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Appetite for Cookbooks

Editor Judith Jones gave Julia Child her start. Now, 40 year later, she's still introducing the world to new ideas.

Judith Jones was a young editor at Alfred A. Knopf minding her own business one spring day in 1960 when a senior editor asked her to take a look at a massive cookbook manuscript submitted by three women--one American and two French. Another publishing house had already rejected it, asking: "Who wants to know this much about French cooking?"

"And I said, 'I do,'" she tells me now. She took the book home, cooked from it and thought it "a miracle."

The book would ultimately be titled Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the American author was a woman named Julia Child. It's no hyperbole to say that, together and separately, Julia Child and Judith Jones changed the way America ate. Following Julia's meticulous instructions, my friends and I and millions like us dared to cook things we'd never tasted, never even heard of, probably mispronounced. Jones went on to publish a library of classic books by a string of outstanding teacher-cooks who talked us through the mysteries of other exotic cuisines. Gastronomically, Jones lured us into becoming world citizens.

She has also given us a shelf of books that can be read for pure pleasure even by armchair cooks. "She thinks of food writing as literature," says Barbara Haber, food historian and curator of books at Harvard University's Schlesinger Library. "We all see her as the doyenne of cookbook editors."

The culinary event of the month is the publication of Judith's latest project, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, keyed to a new PBS series starring Julia and Jacques Pépin. "This was a very difficult book to do because we cooked without recipes," Child tells me. "Judith really had to put it together. And then you have two strong personalities to work with. I often say about her that it's the iron fist in the velvet glove. She's always very nice and calm--but she gets her way."

For the past 42 years, Jones has worked at Knopf, where she tries to publish one cookbook each season, interspersed with novels, belles lettres and biographies. Her office is jammed with books and papers and her bulletin board is flaked with photographs. Here are her authors: Julia Child with James Beard, Edna Lewis talking with Marion Cunningham, M. F. K. Fisher with cat, John Updike, Anne Tyler, Camus, William Maxwell. Here's her late husband, Evan Jones, her partner in the kitchen and in cookbook writing as well as in marriage. And here are her dogs: a spaniel, a few generations of Welsh terriers.

Jones herself is an extremely pretty woman, with fine bones, a silky cap of gray-blonde hair and large green eyes. She speaks with what Haber calls "a very tony accent," the enunciation of a girl educated at Manhattan's Brearley School in the Thirties and Bennington College in Vermont during what Jones calls "the war years." She believes she has "food genes." Growing up, she'd sit in the kitchen after school with the family's Barbadian cook, Edie Price. "I'd get her talking about Barbados, and what she ate there and what she said to her boyfriend last night," Jones says. "I can still see her beating a cake, an arm around that crockery bowl. It was heaven to me." Island spices never made it to the table, however. "We always had very traditional food. My mother's family was English and once, when she was quite old, she said to me, 'Judith, just tell me one thing truthfully: you don't really like garlic, do you?'"

Jones's father's family came from Vermont, where she learned to bake bread with her Aunt Marian. "Her husband was the local doctor," Jones says. "He'd come home late, and I remember watching this woman cook dinner and keep it warm and to me it expressed such a sense of love and taking care of a man. It touched me."

After Bennington, Jones got a job in Doubleday's Paris office where, famously, she discovered Anne Frank's diary for American readers. Her boss handed her a copy of the French edition one afternoon, asking her to write a rejection letter. "I started to read it, and when I finally stopped it was dark and I was in tears. I said, 'We've got to send this to New York,' and he said, 'What? The book by that kid?' I think he'd scarcely looked at it."

She began to have "a little faith" in her publishing instincts. When people started making bread in the Sixties, she called Jim Beard and slyly asked him to suggest a writer for a bread book. "He said, 'That's a really good question. I'll think about it.' A month later we got together for lunch to talk it over. He probably had about six good lunches off me," she says with a laugh, "but at the end of the sixth lunch, he said, 'I've got to do that book.'" (Jones and her husband later wrote The Book of Bread, and then Knead It, Punch It, Bake It for children.)

"She gets so enthusiastic about things--Edna Lewis's cooking, for example," says Jeffrey Steingarten, who worked with Jones on his book, The Man Who Ate Everything. "What attracts Judith, whether in writing or in cooking, is anything that's high quality but not precious. She doesn't go for the precious or the tricky." Edna Lewis was working at the glamorous Cafe Nicholson in Manhattan and brought Jones a manuscript based on the restaurant. "I loved her," Jones says. "She's such a beautiful woman and talked so vividly, with such a sharp memory. But I told her that what I wanted to publish was her book, the one about her childhood."

Lewis worked on a draft. It was not what Jones had in mind. "I said, 'Where are you in it? I don't hear your voice.'" For the next year or so, Lewis would come to Jones's office once a week, on her day off. "I'd interview her and get her talking. She'd tell stories and I'd say, 'Don't do anything--go home and write exactly what you told me.' Pretty soon we had recipes and stories, and the book, The Taste of Country Cooking, is just one of a kind." Lewis and a writer are collaborating on a new book, though it's not coming along as quickly as their editor would hope. "They have got to get this book done, if I have to go down and pull it out of them," Jones says. "Sometimes as an editor you feel that your biggest roles are being a diplomat and a shrink."

Is she looking for any particular kind of book? "No," she says, "an idea has to hit me, like Nina Simonds's A Spoonful of Ginger." Simonds, who left college to study cooking in China and then stayed there for years, had published several books on Asian cooking and wanted to write next on the Asian notion of food as medicine. "What appealed to Judith was the approach that food is a friend, not an enemy, and that instead of depriving ourselves, we can indulge ourselves and still prevent disease," Simonds says. "She loved that."

She did indeed. "I am so tired of being told this isn't good for you and that's not good for you," Jones says. "Food gives health and well-being and pleasure."

Simonds feared at first that Jones's vision for the book might overpower her own. "It was just the opposite," Simonds says now. "She's the most supportive editor I've ever worked with. But tough. She made me rewrite things.... I'd say to her, 'I bet you don't make John Updike rewrite an introduction three times,'" Simonds recalls with a laugh. "Judith never answered that one."

If extremism in the pursuit of health irritates Jones, so does the tyranny of the recipe. "We have gotten so rigid," Jones says, squaring her shoulders. "The recipe is a formula. It's as though it were written for something you did in a laboratory. The writing is illiterate: 'In a bowl combine.' 'Mix this mixture with the first mixture.'" She pounces on the phrases with distaste. "What Julia brought to writing was this careful observation of what she was really doing. She'd say, 'Plop it in a bowl,' or 'With a vigorous stroke....'"

So for the new book, Jones explains, Julia and Jacques would take a subject like chicken, "and Julia would say, 'Well, I do it this way because...' and Jacques would say, 'Well, I do it this way because....' And it gets people to think, 'My God, cooking is creative. It's fun!' I can't wait to get home every night to cook."

What might she be cooking for dinner tonight?

She laughs. "Well, I know exactly what I'm going to make. I've got some wonderful little chicken sausages and I'm going to do them with a warm French potato salad. And it's so easy. If I have a mission," she continues, with a self-deprecating little duck of her head, "it's to get people back to cooking. I want to get children cooking. I think they're missing something."

In a few days, she will be heading to Vermont and a houseful of family. She has two stepdaughters and two children whom she and her husband adopted after their parents died. "And then I have a great-grandson--a little three-year-old who loves to make bread," she says triumphantly.

Amy Gross is an editor and writer who lives in New York City.

Published October 1999
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