I just finished the book “As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto” earlier this morning. I have that sense of loss that I always feel after finishing a really great book — the experience is over, and I want more.
The book contains letters between Julia and Avis (who I feel comfortable calling by their first names after being invited to read their private and intimate correspondence) from March 1952 until 1961. The letters chronicle the often-painful journey of getting “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” published as well as the personal, public and political life of the two women and their husbands.
Julia was living in Paris when she sent a French kitchen knife to Avis’ husband Bernard DeVoto after reading a piece he had written in “Harper’s” about the inferior quality of American kitchen knives. Avis, who answered most of her husband’s correspondence, replied to Julia with not just a thank-you note, but also a detailed letter about her own thoughts on knives and cooking. The two struck up a cross-continental pen-palship, eventually meeting two years after it began.
At first the letters were cordial, addressed to Mrs. DeVoto and Mrs. Child, but quickly the formality was dropped. By December 1952, Julia trusted Avis enough to send her a portion of a manuscript she was working on for a book called “French Home Cooking” (which eventually became “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”) with the instructions “Please do not show this ms. to anyone. I think cooking recipes and methods are too easily stolen, and, as quite a bit of this is new stuff…” Avis quickly recognized that the book would be a classic. She used her contacts in the publishing industry to help the book along.
If you’ve seen the movie “Julie and Julia,” you’ll know what a long, frustrating journey it was for Julia and her collaborators to get “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” finally published. “As Always Julia” delves into the details on this journey, and the book would be worth reading just for those details. But, there is so much more.
These are the private letters of two very intelligent, strong women who had husbands who seemed to view them as intellectual equals and partners in the era before women’s liberation. The non-cookery bookery (as Julia called her writing work) portions of the letters are equally as fascinating as the parts about the cookbook. The personal anecdotes — Julia’s feelings about the various places in Europe she was living during the time, Avis’ thoughts about her boys, both of their accounts of wonderful meals and restaurants — are fascinating.
There is also enough political and culinary history in this book that I feel certain that missing parts of my history education have been filled in. Julia and Avis were both staunch democrats and wrote extensively about their feelings about the McCarthy trials and the presidential elections of the 1950s. On the culinary front, their thoughts on things like the introduction of MSG (Monosodium glutamate) and the automatic dishwasher are also interesting.
The bond between Julia and Avis (and Julia’s husband, Paul,) became so strong that when the Childs came back to the United States in 1961 after Paul’s foreign service work ended, they chose to live in Cambridge, Mass., to be near the DeVoto home. That was a fortunate move for them, but a shame for us because the intense letter-writing portion of their relationship was over.
Joan Reardon, a culinary historian, cookbook author and biographer, edited the letters between the two friends, and she finishes her acknowledgements at the end of the book with this paragraph.
At no time did I ever feel that "As Always, Julia" was my book. It belongs to Julia and Avis. I simply fell in love with their letters and thought that others would, too. I am grateful for their legacy of words and for the insights into food, friendship, and the making of a masterpiece that they have given us.
I, too, fell in love with these letters and the two women who wrote them. If you spend some time with Julia and Avis, you might, too.