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Book review: 'As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto' by Joan Reardon

December 3, 2010 | 10:36 am


In 1952, a middle-aged American woman living in Paris responded to a complaint about the poor quality of American-made kitchen knives by one of her favorite magazine writers and sent him a couple of French-made ones from her neighborhood store. If you believe history turns on specific moments, you could say that impulsive act of generosity was the start of the American culinary revolution.

The housewife was Julia Child, and if her "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and accompanying television shows weren't the catalyst for the change in American attitudes toward cooking during the 1960s, they were certainly its most recognizable symbols. The writer was Bernard DeVoto, and though he is largely forgotten today, in the 1950s he was one of the country's leading public intellectuals, a historian, author and longtime columnist for Harper's magazine, when that really meant something.

DeVoto didn't answer the letter himself, of course; that was left to his wife, Avis. And for that we can be thankful because her gracious thank-you letter to Child led to a long correspondence between the two, which has now been captured in Joan Reardon's marvelous new book "As Always, Julia."

If Child was the mother of the modern American interest in cooking, Avis DeVoto was its midwife. She's the one with the publishing background who steered the novice author through the perilous shoals of the book world, cheering her on when she needed it, connecting her with publishers and editors, offering astute criticism, even copy editing manuscript, testing recipes and sending American ingredients to Child overseas so she could test with the same materials her audience would be using. Click here to read the rest of the review by Times Food editor Russ Parsons.


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Photo: Avis DeVoto, left, and Julia Child cook together in Paris in 1956. Credit: Paul Child / Houghton-Mifflin