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Pen pal was a key ingredient to Julia Child’s success

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By Joan Reardon

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 482 pages, $26

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Updated: April 19, 2011 5:34AM

The story of Julia Child and her rise to culinary fame has been told many times in biographies, movies, documentaries, memoirs and on the stage.

It would seem that there’s nothing more to say on the subject. But Chicago-based culinary historian Joan Reardon proves that assumption wrong in the new book As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto.

The letters written in the years from 1952-1961 provide fascinating details about the creation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a massive and complex endeavor executed in a time before computers and e-mail, when snail mail was pretty much the only means of communication between two friends living on different continents.

But even more interesting are the pen pal conversations between two good friends that encompass different aspects of life, from love and marriage to politics and travel.

“It’s an interesting expanded image of Julia that I don’t think many of us have had until this point,” Reardon said. “There are just so many aspects of her personality that come through in these letters.”

Child was married to diplomat Paul Child and living in Paris when she read a 1951 Harpers article by Avis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning historian husband, Bernard DeVoto, in which he complained how hard it was to find good kitchen knives in America. She sent him a fan letter and a good French knife. Avis answered Child’s letter, and a lifelong friendship was born.

Soon Child mentioned she was working on a manuscript, and DeVoto, who had connections in the publishing world, asked to see it. She immediately recognized that it was something unique that had never been done before. She served as the book’s initial editor and opened doors for Child first at Houghton Mifflin and later at Knopf.

Reardon first came across Child’s letters to DeVoto in 1987 at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library while working on the book M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child and Alice Waters: Celebrating the Pleasures of the Table. Child’s letters to DeVoto were also there but sealed to the public until 2003.

So it wasn’t until 2005 that Reardon finally sat down and began to assemble the correspondence into a sort of narrative.

“I began to put the back and forth of the letters together,” Reardon said. “What emerged was the fact that Avis was enormously important in the evolution of the book. But I also learned a great deal about Julia, especially how political she was in the volatile ’50s.”

Reardon herself got to know Child in the late ’80s when she spent time doing research at her Cambridge, Mass., home. They would often have tea together.

“I knew the self-confident Julia who was a successful television personality and cookbook author,” Reardon recalled. But in the letters she found another Child, a woman who was just starting out and full of worries and doubts.

“I think that evolution is very interesting,” Reardon said. “In the letters, you see Julia discouraged. You see her, after getting rejection letters, wondering if the cookbook is ever going to be published.”

There are also many forthright and funny opinions on food and life. At one point, Child jokes, “I had intended to be a great woman novelist but for some reason The New Yorker didn’t ask me to be on its staff.”

There’s also an emotional arc throughout the letters as the women face personal challenges. A sadness moves over the correspondence when Bernard DeVoto dies suddenly at 58 and Avis must adjust to a life without him.

Reardon, who taught English at Lake Forest’s Barat College for 20 years, found her way to food writing after developing an interest in the Cotuit oyster beds off Cape Cod, which resulted in the cookbook Oysters: A Culinary Celebration with 185 Recipes. In the ’80s, there weren’t many single-subject cookbooks, and it became a favorite of chefs, including Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey.

“That’s the only cookbook I’ve done, and it had some success,” Reardon said. “But after that, I got involved in women and food and a new career just sort of evolved.”

That interest led to the aforementioned book on Fisher, Child and Waters, which led to several additional books on Fisher, including a biography.

Reardon admits she found working with the Child/DeVoto letters especially rewarding. She still marvels at how much is revealed in the letters about the friendship between Child and DeVoto.

“A lot of people thought they knew Julia,” Reardon said. “But I think she had very few really intimate friends, and Avis was one of them.”

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