THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

They mastered the arts of food, letter-writing

Child, DeVoto shared a fond correspondence

By Caroline Leavitt
December 27, 2010

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Who was more of a Boston institution than Julia Child? The acclaimed chef and author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking’’ (along with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck), and ebullient host of WGBH’s “The French Chef,’’ Child transformed the way we think about food. Recently, “Julie & Julia,’’ both the film and the book, put her even higher on the front burner. Now, Child and Avis DeVoto, the pen pal and cookbook mentor, eloquently speak for themselves in the deliciously intimate “As Always, Julia.’’ Brilliantly edited and with comments by culinary historian, cookbook author, and biographer Joan Reardon, the book is a feast for any Julia fan.

The connection between Child and DeVoto begins over a knife. Child and her husband, Paul, are in Paris when Child writes a fan note to Bernard, DeVoto’s husband, who had written an essay on knives. Avis DeVoto answers, and almost instantly, the pair are ending their letters with loving sign-offs. When Child begins telling DeVoto of her work writing a book with Bertholle and Beck on French cooking for Americans, DeVoto becomes her unofficial adviser. The two women discuss everything from the use of MSG (DeVoto likes it, Child does not) to their shared mission to educate Americans on the technique of good cooking.

Both believe the book is going to cause a revolution, but the road to publication is full of thorns. Child laments: “So I am deeply depressed, gnawed by doubts, and feel that all our work may just lay a big rotten egg.’’ Short-sighted editors at Houghton Mifflin turn the book down, and all seems as lost as a fallen soufflé until Judith Jones at Knopf comes to the rescue. The book becomes a classic and sells 100,000 copies in its first year.

Passionate and occasionally very funny (Child writes that “what is cooked should be absolutely delicious and to hell with the vitamins’’), the letters truly are a conversation, a kind of fugue that gives us a window into the life and times of both fascinating women. They dish politics, following Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential campaign and feeling sick over the McCarthy witch hunt (Child’s husband was called back to the United States for questioning about his communist leanings).

In between lively discussions about Balzac, Proust, and Art Buchwald, Child gives a travelogue about Paris, which she loves, and Germany, which she at first finds very grim. The women talk about their marriages and their families, and we see how pre-feminist Child is, as she becomes annoyed in Marseille that “women are seen but not heard.’’ Their story, encapsulated in the lost art of letter writing, is as rich as a novel. DeVoto remarks that they have to preserve the fine art of cooking “before we are all reduced to proteins grown in shallow sea-water.’’

Reardon says in her afterword, “At no time did I ever feel that ‘As Always, Julia’ was my book.’’ But she’s wrong. Her absorbing commentaries, including a heartbreaking epilogue on Child’s beloved Paul being placed in a nursing home and DeVoto dying of pancreatic cancer, put these two incredible lives in context. Blazingly alive and entirely irresistible, the book shows two grand dames whose appetite for life, food, and friendship percolate on the page, making a reading experience that’s as nourishing as it is exciting.

Caroline Leavitt, author of “Pictures of You,’’ can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.

AS ALWAYS, JULIA: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto Edited by Joan Reardon

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pp., $26