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Friday, December 17, 2010

Julia’s Kitchen Was Not Magazine-Worthy, Either

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto--Food, Friendship & tha Making of a Masterpiece, ed. by Joan Reardon (Houghton Mifflin, 2010, $26)

Have you ever picked up a volume of some famous person’s letters and wished you had a correspondent like that? Even at the historical height of letter-writing, whenever that may have been, odds are that most missives were pretty pedestrian. “How are you? I am fine. Wish you were here. We saw Uncle Bertie and Aunt Evelyn on Sunday. Please send my blue sweater.” By contrast, there were the letters of Charles Lamb, full of news and wit! Oh, when first I read them, how I longed to have Charles Lamb for a correspondent, but alas! He lived and died long before I was born! I did read his published letters over and over, however.

Well, now we have letters between the ebullient and irrepressible Julia Child and Avis de Voto, letters full of news, observations (political and otherwise) and recipes. They are very logically organized, and they are also quite long, and here is a whole book full of them, ranging from 1952 to 1961. I’ll never master French cooking, but when it came to writing letters, Julia was a gal after my own heart. She begins a letter on January, 19, 1953, by writing
We both enjoyed your nice long letter immensely, and this will be but a short one from me, as I’ve got to get to work. I find I’d much rather write to you than to work, and I must not indulge myself. [This is the mark of a true letter-writer: that she writes as much, if not more, for her own pleasure as for that of her recipient. It is a more selfish pleasure than many people realize.] ...We knew Paris could not last forever, as we’ve been here just over four years. We’ve been living on borrowed time, really.

This “short” letter goes on for six printed pages in the book, so you may imagine how long the original must have looked, whether typed or handwritten.

When is the last time you received a real letter in the mail, and how long and well organized was it? When is the last time you wrote a real letter to someone? One friend and I still exchange precious handwritten letters, pages written with love and received with gratitude, but honesty compels me to admit that we write less frequently, less carefully and more sketchily than we used to do. Neither of us is complaining: seeing my friend’s handwriting on an envelope is sufficient cause for joy. We could, of course, correspond more easily and therefore more often with e-mail, which would also allow for more careful composing and editing. (In fact, let me say here and now that I value my in-depth e-mail correspondences very highly, all the more so in contrast to the brief and superficial exchanges on Facebook.) But even printed out, an e-mail is not a letter. It is almost instantaneous, and part of the pleasure of a letter is anticipation, the hope that may be disappointed one day but will rise again the next until one day it is rewarded. There at last is the envelope to be opened, the letter to be slid out and unfolded, eagerly read, refolded and put away, only to be taken out and reread half a dozen times.

Correspondence between Avis and Julia began almost accidentally after Julia had read an article of Bernard de Voto’s in which he complained about stainless steel knives, all the new rage at the time. They could not, he said, be properly sharpened. So Julia, who had never met the couple but appreciated de Voto’s writing and knew something about knives, sent the American writer a knife from Paris, and Mrs. de Voto, her husband’s secretary and proof-reader, wrote to reply with thanks. The first few letters discuss knives and knife-sharpening at great length, but right from the start the two women veered into other, related interests.

Did they handwrite or type? Did either of them write such long, interesting letters to other friends? Many friends?

But besides the letters themselves, my attention is brought back again and again to this black-and-white photograph in the front of the book:

This is Julia in her Paris kitchen! Linger, if you will, over that image for a minute. I have cooked in a couple of Paris kitchens, and they are generally tiny, which is why I refer to the tiny kitchen in our old farmhouse (a few inches over 10 square feet of floor space, I kid you not) as “my Paris kitchen,” but I am nowhere near Julia Child’s height! The top of her stove was not far above the height of her knees! Please, please notice, also, that her stove was not a huge, expensive, restaurant-quality range, the kind that architects and decorators seem to think every new American home--those worthy of being shown in magazines, at least--must have these days. Did Julia complain? Did she mope and whine over not having a dishwasher or a copper stove hood or a walk-in pantry? No, she was Julia Child, and she got busy and wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking!!!

Note to self: Stop complaining about your old farm kitchen and remember how lucky you are to have spent time in Paris and to live now in northern Michigan.


Update: Okay, this is uncanny. I had just finished drafting what you just finished reading when David told me he had had an epiphany about the kitchen. He’d been thinking about the kitchen, too! But he’d had an “epiphany”? My dismay burst from me: “Oh, no!” I groaned and tried to stop him from telling me about it right before bed, thinking I’d never be able to get to sleep. My visionary David, you see, has a way of mentally seeing a plan that leaves no room for changes by a second party, even if the plan is for a kitchen and the second party is the one who will be living with and in the result! We’ve talked about the kitchen before, you see, and I’ve been insisting for quite a while that we need to tear everything out, while he’s been trying to figure out how to keep and make do with the cupboards we have. (They are very old but worse, they are too high and too deep to be efficient, and they drive me crazy!) So this project, before it has even begun, has been a bone of contention.

But now, suddenly—hallelujah! His vision began with “We start by tearing everything out!” My heart soared! He really did have an epiphany! Unstoppable, he continued to describe the simple lines of the galley in his mind, just what I have been seeing all this time! “We start with a crowbar,” he said, and I reply enthusiastically, “I’m really good with a crowbar!”

