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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Judith Jones and the Pleasures of Taste

If Judith Jones had accomplished nothing more than ushering into print the revolutionary debut of a young chef named Julia Child, her story would be worthy of attention. Judith Jones

In fact, by the time Jones convinced Knopf to publish what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she had already brought to America an overlooked French title called Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. She would subsequently introduce readers to the seminal works of Madhur Jaffrey, Marion Cunningham, Lidia Bastianich, and many others whose impact on cooking, and on literature in general, has been profound.

(John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Hersey...)

Now, in The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, Jones renders a truly remarkable life — her own — with modesty and grace.

"This volume produces a powerful nostalgia for the days when food books could be culture shapers and not just party favors for TV chefs," the New York Times Book Review reflected. "By the time you get to the 60 or so recipes Jones includes at the end, they seem like familiar characters we've met in the well-told tales that precede them."

Dave: I made a recipe from The Tenth Muse last night: James Beard's Swordfish-Olive Pasta. I skewed on the side of too much garlic and shallot to show my support for your book's opening paragraphs.

Judith Jones: You have to be careful. They can overwhelm sometimes.

Dave: I didn't push too far. But I was surprised how important the parsley was. It made the taste more complex but also transformed the texture.

Jones: Good parsley does that, when it's mingled in. It does give an extra dimension.

Dave: How did you decide which recipes to include? They're a wonderful bonus after ten chapters of prose.

Jones: I had two purposes. One was that I wanted to give a little taste of each phase of my life. The recipes from childhood; what I call "the Frenchipod recipes"; the many discoveries we made when we got our place in Stannard Mountain in Northern Vermont, once we had a garden for the first time; and lastly, cooking for myself, living alone.

I wanted a sampling of the dishes that came out of each phase, but I also discovered that very often it was a good place to tell a story that didn't quite fit into the manuscript in the flow of a chapter. So it was a way to tell, for instance, how we used to make our own Christmas sausages, called boudin blanc. The New York Times food editor, who was Ray Sokolov then, got wind of this and came to watch us make sausages — it was quite a sight.

That was a good place to tuck in those stories. And it supports my theory that every recipe has a story. They're not just formulas. It's your memory, it's what you bring to it, how you make your own substitutions. You put an imprint on a recipe if you're a real cook.

Dave: You write about several authors for whom such stories were integral to the books. Did you bring that approach to the authors, or did particular authors bring it to you?

Jones: I think it was a dual thing. After publishing the first Julia Child book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I was looking for writers who wrote well and taught you; they gave you a sense of what the food was. The more foreign the cuisine, the more you seemed to need it.

I found that very often there was a common denominator; these books were written by somebody who had had to leave the land of her childhood, someone who wanted to recreate all the pleasures and bring back that memory to wherever she was living now. Also, because perhaps they'd had to learn cooking late in life, they understood all the things that you and I need to know when we're in the kitchen, cooking a foreign dish we may never have tasted. So it was a combination. I really did seek it out.

Dave: Julia Child clearly had a big-picture vision when she created that first cookbook. For example, she wanted to list ingredients in the margins of pages alongside the step in the recipe where they would be used. Her idea of a cookbook went beyond recipes and even stories; she had design in mind, too.

Jones: In part because the recipes were long. They weren't long necessarily because they were difficult; they were long because she's teaching you, she's translating the French techniques, the classic cuisine, to somebody alone in a home kitchen — the detail was all there.

It's a nuisance to keep turning back to the ingredients list, which may be four pages back, with your greasy fingers; so it makes sense to have the ingredients appear at the point in the recipe where you're using them. That was all her idea.

She also had that concept of master recipes and their variations, so that once you mastered, say, a perfectly beautiful beef stew, you could apply it to a lamb stew, or a veal stew, or chicken, because you'd learned the techniques. She really enabled home cooks to understand and then run with it. She gave us confidence.

Dave: Sally Schneider's books employ the same idea: Your market might not have the precise ingredients, or maybe you're cooking for someone with an allergy. Those limitations are natural. They shouldn't stop you from making a good meal. If you learn the hows and whys, you'll be much more adaptable to circumstances.

Jones: And you learn to trust yourself to taste and to make adjustments. If you don't have lemons, maybe use a few drops of wine vinegar. You don't have to be a slave to a list of ingredients and a formula.

