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January 4, 2011

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Private letters of chef Julia Child

"AS Always, Julia" is an epistolary love story, a romance that began with a fan letter and the gift of a paring knife. The letter was to the writer and historian Bernard DeVoto, who had written in Harper's about impossibly dull stainless-steel knives. The fan was an ambitious American cook, Julia Child, then living in Paris.

The reply came from DeVoto's wife and general factotum, Avis. Within months, she and Child had gone from "Mrs" to "Avis" and "Julia, my pet!" Even in the 1950s, things moved fast.

They wrote reams, and in an intimate tone that's still fresh today. While DeVoto's letters have been available, Child's were only unsealed in 2006, so there's a lot of fresh information about the great chef, who died in 2004.

The drama that runs through the correspondence is the one that occupied (the better) half of Nora Ephron's film "Julie & Julia:" the rocky road to the publication of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." DeVoto, recognizing the project's potential, is "absolutely convinced that you really have got something here that could be a classic."

"I do think that except for me the book would be dead."

She was right. Child was if anything understating when in the acknowledgments she called DeVoto "our foster mother, wet nurse, guide and mentor." Through all the advances and setbacks, Child is alternately confident to the point of arrogance and insecure almost to the point of giving up. But DeVoto urges her not to compromise.

Familiar as the story is to Child fans, DeVoto's part will be a revelation. Even if she lacked Child's impulsive gusto, she was bold within her more conventional domestic life. Her husband liked writing, camping, martinis and steak. She liked writing, editing and good food.

"You display the true marks of a Great Gourmande," Child tells her early on. "People who love to eat are always the best people."

The two compare notes on mates. They also gossip about friends and sex. "Before marriage I was wildly interested in sex," Child confesses, after DeVoto finds Alfred Kinsey's book dull, "but since joining up with my old goat, it has taken its proper position in my life. But, when people are queer, maladjusted, unhappy, bitchy, etc, I want to know why, so that I can understand them and get along with them if necessary."

Child and DeVoto also discuss the liberal politics prevalent in the DeVotos' Cambridge set, which mightily appealed to Child, who wanted to throw off the values of the family she called "Old Guard Republicans of the blackest and most violently Neanderthal stripe."

But food was what kept them so engaged. "I prefer fresh vegetables, and I like them undercooked, Chinese fashion," DeVoto tells Child. She particularly likes braised endive and calves' hearts, tastes that seem pretty advanced for the Cambridge of 1953.

Child's tastes were already formed. The first piece of advice she gives DeVoto is "You could always get a richer flavor to your sauces by 'buttering them up'."

DeVoto's first comment after testing a Child recipe is the prophetic, "I found there was a little too much fat in it." DeVoto playfully curses Child for the five pounds she gains making beurre blanc and "your top-secret mayonnaise."

When Child and DeVoto finally meet, more than two years after beginning their correspondence, the reader is as apprehensive as anyone who has ever gone on a hopeful first date. "It doesn't seem at all possible that less than two weeks ago you were all of you but words on paper," Child writes afterward. "It did not then seem that love on paper would not blossom into love in the flesh, and it certainly did with an all-embracing bang."


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