The Hungry Reader: As Always, Julia: The Letters of Jula Child and Avis deVoto

9 Jan

Most British people’s only experience with Julia Child has been the film Julie and Julia, which I’m not sure makes sense for anyone outside the United States. For Americans, Julia Child was a combination of Elizabeth David and Delia Smith; she combined an encyclopedic knowledge of French cuisine with straightforward explanations of how to recreate it in an ordinary American kitchen. At a time when canned and frozen foods offered housewives an easy alternative to cooking, her work with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, held out a challenge – it didn’t make cooking coq au vin brainless, but it made it attainable for the home cook. It would no longer be the fenced-off realm of a high-toqued chef.

This book is a compilation of the letters between Julia Child and her friend Avis deVoto, who helped steward Mastering’s completion and publication. Their missives span 1952 to 1961, when the first volume was published by Knopf. They are intriguing not just from a foodie perspective; the two women also discuss the political landscape in the 1950s, and consider the shifting roles of women in and out of the home. But my interest, if you haven’t guessed, is more on the culinary side of things, so it’s that on which I will focus.

Avis and Julia’s letters reflect the state of cooking and eating in America in the 1950s. Julia experiments with appliances like standing mixers and early food processors, incorporating these new kitchen mainstays into older French methods.

One difference that really struck me between then and now is the dearth of fresh herbs in stores, and the overwhelming dominance of the dried stuff. Avis tells Julia flat out that in her recipes “you’ve got to assume dried herbs always.” It’s possible that the lack of herbs might be down to Avis shopping in Boston (perhaps in California supermarkets produce was more abundant?), but that she can rarely find fresh tarragon and never dill is just foreign to me. That I can go on a supermarket website, press a button, and have packets of fresh herbs delivered to me, is pretty remarkable. I want to learn more about what has made that possible.

Another thing that really comes through in their letters is their passion for the project. I find the sheer amount of hard graft over many years that Julia and her partners put into the book staggering. Testing recipes over and over again, writing hundreds of pages just on sauces and poultry, then having to start over and write a short(er) overview of all of French cooking. Add to this that Julia had to move around because of her husband’s job, and could not just e-mail her co-authors her new ideas and get a response the same day. That’s dedication.

But maybe that’s what it takes, to make something really groundbreaking. To work at it, every day, no matter how long it takes to make things happen, even if it seems like the whole project might come to nothing. It’s clear from Avis and Julia’s letters that what powered the whole project was passion for French cooking and the belief that translating it for the American home cook was important.

Something to ponder as I take this blog forward. I love cooking, but I also love reading about it, and thinking about what it means. I believe it’s an important facet of who we are, but I’m not 100% certain how exactly I want to express that importance.

Philosophising aside, I’d recommend this book not just to people interested in food history, but also to people who want a contemporary perspective on America in the 1950s, specifically social and cultural norms. A really fascinating read!

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