on 7 March 2011
This is a wonderful book, dealing with the letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, following a chance reference in Avis's husband's column to knives. They build up a real friendship through many long letters, which continued all their lives, although the book centres around the years of writing "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol 1". Fortunately for us, the friendship deepened when they actually met! However, the letters contain much, much more than "just" queries about the book, publishers etc. It is a potted history of the politics of the US during the McCarthy era and also of the European scene, where Julia and her husband Paul, were based during this period. They are both widely read women, in touch with movers and shakers and linked in to journalists and politicians on both continents.
This is an important book to read if you love Julia Child's cooking and "Julie and Julia" and are interested in the social context in which "Mastering" was developed and first appeared, with its details about the relationship between the three authors of Vol 1 as well as the politics of publishing. Definitely a book for those who wish to set Julia's long cooking life in its social and political beginnings.
Who would have guessed that Julia Child was a control freak?
Judging by her own letters, it seems that she was often in various stages of irritation at her two co-authors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book that launched her career. One co-author didn't do her share of the work, although in her defense, it's unlikely that any of them realized when they began, that they were embarking on what would be a 20-year-long project that was anything but smooth. Her other colleague was a hard worker, but something of a perfectionist, often second-guessing Julia's meticulous research. It's amazing the book was published at all.
Julia became pen pals with Avis DeVoto, a reviewer of mysteries and wife of Bernard DeVoto, a writer and editor. Julia had written to Bernard about an article he had written and he asked Avis to answer the letter. Julia and Avis hit it off immediately and began a correspondence and friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.
Julia was an expert at French cooking, but she knew little about book publishing and oddly, little about American cooking. She had never cooked when she lived in America, and had learned everything she knew about cooking in Paris, so she had peculiar gaps in her knowledge, such as that Americans keep their fresh eggs in cartons in the refrigerator, not in a bowl on the counter. Avis was able to keep such clangers from getting into the book, as well as steering Julia to editors who would be open to the idea of such an ambitious cookbook.
Avis also acted as Julia's stateside researcher, answering questions such as whether cake flour was available, or just all-purpose flour. Avis alerted her to new trends in American cooking, such as the use of mono sodium glutamate (MSG) in the form of sprinkle-on Accent.
They wrote about politics as well, with Senator Joseph McCarthy and his hunt for communists the topic of the day. Julia and husband Paul moved from Paris to Marseilles to Germany to Oslo during the 1950s, and she wrote Avis how they were adapting to each new home and how their attempts at language learning were going. Julia loved getting to know new places, but her heart always belonged to Paris.
After two years of letter writing, Avis and Julia finally met in France, and they met a few more times over the years, until the Childs finally returned to the States for good and could see the DeVotos on a more regular basis.
The letters span the years from 1952 to 1961 and are remarkably interesting despite their share of mundane matters such as the weather and who had what seasonal disease. Julia and Paul went to a play while they were visiting New York in 1957 and were impressed by the "young male lead, Richard Burton...he is English, I believe." In a prescient letter dated 1952, Julia told Avis "I'm enjoying [teaching French cooking to Americans] immensely, as I've finally found a real and satisfying profession which will keep me busy well into the year 2000."