family, friends, and husbands to plain old girl talk.
Here’s what Julia confides to Avis about sex: I am extremely curious about how people adjust to life and each other. 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.
Avis writes that she is sruck with “a sudden urge to buy clothes. Spring, no doubt. I have therefore bought myself three new dresses, a suit, a hat, and various oddments, and now all I need is someone’s eye to knock out.”
A true Francophile, Julia is not a fan of England. “But that public food is so awful! . . . However, as we always say, one doesn’t go to England pour la gourmandise. . . but I find it depressing after a while.. . . . I look at these faces, so held in by duty and ‘what is done’ and more by ‘what is not done,’ and all that tea, and that bloody accent, and that chirping. . . . I become wild after a week.”
Avis shoots back that “I have a dozen English friends who started off chirping, as you say, and . . . doing what was always done — and boy, do they take their hair down. Probably because they thought they’d never see me again. . . . And I insist that under all that surface calm they are boiling and seething. That’s the way I like it.”
Julia raves about one Manhattan restaurant she visited in 1954: “Brussels, E. 54. Wonderful, we thought, and entirely and authentically French atmosphere and food. Good menu, fine wine list. The real McCoy. ($10 per person.) Avis recalls the frogs’ legs “dripping in garlic and butter” served up by the old Lafayette Hotel in Manhattan.
They wrote regularly to each other for several years, before finally meeting face to face. “It is not possible that we could hate each other on sight,” a nervous, Julia, who was “puffing away like mad” on her cigarettes, wrote to Avis before visiting the DeVotos in Cambridge. Not to worry — “It did not seem that love on paper would not blossom into love in the flesh, and it certainly did with an all-embraching bang. . . . We are but your creatures.”
Both women led enviable lives. The DeVotos were at the center of Boston and New York intellectual life, numbering people like Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger and poet and dramatist Archibald MacLeish among their close friends. The Childs lived a cosmopolitan life in Europe, where Paul Child had Foreign Service postings in France, Germany and Norway. As Julia moved around Europe, she cooked and compiled the recipes — working with Simca Beck and less satisfactorily with Louisette Bertholle — that would make her famous. Avis, in turn, tasted, tested and offered suggestions from an entirely American point of view. Reading their letters is like being part of a great big culinary secret.
Even better than that, reading their letters is like making two different and distinct new friends, each of whom is prepared to share the highs and lows of her life. Their letters allowed each woman to reflect on the things that mattered her. Their letters allowed them to become the best kind of friends over time. Happily, As Always, Julia lets readers savor the many facets of a fabulous friendship.
As Always, Julia is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.