It will still be a Paris kitchen in northern Michigan, no bigger than it was before, but maybe we can turn it into space more conducive to pleasurable work. At least I now have hope.

Hope? The thing with feathers? Waiting for a letter, looking forward to a more workable kitchen, the artist and the bookseller live on dreams and always have. David said last night of our dog, Sarah, “She’s the only thing standing between us and reality.” Yes, this is who we are. I wonder what Julia would think.


P. J. Grath said...

Answer to my question comes on page 47: “This is an appallingly long letter. But it is so much fun to write to you. And it is dreadfully typed. You type so beautifully. Practically never a mistake. I have been typing like mad for nigh onto 25 yrs., and it has never been any better than this.” The upside to Julie’s typing, however, was that she was able to bang out such long, chatty letters.

Well, now you know just how far into the book I got before being totally sidetracked by reflections on my own kitchen.

Anonymous said...

This blogpost is lovely and its timing is perfect. Just when I was thinking about Christmas letters and how I love to receive them but how I hesitate to take time out from my busy life to write them, I read your piece. (I'm not talking about a single copied letter but the really heartfelt catch up letters I want to send to former college roommates, old work colleagues, and people whose lives were once part of every day of my life.) Your piece reminded me that the time taken to write these missives, even if they are not perfect or publishable, is in itself a gift. Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

P. J. Grath said...

You're welcome, Marilyn, and thank you for leaving a comment. I think I will make a new year's resolution and that it will be to write more letters in 2011.

Also, kind of a p.s. to my post--I read back over it and don't know that David's comment about Sarah will be clear to people other than me. As we, D. and I, romanticize our simple farmhouse life (e.g., "my Paris kitchen"!), Sarah's adorableness helps us stay in our dreamworld.

Gerry said...

Truly, I know that what the people I love would like more than anything else would be nice, newsy letters. Real paper ones. Email is nice, and no one complains about getting it, but letters are in a class by themselves.

I'm taking great encouragement from Julia's kitchen.

Going Native said...

I am so happy to hear you are staying in the Leelanau over the winter. I'm not a big fan of Florida. The sunshine is more than welcome, especially in these cloud-covered days of winter. There seems to be a lack of community there.

Congratulations on your new kitchen project. It's a tough project to live through but the results are always worth it. Whatever you do out of love, whether it be selling books, creating art, or cooking, fulfills the needs of the heart and soul. Money may provide space, convenience, and comfort, but it cannot provide love.

Dawn said...

First off, I think Julia would be thrilled for you and your new Kitchen!!

And I love letters in the old fashioned snail mail too. My mother used to write to her mother every week, even though Grandma only lived in Ann Arbor, maybe an hour away. Many many years latter Bonnie (my dog) and I sat down at the computer and wrote to my own mother every Saturday. We did that for years, until email got prevalent. Last year I was cleaning out a desk at her house and found all my letters to her together, with a rubber band around them. I cried.

Letters are forever, as evidenced by the book you're read, and others like it. Emails? Don't know, maybe someone will save them all. I wish I had saved the ones Mom wrote to me.

Have a wonderful holiday. I'm reading the book you sent. WOnderful so far.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, I found it encouraging, too, so I know just what you mean. And letters, yes. Dawn, one friend of mine, years ago, was very upset that I had not printed out and kept all his e-mails to me! But I don’t do that! Letters, now, I keep for years.

Mary, I’m sure there are strong communities in Florida, but being part of a community takes time and commitment, and we didn’t get that involved. Here at home in Michigan, the involvement can sometimes seem overwhelming, but we are very much part of our community.

We’ll see when the big project gets underway and how fast it progresses. For now, like Gerry, I’m taking heart from Julia’s Paris kitchen. If she got by with that, I can get by with mine for a big longer.

P. J. Grath said...

Obviously, I meant a "bit" longer. And Dawn, I'm so pleased that you are enjoying Tony Judt's book. It may be my #1 favorite of 2010, though it's very difficult to compare books across genres and from one end of the year to the other.

Annie in Austin said...

Hello PJ Grath,

A wonderful person gave me this book last month. I was already fond of Julia, but have now fallen hard for Avis and have been trying to learn more about her.

Searching for Avis De Voto landed me on your charming blog - loved your post and was amused that you're in Northern Michigan. Avis was a Michigan girl born in Houghton. Her parents were listed as living in Escanaba in 1923 when she married Bernard De Voto... even farther north than you are!

Best of luck with the kitchen demolition and rebuilding, whenever and if-ever.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose (one of the many garden bloggers in Austin, TX)

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Annie, and welcome! I've heard such wonderful things about Austin so will have to check out your blog. A friend of mine had a garden design business for years, and we worked together on many installations and sometimes maintenance, too.

I did note that Avis was from Houghton, up in the Keewanaw. From there to the sophisticated world of literature and politics, what a life she had! It was one of the best pieces of luck in so many ways, for the rest of us as well as for the two of them, that Julia and Avis became friends and eventually collaborators, with Avis as Julia's editor. I loved the letters all the way to the end.