I’ve always known that Julia Child was a charismatic figure, but I’ll admit that my interest in her was piqued after watching Julie and Julia (which is totally bandwagon-joiner of me, I know). As such, I was excited when I saw that this collection of letters between her and her best friend, Avis DeVoto, was being published. I love pop culture and women’s history, and so I was eager to read through these primary sources and gain insight on this culinary/pop culture icon. Edited by Joan Reardon, As Always, Julia is separated into four parts, beginning with the fledgling friendship between Child and DeVoto and ending with the publishing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking; the book’s epilogue ties up the remaining loose ends. In between each section of the book, Reardon explains the personal and cultural events affecting the women’s lives.
It was really interesting to see how the friendship between the two women developed over time. It all began after Julia wrote a fan letter to Avis’s husband, Bernard DeVoto. He had recently published an article about knives that Julia admired. Avis wrote Julia a reply, and the two women began corresponding steadily. Although the letters were always friendly and cordial, one can see how they change over time as the women let their guard down and become closer; after a while, they gossip and conspire freely as any old friends would.
What is most fascinating about the letters is that Mastering the Art of French Cooking develops before your eyes. It is evident throughout the letters that Paul Child, Julia’s husband, supported and encouraged his wife in any way he could. That said, Avis DeVoto, a savvy editor, was clearly a driving force behind the cookbook as well. From the beginning, she encouraged Julia and gave her valuable advice that ranged from recipe feedback to publishing minutiae. While I knew that the behind-the-scenes process of creating the cookbook was intense, I had no idea just how much work went into it. The cookbook took years to develop and refine; Child faced numerous setbacks and rejections. Here, Julia wrote:
I am really getting discouraged about work… There are so many things pulling in so many directions. I have responsibilities as a consular wife, as a wife, as a house-fixer-upper and as a cook book. If I hire a cook I can cook and be waitress. When I’m cook and waitress, I’m not cook-booking. I can cook-book if we don’t entertain much. If we don’t entertain, I’m not a wife but a cook book; and if we don’t entertain I don’t learn anything more for the cook book.
DeVoto always responded with friendship and support. When she went through her own personal crises, such as her husband’s sudden death, Julia and her husband Paul were equally as supportive.
I also enjoyed getting to discover the women’s personalities. Julia was quite the perfectionist, and Avis was very patient through her tirades. When they weren’t discussing the cookbook, they talked about a variety of other topics such as politics and fashion. Julia in particular is often amusing to read:
On frozen dinners:
I have just served my poor husband the most miserable lunch of frozen haddock Duglere, frozen “French” string beans and “minute” rice. It is just no fun to eat that stuff, no matter how many French touches and methods you put to it. It ain’t French, it ain’t good, and the hell with it.
After a day of giving up cigarettes I have decided what the hell, and am back on the old routine. I found that my smokeless yesterday didn’t bother me at all. I just seemed, merely, silly to deny myself that pleasure. I think it is really the adult substitute for thumbsucking.
On Senator McCarthy:
My, what a loathsome creature McCarthy is right down into the smudge between his toes. It is all fascinating, and horrifying and frightening, too. I thought a recent editorial in the NY Times, “Knowlandism” was extremely pertinent in describing the right-wing mind, as being guided purely by emotional reactions, and being riddled with such glaring inconsistencies as only the childlike right-wing mind could tolerate.
There were a few drawbacks to the collection. There is no linear “narrative” since some of the letters are lost and several of them were mailed close together and overlapped, so sometimes the letters were confusing to follow, though Reardon does an excellent job of explaining the time line of events. Also, I read this book on my nook, and most of the footnotes were either on the following page or appeared several pages later; this made it extremely cumbersome flipping around pages trying to find the footnote. After a while, I gave up on the footnotes. Because of this, I would avoid reading As Always, Julia on an eReader.
This probably isn’t the kind of book that would entice the casual reader because there are so many other topics brought up amidst discussions of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. However, the book would make a lovely gift for Julia Child fans or people who have an interest in culinary history. As their correspondence with one another reveals, Julia Child and Avis DeVoto were two strong, intelligent, opinionated women with an enviable friendship. I would go so far as to say that As Always, Julia is a must-have for Julia’s fans.
As Always, Julia was released on December 1, 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.