Dave: I once asked Jacques Pépin to free-associate on several names. When I mentioned James Beard, he replied, "I remember talking with James about a dinner he had in the forties with Curnonsky, the 'prince of gastronomy' in France, and he would remember the dishes exactly, and the wine. That memory of food was amazing."

Jones: That's very true of him. He was just a fount of knowledge.

In the old days, I used to call him almost every day for some little tidbit of knowledge. It was like using Google.

When I was working on the New England book that I wrote with my husband [The Book of New New England Cookery], I had remembered from childhood a perfectly beautiful big cookie called a Butterscotch Cookie. The minute I mentioned it to James, he said, "Oh, I remember that, too," and he described it. I couldn't find a recipe for it, and the Schraft's had closed in New York, so he called the retired president of the company and got the formula. Sure enough, I was able to make it.

Dave: What comes to mind when you remember meeting Julia Child?

Jones: On first seeing her, I thought of her as a big Smith College girl. Probably very good at basketball and would demolish me. But then, as I saw her cook, I thought of her as so earthy; she took such sensual delight in handling food. Somebody once asked, "Why do you massage the chicken with butter?" She thought a moment, and she said, "Well, I think it likes it."

She to me represented everything I felt about food. She released our appetites and enabled us to share that pleasure. A very physical thing.

Dave: She brought what appears in retrospect to be a perfect storm of talents: not only the ability to cook, but to present cooking, to teach and excite, and also, as we were saying earlier, even how design could make a cookbook more useful.

If Julia Child hadn't come along, how might cooking in the United States have evolved differently?

Jones: It would have been very different. Inevitably, with people starting to travel at the end of the fifties — there were economy plane flights so that every secretary could take two weeks in Paris and eat a real French meal at a real bistro — our appetites changed. Also, with the GIs coming back from both the Pacific and Europe. But I think the evolution would have been much slower.

Julia had a profound impact. She made people who had never cooked a meal before think they could do it, and enjoy doing it.

Dave: Has any other chef of foodie been on the cover of Time?

Jones: No, I do not think so. That was amazing, wasn't it?

Dave: It is. I hadn't realized she was on the cover until I read your book.

Jones: It was pretty hard on Simca [Simone Beck], her partner. Simca was the French authority, and she was very French. Basically, she didn't think that Americans could ever understand French cooking the way that French women could. It was pretty hard on her when suddenly Julia was on the cover of Time and the spokeswoman for French cooking.

Dave: Even before you were successful professionally, you were photographed for Life magazine; you were sharing an apartment with Balthus...

Jones: But those were pure accidents of life!

Dave: Reading those stories, though, the world seemed a different place. Did your experiences strike you as odd at the time?

Jones: They didn't. I think the important thing was that I acted on them.

We could have said no when we were picked up, my friend and I, to be models for a story on Americans in Paris. The photographer and the person from Life picked us up off the street and said, "Would you go to Mont-Saint-Michel with us? We'd love to get you building a sand castle in front of Mont-Saint-Michel." We didn't hesitate for a moment. It was an adventure.

By the same token, when I was ready to leave Paris after three-and-a-half years, and I was sitting in the Tuileries gardens with my purse on a bench, and I got up and walked away, leaving it behind... Freud would not call that an accident.

Dave: He'd have plenty of company.

Jones: But the point was, my purse was stolen. I didn't have any money. I didn't have a passport. I didn't have an identity. But instead of panicking, I just thought, Somebody's telling me I'm supposed to stay in Paris, so I will.

That surprises young people. They kind of envy it when they read this book. I think it's partly because it's such an uncertain world; people feel they have to stick to one track. They have to go to graduate school.... Argh. They wouldn't leave a good job to stay in Paris. It seemed very natural to me.

Dave: Shortly after that happened, you got a job and met Evan, who would become your husband. How much did Evan's passion for food push you in this direction?

Jones: It did, very much. And he was always extremely supportive of me. When I was saying, "I want to publish that book on French cooking by the Smith College woman," he backed me so that I dared stand up to the Knopfs and say, "This has got to be published."

Dave: One of my favorite parts of the book occurs a bit earlier when you describe opening a restaurant in an apartment you rented in Paris.

Jones: That was pretty nervy, wasn't it?

Dave: It was. It's a great story.

Jones: Well, it was so logical. We had a free apartment, and if we could feed ourselves by feeding others — which is sort of what a restaurant is, isn't it? — why not? So we turned the Princess's apartment into a little salon where we had people for dinner two or three times a week. Fortunately, I had a French beau at the moment, who was a wonderful cook. Everything clicked.

