Monday, March 21, 2011

Wishing I'd Met Avis DeVoto

The other day I read something that is so perfectly reflective of where I'm at that I couldn't wait to share it. So I wrote up a post and then looked at the front of the book, which had, as most books do, a little warning about reproducing without permission. Dagnabit. Partially because I'd already written it up and partially because there's no way I'll be able to summarize what they wrote in a way that comes even close to how wonderfully well they wrote what they did.

I got the book As Always, Julia The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto Food Friendship & the Making of a Masterpiece because I love to cook and have been using Julia's cookbooks forever. Their correspondence began when Julia wrote a response to an article Avis' husband wrote on American knives. Julia sent him a French knife and Avis, handling her husband's correspondence, wrote back. They ended up writing for years and their letters covered politics (McCarthy era), publishing, cooking, travel, families - everything. That initial letter lead to the eventual publishing of Mastering The Art of French Cooking.

They have a lot in common: both women are Democrats; both are very political; and both love food. They are, to use their terms, egghead intellectuals. Avis is 48 and Julia 40 when their letters begin. And the two women forge a lasting friendship on the chance writing of a letter.

While I've found the food discussion interesting, it is Avis, rather than Julia, who truly fascinates me. She has two sons, one of whom's still at home during the correspondence, and one of whom is returning from military service in need of help. He has what sounds like autism to my only partially educated ear. Her description of their life with him is honest, loving and despairing, and very human. She is like an amalgam of many of my friends, and yet enough unlike them as to make me want to know her, specifically. She is a wife, mother, editor, writer, encourager, helpmate, friend and, later, widow.

Mid-way through the book there's a section where Julia's busy pigeon-holing people into groups. She's got groups she dislikes, one of which she labels UMB - Upper Middle Brow, most of whom are Republicans and reside in the mid-western and western states. She describes them as basically nice, but, given their lack of intellectualism and achievements, a waste of human material. She's being flippant and not a little derisive, and Avis calls her on it, telling her that she's being too quick to categorize people and that these Republicans are apt to occasionally have answers that are better than those of the eggheads. Avis goes on to say that she's continually surprised by good things about these people...and that some of the intellectuals that she knows can be the "awfullest fools."

Avis then shares with Julia her take on a family she knows who publicly present a wonderful face, but who are dealing in private with something that turns them into a "mass of well-concealed panic." She tells Julia that she admired this family, thinking it ideal, until she really knew their story. And that the complexity of people caused her to love them, turning her "to mush."

I love Avis' response. Because the older I get, the truer her response rings. In terms of understanding and sometimes being awed by the complexity of humanity, Avis DeVoto nails it.

Avis died in 1989. And I was pretty sad to read that part, as I'd like to have known her. She'd not make a comfortable friend, but you'd be a better person because of her friendship. Julia Child certainly was.

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