Letters freeze time. Big newsy letters are cultural artifacts. Big newsy letters between two brilliant and engaging women who share a great love of food, France and Democratic politics are ingredients for the best social history I’ve read this year: Joan Reardon’s fabulous As Always, Julia.
As Always, Julia shares the letters of Julia Child and her friend Avis DeVoto, the wife of an author to whom Child happened to send a letter. Avis wrote a response for her busy husband, and a long-distance friendship was born. But DeVoto became way more than a friend to Child – these letters make clear how very instrumental she was to the ultimate publication of the undertaking that became Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
It’s fascinating to watch a friendship develop before the two ever meet, but it’s easy to understand why. Julia’s sense of humor and enthusiasm bubbles off the pages sometimes, like when she inserts in the middle of a lengthy letter, “My for a short note, this ain’t,” (pg. 46) and then jumps back into a detailed discussion of Beurre Blanc. She seems almost giddy– maybe it was all the wonderful sparkling wine she lovingly describes? Whatever it is, it’s contagious – I just couldn’t help smiling as I read some passages, and I could see why DeVoto took an immediate interest in this passionate whirlwind of a woman.
For her part, the letters show that DeVoto was ex-pat Child’s most significant link to the United States, a country that was becoming increasingly “foreign” to Child during her years in Europe. Avis was also tireless in her support of Julia’s work, and ultimately used her connections at Knopf to put Child’s book into the hands of Judith Jones. The rest is history, of course, but this book adds another dimension to the story, illustrating how critical this wonderful friendship was to Child’s success:
“Your generosity in putting us up, wining us, introducing us, talking, sitting, ice-coffee-ing, and just letting us share your life for a while was heaven. And we felt so at home with you. You were exactly, I think, though now I can’t be sure, our “Dear Avis,” perfectly familiar.” (pg. 177)One of the most interesting things about the book is how it gives us a peak into another world – or at least another lifetime: “What with the boss going out to Springfield and helping with other speeches here, I have to swing a lot of his affairs myself. After a blistering hot summer during which my weight fell to 112 pounds, I could do with some peace and the opportunity to putter around a stove.” (p. 16) I mean, how Mad Men is it to “swing” your boss’ affairs while he’s away? The book is a time capsule!
Through the years, the two women remained devoted to each other, with Julia choosing to move to Cambridge when her husband’s time with the State Department was at an end. They shared life’s sadnesses and joys, as only old friends can. I was sad to think of how lost Child must have felt after DeVoto’s death.
I highly recommend this book to people who love Julia Child, to people who love letters, to people who love memoirs, to people who love food, to people who depend on their girlfriends, to people who rejoice in travel, and especially to people who enjoy social histories. What an awesome find!
Thanks to Elizabeth Anderson at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing me a review copy.