Friday, May 27, 2011

Avis and Julia

I didn't blog last night because I was so involved in the book I was reading that I couldn't put it down.  I still haven't finished it but I'm writing about it anyway because I can't wait any longer to share.  Hardly a page has gone by where I didn't either laugh out loud or mentally bookmark a great quote.

The book is As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, edited by Joan Reardon.  Avis was the wife of Bernard DeVoto, who wrote a regular column in Harper's.  After reading DeVoto's scathing critique of stainless steel American knives, Julia sent him a carbon steel paring knife from France.  Avis answered on her husband's behalf, kicking off a correspondence and a friendship that lasted from 1952 until shortly before her death in 1989.  Avis was crucial to the birth of Mastering the Art of French Cooking; she introduced the authors to their publishers, critiqued the early drafts, researched American substitutes for French ingredients and equipment, and in general served as the book's long-distance midwife.  The letters in this volume are those most directly related to the development of the book.

The letters (unless perhaps you are an Eisenhower-era Republican) are delightful - funny and intelligent, full of pithy descriptions of people, places, politics, and (of course) good food and drink.  I expected to enjoy Julia's letters, but in some ways I like Avis's even more.  Despite chronic ill health and a grumpy husband she managed to successfully juggle her family, several part-time jobs, the proofreading and copyediting of her husband's work, and the tasks she undertook on behalf of Julia and her co-authors.  The DeVotos lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they hobnobbed with college professors and scientists and liberal politicians.  When the Childs decided to buy a permanent home, they bought it in Cambridge in order to be close to the DeVotos.  I would have, too. 

The book is sparsely but nicely illustrated with photos, all but three of them taken by Julia's husband Paul.  Somewhere (a while ago) I read a quote from an interview with Paul Child; he said that he was attracted to Julia partly because he thought she was beautiful (he specifically mentioned her long legs).  His photos of her certainly capture that quality; I particularly enjoyed the picture of the two of them in a bathtub overflowing with bubbles (a Valentine's Day card), and the portrait of Julia cooking in a mountain cabin, clad apparently in a canvas skirt and bikini top and needing only a helmet and spear to be mistaken for the goddess Athena.  I also liked Paul's self-portraits, living up to Julia's description of him as "muscley" (he was a third-degree black belt in judo).

For anyone interested in writing and publishing, the authors' agonizing over which publishers to approach, how to negotiate the contract, and what to include in the final book are fascinating.  Cooks will appreciate the two correspondents' discussions of how to translate French recipes into versions that would be accessible to American housewives.  Almost anyone will enjoy the irreverent approach to various sacred cows.  In one letter Julia indignantly describes how two French food experts say that true Beurre Blanc can only be made over a wood fire. "Phoo," was how she summed up the conversation. (She described one of the experts as "a dogmatic meatball.") "Usually, because I have had to study up on everything to inform myself, I know more than they do..."

I hope that the editor of this volume has had time to put together at least one more collection of the letters of Avis and Julia.  After all, 26 years of their amazing correspondence has been omitted from this book.

"All from one kitchen knife.  It was a miracle, wasn't it?  To think that we might easily have gone through life not knowing each other, missing all this free flow of love and ideas and warmth and sharing..." ~Avis DeVoto to Julia Child, Spetember 1, 1956

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