More than 200 letters exchanged between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, her friend and unofficial literary agent memorably introduced in the hit movie Julie & Julia, open the window on Julia’s deepest thoughts and feelings. This riveting correspondence, in print for the first time, chronicles the blossoming of a unique and lifelong friendship between the two women and the turbulent process of Julia’s creation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, one of the most influential cookbooks ever written. Frank, bawdy, funny, exuberant, and occasionally agonized, these letters show Julia, first as a new bride in Paris, then becoming increasingly worldly and adventuresome as she follows her diplomat husband in his postings to Nice, Germany, and Norway.
With commentary by the noted food historian Joan Reardon, and covering topics as diverse as the lack of good wine in the United States, McCarthyism, and sexual mores, these astonishing letters show America on the verge of political, social, and gastronomic transformation.
1. Julia and Avis’s relationship started with a letter about knives in Harper’s magazine. Have you ever been moved so much by something you read to write a letter (or email) to the author or editor? How is this a fitting start to their lasting friendship?
2. Some people say friendship and politics don’t mix, but early in Julia and Avis’s relationship (October of 1952, page 16 of the book) they are discussing the election. What are their political views; what do they agree and disagree on? In a true friendship, are any topics off-limits?
3. On page 107 Avis talks about the copy of the Larousse Gastonomique that Julia sent as “like popcorn, you can’t stop reading.” Is As Always, Julia a “popcorn” book, why or why not? What are some of your favorite popcorn books?
4. In her October 28, 1953 (page 140), letter, Julia covers politics, sex, and food in three paragraphs. How do her letters look compared to the emails you write regularly to your closest friends? What has changed since Julia’s time in the way we correspond with confidants?
5. In her November 5, 1953 (page 147), letter Avis comments that the first course has practically disappeared at dinner parties because women are too busy keeping house and don’t have maids. How else do you think dinner parties have changed since Avis wrote that letter and what, culturally, do you think contributed to those changes? What do you feel we have lost, and gained, because of this?
6. On page 164 Avis talks about Mastering the Art of French Cooking and says, “Julia this is so good. You are going to scoop the field and last.” Avis, of course, was certainly right. Talk about how this one cookbook had such a profound impact on so many different things: cookbooks, recipe writing, cooking on television, etc.
7. On page 184 Avis writes of the meeting of the Childs and the DeVotos, “You might so easily have found things about the DeVotos that were quire unendurable, and, I suppose, so might we as regards you. Instead, all this fine love at first sight. God is good. I never had anybody in my house who was so completely effortless and easy, and whom I was so eager to see again. I will now never dare to reply in [a] friendly manner to any sort of fan letter, because this couldn’t happen again.” Why do you think these women hit it off so strongly? Do you think such friendships were common in the 1950s? Could this happen today?
8. Julia writes at the end of her letter of October 1, 1954 (page 199), that Paul sends his most fond love and says he wishes he had a pen pal, too. Do you think men are capable of creating and sustaining the type of relationship that Julia and Avis had?
9. Julia and Avis end their letters with many terms of endearment such as “Most love to you both and now I must get back to taxes,” “Lashings of love,” “Loads of love, all kinds sacred and profane.” What was the most unique? Why do you think the editor chose “As Always” for the title of the book?
10. The years 1955 to 1959 were tough on both Julia and Avis with Bernard’s death and Houghton Mifflin rejecting Mastering the Art of French Cooking. How do you think the women dealt with their grief?
11. When Knopf became interested in Mastering the Art of French Cooking Avis wrote to Julia mentioning the potential interest and that she probably shouldn’t say anything because she didn’t want to get Julia’s hopes up. Did she do the right thing?
12. Letter-writing used to be an art. Kids had pen pals from school age on. Now in the age of email, instant messaging, and chat this practice has waned. Do you think the world has lost something?