In March 1952 Julia Child, the 40ish wife of an American foreign-service worker in Paris, sent the writer Bernard DeVoto a small French knife in appreciation for his recent diatribe against American knives in Harper’s. DeVoto’s wife and secretary, Avis, herself an avid cook, answered with a warm letter of thanks. The two women recognized something kindred in each other, and a correspondence began.
In December Mrs. Child sent Mrs. DeVoto part of the “Sauce” chapter from a cookbook she was working on with a couple of French friends. DeVoto was “wildly excited,” she wrote back, and “absolutely convinced that you really have got something here that could be a classic and make your fortune and go on selling forever.”
It would be nine years before the first volume of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” saw the light of day. The delightful collection “As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto,” expertly edited by the culinary historian Joan Reardon, fills in that period of hard work, uncertainty, cheerleading and deepening love.
Despite the one-sided title, DeVoto’s letters are as much fun to read as Child’s. For one thing, they clarify her heroic role in the publication of the great tome. She fixed up Child and her collaborators with their original publisher, Houghton Mifflin, and when years later Houghton balked at the gargantuan manuscript and broke their hearts, she pulled the strings to place them with Alfred A. Knopf.
Politics is a frequent theme. The two liberal Democrats are in a constant state of outrage over the American scene in the age of Senator Joseph McCarthy. “I cannot regard the Republicans as people, somehow,” Child groused, “only as monsters, fools, beasts and foul excrement.”
Reports on the American food scene are eye-opening. It’s startling to learn that in the 1950s you couldn’t find shallots in U.S. markets. Child’s comments on recipe construction are fascinating:
“The recipe should be written so one knows the (potential) problems faced. If various pitfalls are not discussed the poor old cook will feel he/she is stupid and that only a genius can cook.”
The two women were a match in passion, humor and intelligence -- soul mates, as Child called them. When it came to joie de vivre, though, Child was in a class of her own. “The point of money, we think, after you have taken care of the minimum living essentials, is to spend it,” she told her friend in the course of urging her to accept a round-trip plane ticket as a gift from her and her husband.
She adored everything about the French but their dogmatism. When she and her collaborator, Simone Beck, were correcting the proofs, she came close to blowing her stack: “WHY ADD A SLICE OF BREAD TO THE PISTOU SOUP, she says. This was HER SUGGESTION, god dammit. Etc. Etc. Etc. (My god, I pity J.F. Kennedy trying to make any headway with de Gaulle.”)
She went on griping, “From my 12 years of dealing with the French in the most intimate circumstances I think they are the most illogical people in the world. But” -- it wasn’t in her to stay mad for long -- “they are certainly fun, gay, affectionate, inventive, quarrelsome, sticky, talented and thoroughly French. AND THE FOOD!”
I got so excited reading this correspondence that I went back to “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and made the coq au vin. It was even better than I remembered.
“As Always, Julia” (416 pages, $26) is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To buy this book in North America, click.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)