Wednesday, March 30, 2011
JULIA CHILD & AVIS DE VOTO: AN ENTHRALLING LONG-DISTANCE FRIENDSHIP IN LETTERS
One of the most enduring relationships of my adult life was sustained for years through letters. Stephanie von Buchau, was a popular freelance cultural critic who wrote reviews of opera and dance for San Francisco Magazine, The Oakland Tribune, the Pacific Sun and many other Bay Area publications, and was the San Francisco correspondent for Opera News for more than twenty five years. I admired her observant eye and acerbic pen as a high-schooler, and as an adult, we cemented our friendship over a memorable four-hour lunch. We remained close friends until her death nearly thirty years later. A long, chatty and funny letter arrived to thank me for lunch when I returned to New York. It would be the first of hundreds. Hers were deeply personal, often contentious, full of insight--always funny, and endearing. Even when Stephanie's exasperated editors forced her to do her work on a computer, our correspondence continued on the Internet and tended to be long and intricate. She passed away seven or eight years ago, and I miss her every day. She wouldn't have understood Facebook or Twitter where communication is minimal. She had the chops to write about culture, politics, dance, sports, movie, opera, symphonic and chamber music, rock music, books and food and she never lacked an opinion on most subjects. I truly believe those letters made me want to be a better writer and exerted a profound influence on my own work. I will cherish the many I saved forever.
I say this as I write about AS ALWAYS, JULIA: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, edited by Joan Reardon (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $26.00; ISBN: 978-0-547-41771-4), a collection of the letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, that charts the long and often tortured odyssey Julia Child endured in getting Mastering the Art of French Cooking published in America. The book also reveals one of the most remarkable relationships between a cooking icon in chrysalis and a hugely sympathetic, funny, and frank woman who recognized Child's talent early on, and had the publishing connections and the self-confidence to nurture, support and help steer Child through the process of having her book published.
Avis DeVoto was married to the popular historian and columnist Bernard DeVoto. Avis, a book reviewer and avid cook, also handled her husband's correspondence. DeVoto had written an article about the poor quality of the American kitchen knife, and Child, who was residing in Paris at the time, sent him a French knife. Avis sent a thank you note and a great correspondence was launched. Julia Child was already involved in the writing of a French cookbook for the American market, and she confided in Avis about the project. Avis was enthusiastic from the beginning, establishing a trust between them. Avis would be Julia's eyes and ears about the book, about the U.S. publishing scene, ingredients readily available in U.S. markets which could be used in her recipes, becoming a valued sounding board with whom Mrs. Child could share opinions and feelings about politics, marriage, and a host of other subjects- that make for fascinating reading.
In the early 50s, for instance, Avis didn't seem to mind not having a dishwasher. She had a part-time housekeeper. Julia could acquire frozen vegetables at the French embassy commissary in Paris, and she liked their convenience, but she abhorred frozen chicken, which she condemned as "absolutely awful and tasteless and stringy." Julia is full of admiration for the classic all-purpose American cookbook, Joy of Cooking. "I adored it, and always have. It is a wonderful book...Somehow, old Mrs. Joy's personality shines through her recipes too." Julia worried about finding herbs to use in the preparations of her recipes. Avis was used to not having them. Julia even sent her shallots from France, which were virtually unknown in American markets of that dark culinary era.
Both women were Democrats and politically at odds with the Truman/Eisenhower 50s-era cold-war politics, the Korean War and the creepy communist witch hunts that characterized McCarthyism "I hate to think what this McCarthy thing is doing to our shreds of prestige in Europe, especially in England," wrote Avis with concern. Because Julia's husband, Paul was stationed in Paris working for the diplomatic corps, Avis cautioned, "The only other thing that is important right now is that I must warn you to be careful about what you say about McCarthy. B. and I can say what we damn well please, and we do. But Paul has a job. And he could lose it."
The heart and center of AS ALWAYS, JULIA is the long gestation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia endures the highs and lows of seeing her great masterpiece see the light of printed day. Avis is with her all the way, as Julia leaves her beloved Paris for a posting in Marseilles, and then to Bonn and their final European assignment in Oslo before returning to the United States. Julia continues to work refining the book while absorbing Houghton Mifflin's rejection. Avis supports her friend via their correspondence. Back in the United States, the Childs settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and awaited the inevitable publication of the cookbook, by Alfred Knopf, and eventual TV series that would start a revolution in cooking in America and make Julia Child an authentic American icon.
Shrewdly edited by Joan Reardon, a culinary historian, cookbook author and biographer, AS ALWAYS JULIA takes the reader into the epicenter of a great friendship between two talented and sympathetic women who took an incredible journey together in that pre-computer, Internet, cellphone, fax and social network era. It just might encourage you to begin a your own life-altering correspondence.