Meredith's Reviews > As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece

As Always, Julia by Joan Reardon
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's review
Oct 20, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, 2011
Read from January 06 to 17, 2011

(original review here)

In March of 1952, Julia Child, then living in Paris with her husband Paul, wrote a fan letter to Bernard De Voto, a historian and journalist who had written a column in Harper’s Magazine criticizing American-made steel knives. Along with the letter, Julia sent a small French-made knife as a token of her appreciation for his column. Bernard’s wife, Avis, routinely handled his correspondence and replied to Julia’s initial letter. Thus began a lifelong friendship, one that lasted until Avis’ death in 1989. Through their letters alone, Julia and Avis became confidants and, most importantly, set out to publish a cookbook on French cooking for the average American housewife.

Thanks to their families and local libraries, many of these letters have been preserved for future generations. In her book, As Always Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, editor Joan Reardon meticulously recreates Julia and Avis’ friendship and the creation of the now-famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by reprinting their literary correspondence, from the very first letter, to Julia’s arrival in Cambridge some nine years later in 1961.

The reprinted letters, once hand-written or typed by Julia and Avis themselves, give readers an intimate sense of who they were, in their own words. The range of topics covered by the letters is astonishing and it quickly becomes clear that Julia and Avis were both highly intelligent, witty, funny, gracious and the absolute antithesis of the stereotypical 1950′s American housewife. There’s also the sense that you are peeking in on their private lives; though the letters were edited to exclude mentions of most private matters, the friendship and the camaraderie is still there. Long before they met in person, Julia and Avis became the best of friends.

Obviously, given that it’s a book about Julia Child, the descriptions and details of food take center stage. Julia and Avis held strong opinions about certain ingredients and recipes and both had a lifelong love affair with food and cooking. Readers are taken into the very heart of Julia’s passion for French food and her devotion to sharing her knowledge with others. There are also comments about America’s growing reliance on pre-packaged and “quick” foods, something Julia was reluctant to embrace after years of access to the freshest ingredients in France.

Though it is, first and foremost, a book about friendship and food, it is also an incredibly rich primary source for life as an American both at home and abroad in the McCarthy era. Julia and Avis were both exceptionally well-read and tuned into current events and politics. Their letters are filled with references to political, cultural and social events, with Julia often providing the American expatriate’s view and Avis offering up comments on 1950′s Cambridge, Massachusetts society.

Reardon shaped the book by dividing the letters by section and wrote introductions to each section, providing background information and placing the letters in a larger context. She also added footnotes to clarify names, places, French phrases and other bits of information the average person might not be familiar with. Julia and Avis apparently had the habit of using initials instead of full names to refer to people they both knew.

As I don’t read nonfiction often, it did take me awhile to find my pace and settle into the book. The sheer abundance of information and history contained in the letters can make it seem overwhelming at first. At times, I felt as if I were slogging through letter after letter. But the information is so rich and detailed that you begin to feel as if the letters were written to you. It’s worth it to take the time and savor this book, in small doses if you must or want, because any fan of Julia Child, food or even just 1950′s America will find this book a treat.

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Reading Progress

01/07/2011 page 26
8.0% "Oh Julia - why must you taunt me with your yummy Parisian goodness?"
01/10/2011 page 35
11.0% "Slow going - like savoring a fine wine."
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