Photo: Elizabeth Hait, AOL
To fall for As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), it doesn't matter if you know a beef bourguignon from a beef patty. It doesn't matter if you've never even lifted the cover of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, or, for that matter, even heard of Julia Child. For As Always, Julia is, beyond the correspondence that helped launch one of the greatest cookbooks of our time, an intimate portrait of a deep and enduring friendship.
Little did Julia Child know, when she wrote a letter congratulating scholar/journalist Bernard DeVoto on his Harper's story about the trouble with American knives, that she would find, in her own words, "a soul mate," in DeVoto's wife, Avis. As secretary to her husband, Avis answered Julia's letter, and from an exchange about the glories of French knives, the two (Child then living in Paris, and DeVoto in Cambridge, Mass.) rapidly progressed in letters to matters of the heart and of the kitchen, and often where the two intertwined.
Julia, of course, also found an unflagging champion for her expansive work with Simone Beck in the sophisticated, politically savvy, and intellectual Avis, with her Harvard ties and Boston literary connections and her culinary prowess. It was Avis who brought the massive project to Houghton Mifflin, and, later, when HM thought it too ungainly, to Knopf, where it found a home with the renowned editor Judith Jones, then early in her brilliant career.
Continue reading, and hear Julia and Avis, in their own words, after the jump. Culinary historian Joan Reardon (who has also written beautifully on M.F.K. Fisher) has masterfully edited the work, selecting the best writings between these self-proclaimed "pen pals" during the first decade of their much longer friendship, and to read them is to come away feeling you've gained a couple of whip-smart, funny, and very caring friends of your own. As Julia and her husband, Paul Child, moved from their beloved France to Germany (which Julia approached with dread and came to love) then to Norway and back to the U.S., Avis is submerged in the literary, political and family life of McCarthy-era America. (And, yes, these two die-hard Dems had a few choice words for the ultra-conservatives among them.)
Avis once wrote to her "Dear Julish," "I turn to my Child correspondence rather with the feeling of falling into a feather bed. In a word, I enjoy it." For readers of these letters, the feeling is mutual.
Here, a mini sampler of Julia and Avis in their own words, with, as Avis signed her letters, "lashings of love."
Avis to Julia: "I'm hopelessly conservative about kitchen equipment. I never use a pressure cooker . . . you have to clean the damn things."
On Husbands -- Avis: "DeVoto is pretty much a barbarian as far as food goes," she says of Bernard, who, she adds, loves roast beef, Boston baked beans, Mexican food, and elk.
Julia: "Paul loves that kind of food also, and if there is anything he loathes it is something that is white."
Julia to Avis: "I have just served my poor husband the most miserable lunch of frozen haddock Duglere, frozen 'French' string beans, and 'minute' rice. It is just no fun to eat that stuff, no matter how many French touches and methods you put to it. It ain't French, it ain't good, and the hell with it. . . . I am not going to fool around with that nasty, tasteless, depressing A&P garboozova."
Avis to Julia on The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer: "It's a "damn good book . . . light years better than dear old Fanny Farmer. . . . Of course you will never sell as well as she does, but D [editor Dorothy de Santillana] and I think you have a good chance at being 'The Joy of French Cooking,' and have a very pleasant sale for about a hundred years."
Julia to Avis: "Baudelaire calls Brillat-Savarin a kind of insipid old brioche whose sole use is to furnish windbags with stupid quotations."