Julia, Avis, and I

15 09 2011

On January 1, 2010, I wrote the following:

I suppose I should not have let curiosity get the better of me and seek out the source material for the “Julie” half of Julie & Julia, but what can I say, I’m a process nerd. If any good came of this experience, it was coming to a place in my life where I could look upon the work of Julia Child and receive her message.

And receive it I did, although I must admit I have a long way to go on the path of slavish devotion to Julia Child, forsaking all other cooks.

Then again, she never did that either.

My discipleship inched along since writing the aforementioned article. I moved to Kenosha WI later that year and in my efforts to acclimate to the area I found a small independent bookshop just before it went out of business. Despite being so tiny, I held a spark of hope that maybe it would have some cookbooks for sale, and maybe, just maybe, a well-worn copy of From Julia Child’s Kitchen would be in stock.

Well, yes and no.

The store had a copy, but not a well-worn one. Instead I snapped up a near-mint (!!!) copy for – and I am not making this up – $7.95 USD. I’m supposed to be wearing down my copy with countless hours of love and adoration but frankly I am afraid to gunk up the book. This is how hoarding starts, I know. I really do need to crack the cover more often and revel in Julia’s voice – and she has a voice, even in print – but for now it is sitting closed and at the ready.

My serendipitous find took a further back seat to another bookstore treasure: As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. The New York Times book review pretty much nailed the target audience:

Now comes “As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto,” a book for completists, the sort of pathetic losers who’d line up to buy a book of Child’s grocery lists, were it available. Well — full miserable disclosure — I am exactly that type of pathetic loser. So I picked up “As Always, Julia” with a modest tingle of anticipation. A good book of letters beats an almost-good novel any day.

Too true. Somebody get cracking on compiling those grocery lists, ‘kay?

I misread the book jacket in my amazement that any book by or about Julia Child was at the cheapie bookstore and erroneously thought that Avis DeVoto was one of the authors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which this book purports to give insight to the creation of through the correspondence of the chosen subjects. Wrong. I clearly don’t have a copy of Mastering… yet, but all things in good time.

Avis DeVoto instead was married to Bernard DeVoto, who I have no recollection of but in my defense he was before my time. I got the general impression through the correspondence that he was very active politically and wrote influential magazine articles, and occasional books. I am surely selling him way short but the life and work of Bernard DeVoto will have to be explored in greater depth (by me) at a later date.

Julia Child writes Bernard DeVoto a letter essentially saying “hear hear” that American stainless steel kitchen knives are useless, and Avis, who handled his correspondence, writes back. The 1950’s equivalent of email pong happens, and over time two people who have a thing for kitchen knives develop a bond that would last a lifetime.

(Yes, I know that before “email pong” people actually wrote letters to each other, but I couldn’t resist.)

So… how was the book?

What I Liked

  • Both Julia Child and Avis DeVoto make wonderful use of the English language, typos and misspellings aside. Avis excuses herself from one letter to tend to the laundry that is hanging on a clothesline and notes that it’s the sort of chore in autumn that (paraphrased) “makes you wish you never had children, lived on the East coast, or been born.” Julia Child is full of sparkle when discussing the ins and outs of “cookery bookery”.
  • Julia Child became even more human, to me. Yes, I know she was human, but as is often the case with celebrities, I feel, idol worship sets in and on some level it becomes a revelation that (gasp) Julia Child did housework or Avis DeVoto had to wash a pressure cooker – by hand! The political bantering (more like commiserating) between Julia and Avis is off-putting for some, I’m told, but I had no idea what Julia Child’s politics were prior to reading this book. I don’t suppose it amounts to a hill of beans, in the end, but it was still interesting.
  • I had Julia Child pegged as a process nerd prior to reading this book, and by her own account she was selectively so. Namely, the process nerd hat went on in the kitchen, but as she put it this didn’t translate into other areas, like wanting to know all about how cars worked.
  • I had no idea how many title changes Mastering… went through prior to its first pressing. I blame Hollywood. I also blame the tendency myself and others have in developing a mind set that, for example, because the finished product is so named and is iconic, it was always thus. Wrong. I’m a fool for details like this. I liken in to a bootleg record I once owned of Pink Floyd performing The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety… in 1972. (The finished product was released in 1973.) I enjoyed hearing how the rough cut differed from the iconic finished product. Same holds for Julia Child in the 1950s.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Hate to be a spoiler, but the ending really let me down. Having chosen to tell a specific story through this correspondence, Joan Reardon (the editor) seems to run out of fuel right around the time when Mastering… was being edited down for its first pressing. It probably also didn’t help that Julia Child moved not only back to the USA right around this time, but within spitting distance of Avis, which probably put a damper on letter writing.
  • The political stuff while insightful in some ways also gets tedious. I understand that the editor was going for thoroughness but maybe some well-placed (and timed) “[…]” would have cut the monotony. Robert Butts handled this in writing (transcribing, more to the point) the many Seth books with his wife Jane Roberts by saying “what followed was personal material for Jane and I.” Yes, I get it that we’re effectively reading Julia Child’s diary, so it’s all personal, but again, there had to be a middle ground somewhere. Maybe not. It would have saved reams of footnotes, however.
  • The book ended. Noooo! More more more! Grocery lists, I say!

Not only did this book really fire me up about cooking real, honest food rather than “heating things up”, it also got me thinking about living in Kenosha, and straddling the line between Illinois and Wisconsin, and more to the point, Chicago and Milwaukee. There’s lots out there that I’m not interacting with. There are two colleges a short drive away and I haven’t been keeping abreast of what sorts of activities they’re sharing with the locals, like lectures, movie screenings, and so on. Carthage volleyball season is here (just not at the actual college yet) but that’s not going to fill a thimble relative to all of the other goings-on.

It also got me thinking about networking, and how that can be either a genuine or cynical act. Julia Child did benefit immensely on a professional level from her association with Avis DeVoto but at no time was I left with the impression that either party was cynically using the other. They both do a fair amount of name-dropping, but instead of this being meant to impress, it’s instead meant to convey the sort of life both women lead. Oh dear, Adlai Stevenson wants to come over for dinner. Oh shucks, Arthur Schlessinger is going to be my neighbor. Gee whiz, dinner with another batch of Fulbright scholars. This could be very off-putting without context, and in context, I got it. Both women, yes, had connections, but they led lives that enabled the formation and continuation of those connections.

Throwing back to the Julie Powell blog and movie, it struck me the sharp contrast between Julie Powell, stuntwoman, versus Julia Child, culinary colossus. Time and time again, Julie Powell is assured that her stunt – and let’s be real about it, that’s what it was – would make her famous. Julia Child, on the other hand, is assured from the early going (literally one chapter of what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 1) that the end result would be a masterpiece. It disappoints me to think that literary fame apparently now requires some gimmick for what ultimately provides short-term gains. Julia Child wasn’t seeking personal glory in the 1950s, she was simply tired of useless cookbooks and thought there should be a better way to explain how to cook. And she, with loads of help, did so. I wonder what sorts of visionaries are yet to come to the fore, and how the world will be shaped by their emergence.

I heartily recommend the book, however I think it’s fair to say it’s for the die hards.

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