[18 February 2011]
The art of letter writing has become archaic, rendering recently published books of letters representatives of a bygone era. The very nature of letters—handwritten, physical objects, slow to move, bereft of images—imparts niche status, for the “general” readership, enamored as they are of vampire-shopping-murder-procedural-romance novels, are not drawn to the correspondence of dear friends sharing mutual obsessions with literature, bookshops, one another, or the decade it took to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking, that faultless work of French cookery that made Julia Child famous and forever changed American eating habits.
Long before Knopf editor Judith Jones happily spent three nights preparing Julia’s cassoulet, (A bean stew that, like bouillabaisse, has a hotly contested recipe list, depending on what part of France you’re from and how your grandmother prepared it) Julia Child had Avis DeVoto. DeVoto was a supermom before The Feminine Mystique or soccer mommies: wife and secretary to public intellectual and writer Bernard DeVoto, mother of two sons, book reviewer, avid Democratic fundraiser, and manager of a stately Cambridge, Massachusetts home where the couple frequently entertained well-known writers, politicians, and intellectuals of the day. She was also, when time permitted, a devoted cook, so when an unknown American woman living in France wrote Bernard DeVoto, praising his 1951 Harper’s article detailing his efforts to bring decent cooking knives to American soil, Avis wrote back. Child, who had an impressive batterie de cuisine, included a French paring knife with her letter. That knife began a friendship that lasted until DeVoto’s death in 1989.
Besides being archaic, books of letters risk dullness. Sylvia Beach’s letters fail to reflect one of the twentieth century’s more exciting lives; rather, they are models of decorum, which, while praiseworthy, do not make for engaging reading. Happily, DeVoto and Child were both yentas: in her introduction, editor Joan Reardon writes “In a few instances, I have deleted references in Avis’ letters to personal family matters in the interest of preserving privacy…”
More of DeVoto’s letters survive than Child’s, but DeVoto is such a delightful correspondent—an archaic adjective for what strikes the modern reader as an archaic time—that it matters not. At one point Avis wrote to her friend she wished she were a writer herself, so she might further help Julia with Mastering. Avis was indeed a writer, and a very fine one. “I have done the blanquette,” (veal in a white sauce) she writes… “the sauce was a poem, like gold velvet…”
Food is not the sole topic of these fascinating letters. As Always, Julia covers an amazing range, an ever-lively discussion of mutual acquaintances, spouses, the conflicting demands of homemaking and career, politics, and, of course, cooking.
Here is Avis, writing her new friend Mrs. Child on 30 May, 1952: “Recipes noted, and many, many thanks. I shall try your method for Veau à la Crème, minus shallots which I can never find in the market…I use olive oil instead of butter…I like to do vegetables in olive oil, too…”
Today, when quality olive oil may be procured as easily as canned soda, it’s difficult to impart how ahead of her time DeVoto was. I adore cooking and come from a family of excellent cooks. I did not taste olive oil, much less incorporate it into my cooking repertoire, until 1993. I was 26.
In the same letter DeVoto rhapsodizes about the arrival of strawberry season: “...season being for same (strawberries) being upon us when the New Jersey berries come in next week. A strawberry which has traveled from Florida or California has no taste at all.”
DeVoto also weighed in heavily about newfangled “timesavers” aimed at housewives, scoffing at ineffective electric dishwashers and pressure cookers, which she felt ruined food. She questioned the effects of dishwasher detergents, which have deleterious effects not only on fine plate but plumbing. Frozen food “is a very mixed business anyway…On the whole, I prefer fresh vegetables, and I like them undercooked…”
Both women confided about their spouses. DeVoto admitted husband Bernard was a domestic tyrant, who refused to suffer fools gladly. His idea of travel was the western United States, denying Avis her longing to visit Europe. Perhaps worst of all, he had what she called “barbaric” tastes, shunning lamb, asparagus, artichokes, and anything in a bland sauce, vastly preferring steaks or spicy Mexican food. When Julia and Paul visited the DeVotos, Bernard, resenting the intrusion of houseguests, invited Julia to have a Martini. She gamely downed three with no untoward effect, winning his respect.
As for Paul, Julia commiserated, writing “...I think that is very American male…if there is anything he loathes, it is something that is white…he adores highly spiced and garlicked food.” She also told Avis that though Paul introduced her to France, he was “far less worldly than he would lead one to believe.”
The oft-agonizingly slow progress on Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a constant theme. Even the most widely read cookbook fanatics will be amazed by the amount of work that went into the book. Julia and co-writer Simone (Simca) Beck tested and re-tested recipes—524 of them. The amounts of time, money, and attention to detail that brought French cooking to America are jaw-dropping. Despite being a cookbook addict with a library of over 100 cookbooks, I never realized the amount of work required to ensure recipes will work. Julia wrote Avis of a dinner party where she served two duck dishes, each boned and stuffed, one encased in a pie crust. The crust was cut just before serving, so when brought to table “...the server lifts off the top…and there is a little old duck revealed inside…it’s a pretty cute dish…Nothing at all difficult about doing it, but takes a bit of time.” (!) Child described experimenting with duck and goose carcasses in the pressure cooker, a failed venture, and later lamented to DeVoto that her work on the duck chapter necessitated losing 25 pounds.
DeVoto was more than just a friend to Child. As a book reviewer, talent scout for Knopf, and editor for Houghton Mifflin, she always had a hand in the publishing business and served as an invaluable advisor. It was DeVoto who sent Mastering the Art of French Cooking to Knopf after Houghton Mifflin passed on it, and it was DeVoto who attended editorial meetings hashing out in-house matters like production costs and contractual issues, which she then passed along to Child, imploring her to remain discreet. The two wrote a great deal about what sorts of foods were available to American cooks—Child had never heard of scallions, while DeVoto lamented the dearth of shallots. Together they worked out which fish were available where, what could respectably go into a bouillabaisse, and mused “about such things as garbure” (A mixed bean and meat stew whose ingredient list can lead to fistfights.)
Both women were deeply involved in Democratic politics. DeVoto was especially passionate, calling Nixon “shifty”, writing “Honest to God the Republicans are too stupid…” Both women were horrified by the McCarthy hearings, DeVoto commenting that “This is a very intolerant country.” “...one thing that always amazes me is how the Republicans really believe their own propaganda…”
Child wrote back:
“I just feel sure that once Kennedy gets started that people will like him very much indeed.”
There’s a sentence to make a modern reader’s heart lurch. What would they make of the Tea Party?
As Always, Julia is far more than a food book, and deserves a broader readership than foodies alone. It captures a lost milieu, a time in some ways more hopeful (despite McCarthy), a slower time, a time when Democrats could look to John Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, a time when a 46-year-old six footer could write one of the world’s finest cookbooks and see it published to deserved acclaim; a time when letter writing was an art form and the frozen foods we are warned away from were novelties, not the norm. One could accuse me of idealizing, and would be correct, but I’d much rather have lived in a time when a huge, unwieldy, unabashedly complex manuscript was welcomed by Knopf editor Angus Cameron:
“This manuscript is an astonishing achievement and there is simply nothing like it.”