Letters between Julia Child and the woman who would change her life provide a glimpse into history, and the depth of a friendship.
By now, you'd think we'd be up to speed about Julia Child. In 2002, Julie Powell's "Julie/Julia Project" blog resurrected wider interest in Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," exposing a foodie generation raised on semi-homemade nonsense to a time when people actually made Lobster Thermidor.
Through Meryl Streep's performance in the 2009 movie "Julie & Julia," we saw Child as vivacious, steely and bawdy. Child was never anything else, of course. Yet a TV career lasting until she was almost 90 meant that many last saw her as stoop-shouldered and shaky, her trademark trill having aged to a gentle grogginess.
In an attention-deficit culture, it's easy to forget that she once was among the most beloved television personalities, and that her high standards had a direct impact on the produce now in our grocery carts.
In "As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto," Joan Reardon bolsters the image of unbridled vitality with a selection of letters between Child and DeVoto, a chance acquaintance that proved pivotal. DeVoto became Child's unofficial agent, championing, scheming and ultimately shepherding the massive manuscript on French cooking to the Knopf publishing house.
The letters cover the years from 1952 to 1989, when Child first lived in France, where her husband, Paul, was posted as a diplomat. On a culinary level, the letters are what Child fans expect to read: long passages about sautéing mushrooms, braising duck or the inimitable flavor of shallots. And we know the story of the struggle to publish, perhaps almost too well by now.
What's unexpected is how much of their correspondence dealt with politics. This was the era of Joseph McCarthy and his Communist blacklists. "My, what a loathsome creature McCarthy is right down to the smudge between his toes," Child wrote. The letters are a review of history, as shared between two intensely political homemakers who employ a lively sense of wit and humor to leaven their outrage.
One remarkable aspect of the book isn't so much about the writers, but about their vehicle. These letters are pages long, with regular notations such as, "Must put a stop to this letter!" only to resume for more pages, simply because there is so much to say. To modern eyes, the effort seems almost exhausting.
But clearly, so worth it. As Child wrote in 1953, barely a year after her first letter to DeVoto: "How nice it is that one can come to know someone just through correspondence, and become really passionate friends." There is an enviable transparency and honesty to their friendship, and you wonder whether the degree of time and effort spent in recording one's thoughts might improve some relationships.
That said, reading a collection of letters can be a bit of a slog. It helps immensely that this is an exchange between two bracing personalties. Yet with no explanatory context, you are left with some questions forever unanswered, some gaps in time unfilled. You either enjoy this sort of book for its unfiltered look at the correspondents, or you realize that biographies fill a niche as necessary as shallots in a beurre blanc.
Kim Ode is a Star Tribune feature writer and the author of "Baking With the St. Paul Bread Club."
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