Recently I watched the 2009 movie Julie & Julia, which tells the parallel stories of Julia Child’s road to publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blogger Julie Powell’s 2002 attempt to cook every recipe therein over the space of one calendar year. It was entertaining on the whole. I didn’t find the Powell storyline especially compelling (woman writes novelty blog, gets popular, imperils marriage, gets book deal; nothing we haven’t seen play out a million times in real life since the early aughts) but I really enjoyed the Julia Child segments. She was a fascinating woman — and I have to say that Meryl Streep nailed her voice — and so I grabbed myself a copy of As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, & the Making of a Masterpiece, selected and edited by Joan Reardon. Yes, this book has two subtitles. I know.
Anyway — As Always, Julia covers nine years of a friendship that started in an unusual way: Child wrote a fan letter to Bernard DeVoto, Avis’s husband, agreeing with his piece in Harper’s Magazine decrying stainless steel kitchen knives. Avis, acting as her husband’s secretary, wrote back; Julia Child wrote back to her, and a remarkable friendship and working partnership was born. Julia and Avis were frequent correspondents during the nine years it took to bring Mastering the Art of French Cooking to publication, as Julia followed her husband Paul’s career to France (Paris and then Marseilles), Germany, and Norway.
It was an engrossing read. Besides all of the incidental culinary details — I snapped a few pictures of a letter detailing how to properly pan-fry a fish without all the breading falling off — the letters provide a snapshot of American social and political life in the 1950s and early 60s from a perspective I haven’t frequently encountered before. The Childs and the DeVotos were all heavily interested in politics and involved in what you might call high-level American cultural life. Many of their letters detailed their hopes and aspirations for the 1952 and ’56 presidential elections (Stevenson vs. Ike), and their worries about Sen. McCarthy and the direction in which he seemed to be shaping the nation. (Paul Child was interrogated about “un-American activities” in 1955.) It was, however, a little disheartening to read correspondence that decried hyper-partisanship in one letter, yet referred to Republicans as “beasts” and used phrases like “I can hardly see them as human” in the next. Plus ça change…
Mastering the Art of French Cooking was such a success that it surprised me to see the travails that it took to get it published. As a cookbook, it was something entirely new: there had been French cookbooks published in the United States before, but none aimed at the ordinary cook (the servantless American housewife!) or at those who were starting from a position of little to no culinary training. Writing and testing and retesting all of the recipes took years, as did the fight to get it placed with a publisher. Houghton Mifflin had originally contracted for the book, but turned it down as it neared the final stages — but since it sold like hotcakes and has never been out of print I can only imagine that they have been kicking themselves ever since! In the end, Avis DeVoto was able to get the cookbook placed with Knopf, and her championing of the book was instrumental; it’s doubtful whether it would have been published at all without her partnership. (In retrospect, it is disappointing how much her role is minimized in Julie & Julia.)
After reading so much about the herculean work to write and publish Mastering, I got a copy out of the library to look through. I haven’t gone deep into it, but it’s very well laid out and has already significantly upped my cooked carrots game (unsurprisingly, the secret is butter). Julie & Julia wasn’t a great movie, but I’m glad that it put me onto these reading trails. So here’s to Julia Child — and more butter!