Dave: Could it ever have occurred to you that people around the world would still be reading The Diary of Anne Frank fifty years later?

Jones: I thought it was a very powerful book. One of a kind. I didn't doubt that it was going to have an impact. But you can't, or don't, really measure years down the road, not when you're young, anyway. And publishing was much less of a business then, where you had to project the number of sales. It was more about following your instinct.

I was very sure of it, but I don't know that I could have guessed that.

Dave: In hindsight, it seems crazy that publishers would have turned it down, but until these things happen how would anyone know?

Jones: That's right. And these things happen. It's happened with lots of books that have been turned down by a number of publishers. My boss then in Paris said to me, "The book by that kid?" So they may have just dismissed it without reading it. It's hard to tell.

Dave: I was recently reading How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher. I love the principle of the book, which is that you don't cook in a vacuum — there's life to consider. Specifically, in this case, a world war. And then of course it's incredibly well written, with a sly sense of humor.

Does Fisher have a peer? Has there been anyone quite like her?

Jones: There's nobody like her. She's unique. And of course she was very much before her time. She had the courage to write about what food meant to her. And she didn't just write about food; she wrote about life. Food was a very strong part of her life, but I wouldn't even strictly call her a food writer.

Dave: Every chef or cookbook author that I speak with mentions her.

Jones: I got to know her because I'd started sending books to her, when I'd published one that I thought would interest her. We became friends through letters. It was three or four years after corresponding with her that we met.

She loved letters. She entered into somebody else's life so intimately through letters. I can remember she was worried about what the trout in our pond were going to do through winter. That kind of wonderful imagination.

When I was writing this book, I found that if I just curled up in a chair with a big yellow legal pad as though I were writing a letter to someone like M.F.K. Fisher, it came so naturally, rather than sitting at a word processor and reading it off a screen.

Dave: Is The Tenth Muse a book you'd thought about writing for a long time? What made you write it now?

Jones: I really didn't think about writing it, but two things happened. One was that I found the letters I had written to my parents during the years in Paris. It was like encountering somebody I didn't know. That was me at twenty-four? That cheeky, sure of herself, rather manipulative young lady writing to her parents?! One letter starts, "Dearest one, about this matter of cohabitation...." And I try to justify why I'm living with men rather than women. I mean, where was I coming from? So I became interested.

And then I wrote a few pieces for Saveur, and particularly the one about starting this so-called restaurant in Paris. I told these stories, and people heard them and said, "Write them down." I got a nice response, and it kept me going.

Dave: You mention Anne Tyler in the book. In describing some of her own writing, she says that people's attitudes toward food reveal a lot about them. Maybe every writer, if they thought about it, could identify those particular access points to character. Richard Ford said the exact same thing about vocation; he said you can't write about someone unless you know what they do for a living.

Jones: There certainly is a lot there with food. As Anne Tyler says, it's an indication of character.

You know this when you start observing your own friends or people in your family. Those who were arrested in childhood and can't let one piece of food touch the other or have only about three vegetables they're willing to eat, full of all these prejudices, something has made them, sort of, not grow up.

And then there are the lusty eaters like Angus Cameron, with whom I did that hunting and fishing cookbook [The L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook]. Food was a part of his life. He said that when he killed an animal he started almost salivating about what dish he was going to make.

It's interesting that, in our literature, food isn't more noticeable. I think it's because we come from that Anglo Saxon, Puritan tradition. Sex is a revelation of character, and I think, by the same token, how you eat, the pleasure you take, your whole attitude to food, is a great measure of what you're like as a person.

Dave: The food passage you select from Updike is fantastic: "salad in Brewer County cuisine tends to be a brother of sauerkraut, fat with creamy dressing." How did you become his editor?

Jones: In the case of Updike, I inherited him. Another editor had brought him to Knopf, and that editor happened to be fired. Alfred Knopf asked me if I'd like to handle Updike. I had read the first book of his, which we took — this is way back. It was the first Rabbit book [Rabbit, Run] when I became his editor. Again, it was a good piece of luck.

Dave: Does a particular Updike book or story stand out for you? Of all the authors working now, he's about as prolific and consistently stunning as anyone.

Jones: And he risks so much. I have just gotten a manuscript from him, which is called The Widows of Eastwick. He goes back and revisits those three women [from The Witches of Eastwick], who are now all widows. How dare he know so much about women! He has such pleasure in writing. The prose is so good.

