I thought of you often while reading a charm bomb of a new book, As Always, Julia, the never-before-published correspondence between Julia Child and her Bostonian pal Avis DeVoto; your lobster bisque, your beloved France, the Laguiole knives you brought us back a few years ago, your lesson in choosing the perfect "French" green beans by feel, your generous feasts and conversation, and your thank-you notes, which are works of art from an almost bygone era.
I am, in fact, being a bad girl here, as I'm supposed to be writing a review of the book for The Globe and Mail, but this ain't (to use a fave Julia word) the kind of book you review, it's the kind of book you just want to share. And the Julia-Avis letters are so infectious that lazy me is compelled to tackle that antiquated duck, a real live letter. (Why are letters so hard? Has technology stunted us?)
As you know, there was something of a Julia Child revival last year (not that she'd ever gone away) because of that movie Julie and Julia (dame Streep did a bang-up job as dame Child - have you seen it?) based on the book of the same title by Julie Powell. Sales of Child's books spiked, especially Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell had tackled the 500-plus recipes in Mastering in 365 days, and blogged about her efforts - but that's yesterday's news.
Until now, all I knew about Julia Child was that she had written that monster cookbook, revolutionizing American home cooking, and that she was an outsized, cheerful and determined character. (You, I would imagine, have mastered Mastering.) Having read these letters, I picture her as a veritable a fifth element: fire, water, earth, wind and Julia. (And she drank bourbon, bless her.)
But the big discovery here is Avis DeVoto. Oh, I just love her. A true American dame, "a Connector" in Malcolm Gladwell's parlance. She seemed to know everyone at Harvard, in Democratic politics and in the New York publishing scene, and at one point read nine newspapers a day.
The story of how the two women became friends has become almost apocryphal in the telling: Julia sent a fan letter and a French knife to Avis's husband, Bernard, a columnist for Harper's. He had bemoaned the American penchant for stainless steel and dull blades. Avis, who answered B's correspondence, wrote back thanking Julia, and soon Dear Mrs. Child and Dear Mrs. DeVoto were Dear Julia and Avis, and the sign-offs as full of lashings of love as the recipes were full of lashings of cream.
Julia sold Avis on beurre blanc ("Blast you," she wrote, bemoaning her waistline), while loyal Avis, during the dramatic 10-year period the letters cover (1952 to 1961, while Julia was in France, Germany and Norway), sold Knopf on what would become Julia's, and her friend Simca Beck's, masterpiece. She was midwife and impresario and critical first reader of Mastering.
Avis wrote to Julia that the book-in-progress's egg chapter was "as exciting as a novel to read." And so is this book. It's the story of a tumultuous decade. As much as Julia Child is synonymous with food, and there are pages and pages about the recipe testing that went into Mastering, food porn (calves livers "pink and delicate as a baby's bottom" - Avis), as well as debates about frozen foods and other conveniences for the American "den-mother/chauffeur," As Always, Julia ripples with characters, large and small personal dramas, theatre, books ( Escoffier, Peyton Place and political speeches), the fraught publishing history of Julia's big book and, especially, politics.
"All work and no politics makes a dull cook," Julia wrote to Avis in April, 1953, after a year of friendship and a year before they were to finally meet in the flesh. Letters veer abruptly from Chiang Kai-shek and Henry Luce to omelette pans; from Kennedy and Nixon to potato squeezers (I have no idea what these are; not a masher, though).
Their shared loathing of the Republicans, and especially Joseph McCarthy, is visceral. You can enjoy it for yourself, but I can't resist a few tidbits: "I cannot regard the Republicans as people, somehow, only as monsters, fools, beasts, and foul excrement," Julia wrote in December, 1954, referring to the politicians, not the electorate. (In April, 1955, Julia's husband, Paul, who was in the diplomatic service, would be called to Washington to be "interviewed" by the McCarthy people.) "Tomorrow is Reformation Sunday, and the Bible belt is going to let fly with all it's got against the Papists, and I just hope it backfires, is all," wrote Avis on the eve of the Kennedy-Nixon election. Think of what they'd say about the Tea Party!
Chic little Avis and self-confessed "old frump" Julia. A friendship forged on the blade of a knife. Though the image that sticks with me most is of the three shallots Julia sent by airmail from Paris early in their correspondence. "I never had such a cute present," Avis wrote.
Lashings of love and cream,
P.S. After all that, how could I not send a copy? I forgot to mention, there are photos, but too few. Bon appétit, and keep your knives sharp!
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner has seldom met a dish that couldn't be improved with a little more butter.