I’m always intrigued to learn more about public personalities…you know there is always more to the inner person than what you see on the screen or through their writing. Julia Child is no different. There is more to learn about Julia Child beyond watching the Julie and Julia movie or her shows on PBS. To know Child as a person, I recommend you read As Always, Julia: The Letters of Juila Child and Avis DeVoto (her friend and unofficial literary agent) edited by food historian Joan Reardon.
This charming book is a series of more than 200 letters between Child and DeVoto that began in March 1952 with a fan letter from Julia to Avis’s husband, Bernard DeVoto. Child read his article in Harper’s magazine and agreed with his frustration on the sharpness of American stainless steel knives. She sends him a gift of a French knife. Avis responds because Bernard is busy preparing for a long trip. The exchange of letters begins, and within a few short months the salutations switch from Mrs. Child and Mrs. DeVoto to Dear Julia and My Dear Avis.
This is a book that you can read at a leisurely pace. I mean, because is is an exchange of letters you can read just a few pages at a time and you won’t lose the thread of the story. However, I actually found it quite riveting, and read it quickly. I appreciated learning about these smart women and the development of their friendship, but as a fan of history I certainly enjoyed the details of their daily life. They constantly discuss politics which in the midst of the McCarthy era is fascinating. And, set in a pre-Betty Friedan time, these intelligent, accomplished women did see themselves as housewives, but were simultaneously pursuing serious work. It is a snapshot of an earlier time in feminism, but some of their feelings toward marriage, sex, and parenting can still ring true today.
You also read about the development of Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, one of the most influential cookbooks ever written. We are privy to her cooking experiments, negotiations with publishers and partners, and research into cooking equipment available to American homemakers. Julia relied greatly on Avis for information about ingredients in American markets, and for advice on publishing. Avis was the book’s and Julia’s number one cheerleader.
I found it heartening to read that even the great Julia Child had self-doubt and relied on the support of friends to continue. She felt there were so many individuals more qualified than her that were already published that she sometimes needed to be reminded that she was creating a new path. It is reassuring to know that she was only human.