Dave: How does it change to edit a writer over such an extended period of time? Are there challenges? Reading with a clear eye, for instance?

Jones: I think we trust each other. If I make a slight suggestion, maybe I think something might have gone on a little too long, John will listen. He doesn't become defensive. He just knows what he wants.

With that kind of writer, there isn't much hands-on editing. But the editor is very much his representative in the house, selling the book to the salesmen, seeing that he gets the right treatment. Particularly with John Updike, because he cares about every step of the production of a book: what the jacket is, the color of the binding, the type size. I'm there to see that it happens.

That's a very different role from someone who may be writing a food book, and is primarily a good cook but not necessarily a writer. There, I'm much more trying to encourage a voice and to get them to really talk about how they cook and why and how they do things. That's much more hands-on, but every book is different.

Dave: Will you write a book about your life in literature, after this one about your life in food?

Jones: Nope!

Dave: Why not?

Jones: Working with fiction writers, nonfiction writers, it's a kind of sacred trust. I don't want to expose them in that way.

Food is very different because that's more of a public thing. And it's more of a collaboration, things I shared. I used these authors to show what I learned and how exciting to me it was to have this journey of discovery about food. I introduce the people who were responsible, but I'm not trying to tell dirty secrets in public. I think that's dangerous territory for an editor. We should really be anonymous.

Dave: Will you write another book?

Jones: I would like to write a book about cooking for one. I don't think anyone understands it. Sixty-one percent of people in New York City, for instance, live alone and cook for one. And they don't know how to do it. I have some ideas about that.

Dave: Name your favorite stove of all-time.

Jones: My Garland stove in New York. It was my first big, black, professional stove. The burners are so hot, and the oven is so big that I can do long baguettes in it. I just love it. I would never throw it away and get a new one; I wouldn't think of it.

Dave: What's next in food? Is there another cuisine that's ready to break through, or a region or style that's coming into its own?

Jones: I don't really think there's another cuisine to explore, unless someone came along with wonderful stories and things like that. I'm afraid if we keep searching for one more exotic cuisine, you're doing books that people don't use very much. They have to buy so many new ingredients. I think the tendency is, let's say, if you want good Thai cooking, to go to a little Thai restaurant.

I hope we'll get a little sick of food-as-entertainment that the Food Network is giving us.

There is a need for more understanding of home cooking, helping people to cook with more confidence. I don't mean simple recipes. I mean learning techniques so that you have fun cooking and do it more creatively. Don't just rely on formula recipes. That's what I'd like to see.

Dave: Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard project seems to be taking root. I know that when I was in school, I learned next to nothing about cooking, much less gardening.

Jones: She's had a tremendous impact. I think that's going to help children to appreciate food, to want to learn more about cooking, to develop a much better sense of taste than just being fed junk food. It's a very good direction.

Also, books like The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation have awakened people to what we let the food industry do, the way we raise cattle and chickens. This awareness is going to have an impact. I hope so. And there will be more books looking in this direction. I'm working on a book with Anne Mendelson called The Milky Way, the whole story of milk, and it's horrifying.

Dave: You make a good point in the book, setting the outrage over foie gras against the general state of our meat industry. Sections of Omnivore's Dilemma are horrifying.

Jones: Yes. And yet we point fingers at the foie gras raisers, while all they do is stroke the neck of a goose and pour a little food down; those geese are just as happy as can be. As a country, we have a very schizophrenic attitude towards food. Who knows what the next no-no is going to be. It's very discouraging.

Dave: On a more upbeat note, it's evident from reading The Tenth Muse that cooking, and taking pleasure from food, is not something you have to give up later in life. There's always more to learn, more adventure to be had.

Jones: I have taken tremendous pleasure quite late in life in starting a garden and learning to forage a little bit in the woods. It gives me tremendous pleasure. And I think that is becoming more common, too, that awareness.

I also feel that in some ways what I say about eating alone has touched people. I know a lot of people who felt, after they suddenly lost a husband or a partner, that they never wanted to sit down and eat by themselves again. I found quite the opposite, myself, that it was a way of honoring the past. And it brings the whole apartment to life by bringing good smells into the kitchen.

Make a little dinner, in twenty minutes or a half-hour. I light the candles, I pour the wine, and I turn on the music. I do this almost every night. To me it's an almost spiritual connection.

Judith Jones spoke by telephone from Massachusetts on November 19, 2007.

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Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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