Business and Labor

The 70-Cent Knife That Brought Julia Child to Cambridge, Mass.

Julia Child had a pet peeve: kitchen knives. They were never sharp enough for the beloved French chef.

She sometimes swore a blue streak over dull knives. Her husband Paul Child once overheard her yell, “God damn it!—I’ve never yet gone into a private French kitchen where the knives are sharp! How the hell do these people think they’re going to cook when they can’t even slice a tomato?”

Julia Child

Julia Child

So in April 1951, while living in France, she was taken by an essay in Fortune magazine by Bernard DeVoto. In it, he railed against consumer rip-offs, particularly poor-quality household goods, particularly knives. Months later, he repeated his tirade in a Harper’s magazine column. He went so far as to suggest kitchen knife manufacturers should be hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Julia Child loved it. She wrote a letter to DeVoto on March 8, 1952, praising his essay and including a ‘ nice little French model as a token of my appreciation.’ It was a 70-cent stainless steel knife.

A month later, DeVoto’s wife Avis responded to Julia’s letter.

Pen Pals

Avis and Bernard DeVoto were a literary power couple. He was a historian and author, taught part-time at Harvard, wrote for influential periodicals and curated Mark Twain’s papers. She was a book reviewer, editor and cook. They lived in Cambridge, Mass., during most of their marriage.

Julia Child and Avis DeVoto became pen pals. Between 1952 and 1954 they exchanged 120 letters.

Julia and Avis didn’t meet until the Childs came to America to visit family and friends. Julia asked Avis if they could visit her in Cambridge. Bernard said he didn’t want to meet those people. Avis insisted.

On July 11, 1954, the DeVotos were having a cocktail party.

The Julia Child kitchen

The Julia Child kitchen

“A large station wagon drove up, loaded to the roof with pots and pans and equipment of all kinds,” Avis recalled. Julia took over the kitchen and cooked for the guests. They were fast friends.

Julia had started working on a French cookbook for Americans with two French friends, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. She mentioned it to Avis, who saw its potential. Avis DeVoto helped edit the classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking and persuaded Alfred A. Knopf to publish it in 1961.

In November 1956, Paul and Julia Child returned to the United States. Paul’s State Department job had taken them to Paris, to Marseilles and to Bonn. Now it was taking them to Washington, D.C.

Paul was nearing retirement and they were thinking about finally putting down roots. They weren’t sure where, but a July 4 visit to Avis convinced them Cambridge was the place.

Cambridge

Not before Paul was transferred to Oslo in 1958, however. Before they left, Avis called and told them to drop everything and buy a house that had just come on the market in Cambridge. They did.

The house, at 103 Irving St., was a modest, gray-shingled cottage across the street from John Kenneth Galbraith and a few doors away from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. They bought it on the spot. Then they left for Norway.

In 1961 the Childs moved into the house for good. It needed some work. Paul designed the kitchen for Julia, the counters high to accommodate her height. The timing was perfect: the cookbook would be a best-seller that year and Julia was on her way to celebrity. She would film three of her cooking shows from that kitchen. It is now in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Julia Child died Aug. 13, 2004. For her last meal, she had a bowl of French onion soup.

With thanks to Dearie, The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz.

If you liked this story about Julia Child, you may also want to ready about clam chowder, the Jacques Pepin way here. This story was updated in 2019.

Photos: ‘Julia Child's kitchen,’ by Matthew Bisanz. " Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons. ‘Julia Child at KUHT,’ by KUHT. Licensed under Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons.

 

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: The French Chef Comes on With a Bang in 1963 - New England Historical Society

  2. Pingback: Design Tips Inspired by The French Chef - Artful Kitchens

  3. Heyfro

    November 14, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    She deserves so much better than to have a single paragraph sum up 43 years of her life.

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