Julia Child letters at Ransom Center teach us about America's favorite chef
Fifty years ago this month, a 48-year-old Julia Child and her husband, Paul, boarded a ship in Norway headed for New York.
Julia Child had been living in Europe with Paul for more than a decade, moving from France to Germany to then Norway, all the while working on a cookbook she was writing with two women she'd met in Paris.
Just when Child had lost almost all hope of getting the book published, a friend pitched the book to Judith Jones, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf in New York City who'd already made an indelible imprint on the publishing world when she'd rescued the manuscript for "The Diary of Anne Frank" 10 years earlier. The two exchanged dozens of letters in the months preceding Child's move back to the United States; many are part of a collection of Knopf papers that the Ransom Center at the University of Texas acquired as gifts from the publishing house as early as 1963.
The letters, many of which are typed on wispy onion skin paper and blue aerograms, will be the focus of a session of the International Association of Culinary Professionals' annual conference, which will be held in Austin for the first time in early June, almost 50 years to the day that Child disembarked in New York and finally met Jones in person.
Jones was in love: "I can't remember when I've been as excited about a project," she wrote to Avis de Voto, the mutual friend who introduced her to Child. "As you know, the enthusiasts around here are absolutely convinced that this book is revolutionary, and we intend to prove it and make it a classic."
Julia Child's letters are the original source material for a story that has been told in books (among them, her autobiography "My Life in France" and Noel Riley Fitch's "Appetite for Life"), movies ("Julie & Julia," based on the book written by Austin native Julie Powell) and over time through her long life on television cooking shows, flipping omelets and explaining beurre blanc to curious Americans.
Through these letters, we learn the vivid details of not only how "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" came to be, but who Julia Child was before she became a fixture (and a caricature) on TV.
"She is as well quite wonderful to work with, a relaxed, easy, jokey woman, a bit of a clown, and as reasonable as any human can be," de Voto wrote to Jones in early 1960. "She is not much of a writer, striving for clarity and compression rather than style, and no speller at all. But this isn't a style book, it's a manual. Or maybe a bible."
In contrast with Jones' impeccable form and spelling, Child's letters often contained additional handwritten notes in the margins and misspelled words that had been retyped over to block them out.
Through her own letters, we learn that Child loathed Gourmet magazine's lax standards for recipes as much as she loved winter in Oslo. "Ye Gods!" she wrote to Jones after finding fault with the way a recipe explained to heat butter until foaming. "It's high time that Gourmet had a run for its money," Jones responded. "I agree with you that they have been getting away with murder for a long time."
The Southern California native didn't seem to mind the weather in Norway, though: "We have had about 8 inches of snow, and it is lovely, but not expected to last," she wrote in November 1960. And in February 1961: "Our snow is melting. Woe."
Child and her colleagues had already spent 10 years working on "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," but there was still much editing to do, so she and Jones would mail updates to the manuscript back and forth, and at least once, Jones had to recommend to Child that she pack the manuscript in a sturdier box because the hundreds of pages almost came loose in transit. Ironing out the minute details of the book, from the title to which French words would carry accents, were a maddening but essential part of the process. "Cook books are horrible things to print, aren't they?" Child wrote to Jones. She signed at least one letter, "With cross-eyed regards, J.C."
"You have already revolutionized my own efforts in the cuisine," Jones wrote to her. "And everyone I have let sample a recipe or talked to about the book is already pledged not to buy another cookbook until this one is on the market."
Just before the book was finally published in October 1961, de Voto made a list of people who would receive complimentary copies of the cookbook, and at the bottom of the typed list, she added one more in heavy black cursive: "Mrs. John F. Kennedy should have a copy, too."
Just weeks before the book hit bookstore shelves, Child finally received her copy and wrote to Knopf president William Koshland: "It is a perfectly beautiful book in every respect. ... Who could dream of anything more satisfying to clasp to one's bosom? On looks alone, it ought to do wonders."
The book went on to sell more than 1 million copies, and Child spent the next three decades, until her death in 2004, in the public eye. In an early letter to Jones back in 1960, Child wrote about one of the first interviews she conducted with a Norwegian reporter. "They don't know anything about me and especially do they know nothing about French cooking. They want a good story, and they won't get one interviewing a naive bumpkin who politely answers a lot of dumb questions." She consciously set out to create "a self-engendered public personality," which we can see from her letters isn't far from the real Julia.