Almost three and a half years after arriving in Paris with her husband, Paul, Julia Child read an article in a 1951 issue of Harper's written by the historian and prolific journalist Bernard DeVoto. In "Crusade Resumed," he revisited what he considered "the only mission I have ever set myself, that of trying to get for the American housewife a kitchen knife she can cut something with." DeVoto criticized American-made stainless steel knives for their inability to hold an edge, and he detailed his continuing search for a carbon steel paring knife. As a cook who had already acquired a substantial batterie de cuisine, Julia sent him one, and Avis, who answered most of her husband's letters, acknowledged the gift. Soon "Dear Mrs. Child" and "Dear Mrs. DeVoto" became "Dear Julia" and "Dear Avis."
As an employee of the State Department's U.S. Information Service (USIS), which operated as a sort of propaganda agency, Paul set up photo and other art exhibits that would present the United States in a favorable light. Meanwhile, Julia explored the markets and dined in the small restaurants of Paris. Blessed with a hearty appetite, she had never been particularly interested in food until she began working with Paul in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China, where she enjoyed exotic meals. But in the City of Light, she experienced a culinary epiphany, and she had all the fervor of a religious convert regarding French food, wine, and cooking utensils. Above all, she valued the importance the French placed on mtier (skill). Propelled by her enthusiasm, she began a formal culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu in 1949 and sought out friends who thought about food the way she did. She met Simone "Simca" Beck, a Parisian who was well versed in the cuisines of Normandy, Alsace, and Provence, at a party for embassy personnel. The two clicked immediately and began to discuss food and "how to make a valid professional project out of it." When Simca and her friend Louisette Bertholle urged Julia to join Le Cercle des Gourmettes, an exclusive women's club started in the late 1920s, Julia was delighted. The three women often arrived hours before the scheduled Gourmettes' luncheon to assist the chef of the day in what they considered a private cooking lesson.
Cooking in tandem became a heady experience. So in January 1952, when a handful of Julia's American friends who either lived in Paris or were on holiday asked her to teach them something about French cooking, she persuaded Simca and Louisette to join her in organizing classes in a venture that came to be known as L'cole des Trois Gourmandes. The three women taught twice a week. Julia organized the lesson plans and typed the recipes. The format included two hours of instruction and hands-on cooking, after which everyone sat down to a leisurely meal in the Childs' dining room, with Paul selecting the wines.
Teaching cooking classes together soon led to writing a cookbook together. A few years earlier, after Louisette returned to France from a visit to the United States, she and Simca had submitted about six hundred recipes for a book to be published by the New York publishing house Ives Washburn. The head of the house, Sumner Putnam, had hired a translator/writer named Helmut Ripperger to prepare some of the recipes for a small spiral-bound book called What's Cooking in France, which was published early in 1952 but not widely promoted. Ripperger was not interested in working on a much larger cookbook, no contract was negotiated, and the project stalled.
Simca and Louisette turned to Julia to help them realize their plan to publish their big book. Although reluctant at first, Julia soon recognized the benefits of the project, which presented an opportunity to test and refine recipes and "translate the genuine taste of French cooking into American." Julia also knew that simply being an American might give her an advantage in dealing with U.S. publishers, and she began to question the wisdom of publishing the book with Ives Washburn. In the fall of 1952, she requested that all of the material already sent to Putnam be returned for translation and editing. Then she, Simca, and Louisette began to outline the tentatively titled "French Cooking for All" and discuss its scope. They told Ives Washburn that they wanted the manuscript published in a sequence of five individual volumes.
Meanwhile, Julia sent the first draft of the book to Avis, who immediately saw its potential and communicated her enthusiasm to Julia, along with the advice to extricate the project from Ives Washburn. Avis was an enterprising cook who knew how rare it was to find shallots even in the specialty shops of Cambridge and understood that there were limited places where an American cook could find a variety of herbs. She quickly became Julia's stateside adviser on ingredients, utensils, and the preferences of American cooks, as well as a valuable sounding board for Julia's staunch liberalism, ambition, and occasional insecurity.
Because Houghton Mifflin was her husband's publisher, Avis knew the staff at the venerable Boston publishing house, and she contacted her friend Dorothy de Santillana, senior editor there. De Santillana instinctively knew that this technique-focused cookbook was unlike the Americanized French recipes that were being offered in women's magazines and upscale cookbooks. She was interested.
In the following early letters between Julia and Avis, the latest victims of Senator Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunt get equal time with experiments on beurre blanc. Avis's accounts of forays into the West and excitement over Democrat Adlai Stevenson's 1952 presidential campaign cross paths with Julia's descriptions of the catch at the Old Port in Marseille, where Paul was posted in 1953. ("What luck for us," Julia says. "It could have been Abbis Ababababa.") Family members are introduced, and recipes are discussed at length.
Based on de Santillana's assessment of the manuscript and Avis's enthusiasm, Houghton Mifflin began discussing a contract in late 1953. It was signed on June 1, 1954. One-third of the $750 advance was forwarded to Julia as the representative of the Trois Gourmandes, with instructions to submit the manuscript of "French Cooking in the American Kitchen" (as it was now called) as soon as possible. Avis signed on as Julia's unofficial line editor. It was the perfect arrangement all around.
81 Rue de L'Universit, Paris, 7
March 8, 1952
Dear Mr. de Voto:
Your able diatribe against the beautiful-beautiful-rust-proof-edge-proof American kitchen knife so went to my heart that I cannot refrain from sending you this nice little French model as a token of my appreciation.
For the past three years here, I've had the good fortune to be able to spend my life studying French cooking and have amassed a most satisfyingly professional batterie de cuisine, including a gamut of excellent French knives. When we were in the USA last summer I picked up four beautiful-beautiful American stainless steel housewives knives, of different makes, to try them out. But I have been quite unable to sharpen them satisfactorily. I am therefore wondering if the average American housewife really wants a sharp knife in the kitchen, as many of my compatriots accuse me resentfully: "But your knives are so sharp! They're dangerous!"
If you are in need of some good professional knives, I would be very pleased to get some for you, and the prices are modest:
This one is about 70 (280 francs)
8-inch blade, about $2.40
7-inch flexible fish filleter, about $1.00
Mailed from here Fourth Class, one or two at a time, there seems to be no duty to pay at your end.
We do enjoy you in Harper's!
(Mrs. Paul Child)
8 Berkeley Street
Cambridge 38, Massachusetts
April 3, 1952
Dear Mrs. Child:
I hope you won't