Recipe for making friends
Q. When their friendship began in the early 1950s, Child lived in Paris, DeVoto in Cambridge. How did they connect?
A. Avis’s husband, Bernard DeVoto, was a journalist and historian. He wrote a column [for Harper’s] about the inability to get a sharp, good knife in America. Julia read the article and immediately sent off a knife and fan letter. Avis handled all his correspondence, so she answered. They started out as “Dear Mrs. DeVoto’’ and “Dear Mrs. Child,’’ then they began exchanging more than information about knives. Julia said she was involved in getting this manuscript together; Avis asked to see it and recognized this was potentially a cookbook that had never been published before in the United States. That’s how their friendship really evolved.
Q. How did you come to the letters, and how did you decide they warranted a book?
A. Julia’s letters were in Avis’s papers, which Avis donated to [Harvard’s] Schlesinger Library with the stipulation they be closed for 30 years. That meant it wasn’t until about 2003 that readers were permitted access to them. I was in Boston around 2004. I stopped at the library and thought, I’m really interested in those letters that Julia wrote to Avis. When I saw them, it was the “aha’’ moment. They revealed Julia not as the French chef, the author of many cookbooks, but really as a person and a very good letter writer.
Q. Did you know her?
A. In 1987 I had a grant from Radcliffe to do research at the Schlesinger. Julia invited me to come to her house at 103 Irving St. and find whatever I was interested in finding in her files and her secretary’s office. So I used to go visit with Julia and work at her house. Every so often she would call upstairs and say, “Joan, would you like to have a cup of tea?’’
Q. What were you surprised to learn from these letters?
A. How political Julia was. That was a huge surprise, even though the ’50s were a very volatile period and there was much to criticize. I knew Avis was — the whole milieu of Cambridge, with the Galbraiths and the Schlesingers, all these people were interested in government. Also, the Julia we know from television and her books seems to be totally self-confident, and in these letters you discover she had a lot of self-doubt. When her revised manuscript was rejected, she was really very pessimistic about its chances of being published.
Q. What do the letters reveal about domestic life and home cooking at the time?
A. It was the era of the housewife who does it all. Avis read four or five newspapers, plus weekly magazines and monthlies, and summarized it all for her husband. She was his secretary. She was the mother of two sons. And she was very interested in setting a good table. They had a cocktail party every Sunday and entertained several times during the week. So many new appliances came out after the war, and you see Avis getting what she called “the pig,’’ her garbage disposal. You keep bumping up in these letters against what is convenient and what the food industry is pushing onto the American housewife, then you have the reaction of the American housewife to this.
Q. Why was the connection between these friends so important to them, and to “Mastering the Art of French Cooking’’?
A. Avis had such knowledge of the publishing world. She could open doors for Julia, first at Houghton Mifflin and ultimately at Knopf. She also had a keen knowledge of ingredients that weren’t available in the US in the ’50s. She would say, “Nobody knows about shallots!’’ Avis was very frequently the sounding board when the results of [recipe] testing came in. It was really a collaboration or partnership, if you will. It was a very deep friendship. A lot of people feel they knew Julia, and everyone has a Julia story. But I think she had very few really intimate friends, and Avis was one of them.
Interview was condensed and edited. Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.