a distant mirror

I, too, could not believe that they would railroad Nixon through until I read a [Walter] Lippmann column a few days before they did, who explained to my satisfaction how it had all been planned for weeks and months ahead; and all the power boys like Dewey were rallying around behind him, and jockeying for their eventual position when he takes over. I wonder how much any of this affects the true believers; or those who might have doubts. One of the phenomena we find incredible and disturbing, having now met 4 Republicans from the US who are visiting around here, is their flat-out refusal to think about anything happening to their symbol of safety. “I am willing to take the chance, if there is one. I am his. He is mine.” Etc. I don’t remember having run into this before, but imagine there was a great deal of it during the Roosevelt days … and he and his certainly did a great deal of railroading through conventions. I keep feeling, as you do, that there is a fighting chance for Adlai and Kefauver … but can they break through that idolatry onto solid ground?

— Julia Child to Avis DeVoto, Oslo, 27 August 1956

A recent joy has been Joan Reardon’s edited collection of the Child-DeVoto letters. Julia Child, of course, was The French Chef on the black-and-white television of my childhood, “a tall loopy Smithie who dropped steaks on the floor and swigged red wine while she cooked,” in the words of the early online journaler known as Edith Pilaf (the approximate words, recalled from memory).

Child was one of a triumvirate of women on public television who instructed us in what we would now call lifestyle arts. The other two were Thalassa Cruso (Making Things Grow, English gardener showing us how to care for pot plants) and Maggie Lettvin (Maggie and the Beautiful Machine, gentle exercise for nonathletes presented with detailed commentary and yoga calm, ending with her signature running in place and valedictory “Ciao”).

Never really out of fashion, the French Chef and her chef d’oeuvre Mastering the Art of French Cooking have had a lingering renaissance on the back of Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia. Powell started with a great idea – cooking through the already meticulously tested Mastering the Art 40 years later to re-test the recipes – and proceeded to fumble it through an online journal and this book, later made into a film. The volume ended up starved of cooking information and reflections on the place of cuisine in the 21st century (there was some of each but not enough), and oversalted with unexamined details of her daily life. The best parts were imagined scenes from Child’s life in France and these led me to Child’s My Life in France and the letters volume.

In her letters, Child reveals herself as a shrewd observer of politics and national posturing, as well as of food and techniques of its production. She was frustrated throughout by her father, the sort of Republican who would be a Trumper today, and impressed by the organization of society in the European countries where she lived: France, the south of France, Germany, and Norway. Her husband Paul led a somewhat embattled life as a State Department arts attache (when the State Department did that kind of thing), with the embattlement becoming unbearable under Joe McCarthy. The Childs depended on friends like DeVoto, married to a journalist and a member of the Cambridge smart set, for intelligence on US politics and moral support as fellow members of the opposition.

There are some bits about the servant problem (mainly DeVoto) that have not aged well, and gay friends are sometimes discussed with chilling sympathy, but large stretches of the letters are marvelous – high on friendship as on a new love, gossipy with the breezy candor of Jean Webster’s Jerusha Abbott, or Cornelia Otis Skinner on Emily Kimbrough – models of bluestocking letter and memoir-writing in the present writers’ youth. Each letter is a collection of status updates on dozens of threads, sometimes disordered, as they were composed on typewriters, but mostly surprisingly well planned-in-execution.

The correspondents are ready to offer each other every kind of support, whether groceries sent across the Atlantic or a spare room for weeks. It’s astonishing how much free time (middle class)(white) people had in the 1950s, and therefore how patient they were able to be with themselves. That was probably some of Child’s appeal for Julie Powell. Julia Child and her friend Simone Beck took some ten years of 40-hour weeks to perfect their cookbook, while Paul Child, far from being a fully self-sacrificing salaryman, maintained a life as an artist in parallel with his State Department career. Avis DeVoto, despite having children and serving as her husband’s unpaid research assistant, still had time to cook for her own dinner parties, read widely and write book reviews, and test and midwife her friend’s project Mastering the Art. And they had time to write these letters, which are a considerable history.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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