A great and lasting friendship was born on March 8, 1952, when a young American housewife living in Paris, Julia Child, wrote a short letter to historian Bernard DeVoto, complimenting him on an occasional piece he had written in Harper's lamenting the absence of good carving knives in the States, where knives seemed all to be made of stainless steel, which would not hold an edge. Mrs. Child included a French knife in her letter -forged carbon steel. Mr. DeVoto was swamped with work at the time so his wife, Avis, wrote back. Avis and Julia are one of the great pairs of friends in modern times. They were both sharp as pins, they were irreverent and opinionated, and, most of all, they both were genuinely interested in the people and things around them. Avis's letters are now released from archive and veteran culinary historian Joan Reardon has done a labor of love, combining Avis's and Julia's letters across the span of almost ten years (1952-61) to tell the story of a lovely friendship and of the growth to maturity of the author of one of the classic cookbooks of modern times.
On February 12, 1953, Julia Child wrote her new pen pal, Avis DeVoto, to describe a dinner Julia and her two colleagues in their new Ecole des Trois Gourmandes had attended the night before with famed Parisian gourmand Maurice Curnonsky ("the Prince of Gastronomy"). "At the party," she wrote, "was a dogmatic meatball who considers himself a gourmet but is just a big bag of wind. They were talking about Beurre Blanc, and how it was a mystery, and only a few people could do it, and how it could only be made with white shallots from Lorraine and over a wood fire. Phoo. But that is so damned typical, making a damned mystery out of perfectly simple things just to puff themselves up." She concluded, tongue in cheek, by writing: "I didn't say anything as, being a foreigner, I don't know anything anyway." Two pares later, she's rhapsodizing over the kind of kitchen she'd like to have if she were rich: "I am going to have a kitchen where everything is my height [over six feet], and none of this pigmy [sic.] stuff, and maybe 4 ovens, and 12 burners all in a line, a 3 broilers, and a charcoal grill, and a spit that turns."
That's Julia to a T, always unbuttoned in her opinions, wobbly in her spelling, bursting with energy, savoring whatever life offered her. She wasn't yet the world authority on French cooking she would soon become but she already knew where she was heading and she knew how she wanted to get there -every recipe tested, adaptations made to American materials, tastes and equipment, the `secrets' of French cuisine made clear and obvious to even the neophyte cook. (She commented once about another French cookbook that it should spell out what weight hen to buy for coq au vin -a five-pounder, which is what the recipe called for, would be an old hen: it wouldn't cook in forty-five minutes as the recipe stated; it'd still be tough as leather.)
Julia hadn't finished her immortal Mastering the Art of French Cooking yet, but Avis and she were talking about it. Avis lived in Cambridge, Julia in Paris. Avis hoped to get Julia a decent publishing contract with Houghton Mifflin, a publishing house with which she had contacts. The letters continue through 1961, by which time Mastering had been published, not, alas, by Houghton Mifflin, but by Alfred Knopf. Bernard had died unexpectedly in 1955. Julia and her husband Paul had paid for Avis to visit them in France. The flurry of letters back and forty continued unabated but by that point the continuing themes of their correspondence are in place. As much fun as their letters are to read, at this point there are few new revelations. But who cares? These are first class letters by two first class people, and who would not want to know more about the forging of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I?
A warning: There is a lot about cooking in these letters, typically gone into in great detail. Julia asks Avis for American ingredients (dried spices, for example) and cooking equipment and counsels her how to make dishes, Avis corrects errors and un-Americanisms in Julia's prose. Other topics pop up repeatedly, most notably, in the earlier portions of the book, their caustic commentary on the Red Scare, Senator Joe McCarthy, and the spineless elected officials who time and again failed to confront him. These are two tough (but very warm) ladies. It's a treat to be let in on their intimate and prolonged conversation with each other.