I decided to take a break from my usual novel to delve into a collection of letters written during the 1950s and 1960s by the wife of a popular journalist and a woman who had completed studies at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and was writing a cookbook.
In As Always, Julia, Bernard DeVoto penned an article about American knives for Harper’s, and Julia extended her support for his findings by mailing him a letter along with one of her favorite chopping utensils. His wife Avis first responded to the letter, which marked the beginning of their friendship that would last decades.
The two wrote back and forth fairly regularly even though the Childs moved quite often – to France, Germany and Norway. Once the DeVotos and Childs met while Julia and Paul were in the U.S., the friendship was solidified as evidenced in the increased depth of emotions described in the writings.
It is fascinating to read, in this collection of letters, the range of topics covered including food, no doubt, and also the struggles of obtaining a publishing contact, opinions on the political climate in the U.S. and abroad, details about parties and fashion, trying and retrying recipes, and the ups and downs of family events. I was inspired in my own cooking trials to know that even Julia Child tried recipes over and over again before getting them just right.
The economics of book publishing was discussed at length. Houghton Mifflin, the first company to discuss a possible contract, eventually turned Julia and her collaborators down because they could not make a business case for publishing a how-to guide for French cooking. However Knopf, the company that eventually gave Julia a contract, thought there was a market for such a book, and projected that 20,000 copies would be sold in the first year. In fact, between October 1961 and August 1962, 100,000 copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking were sold.
By reading letters one is also allowed to better understand people’s personalities. And wow, Julia Child was funny! In one letter from 1954, Julia described how her German studies were progressing. She wrote, “German. It ain’t easy…However I impressed the nice woman in the post office twice, after having carefully practiced two sentences each time…[and] I telephoned a German oculist and have made an appointment for tomorrow afternoon (I believe!).”
As Always, Julia is a unique collection of letters between good friends that provides a first-hand account of the beginning of the celebrity career of Julia Child while combining a historical picture of political and economic situations along with countless recipes and tips such as defrosting a turkey and stuffing a goose. In addition, I now have a risotto recipe that can be modified and tested in my kitchen. Where else can you find that combination of food, humor, world travel and book publishing in a good read?