The Knopf editor talks about why she wrote a memoir, the current state of cookbooks, what makes for good recipe writing, and what she thinks of food blogs. (Below, Child and Jones at work on what appears to be Mastering part II, in Boston.)
Invariably described as the “legendary” Knopf editor (as a young assistant, she pulled the Anne Frank diary out of a slush pile and recognized its importance, she would publish Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but she also edits such literary lights as Ann Tyler and John Updike), Judith Jones has written a memoir, with food and cookbooks as its anchor and reason for being. It’s every bit as engaging as the writers she has worked with. Told with economy and elegance, The Tenth Muse is an unalloyed pleasure, and so was a conversation Monday morning with Ms. Jones who spoke by telephone from New York.
You say that finding a cache of letters you wrote as the young woman who’d headed off to Paris for a three week vacation and stayed three years sparked the book.
Judith Jones: I didn’t know this young girl, how dare she be so brash and manipulative! I kind of wanted to get to know her. I saw that my passion for food really erupted there. The other thing I really wanted to say, I felt sort of like an evangelist, crying in the wilderness: Please! Cook at home. Or you’re missing one of the great pleasures of life.
You’ve been a part of the cookbook evolution since the 1961 publication of Mastering the Art. Where are we today? Give me the pros and cons?
Judith Jones: I’m afraid I’ll give you mostly cons. I think [publishers] are afraid to touch a book unless the author is someone you can promote. You have to be a celebrity. And I’ve seen many really lovely cookbooks die aborning. So the people who have the television programs are known quantities—I mean this is true of everything in our culture. But it makes it much harder work to put across a lovely book like Katy Sparks’s Sparks in the Kitchen. She’s a chef who really brought home the ideas that she learned in a professional kitchen and how she did them at home. And to me that’s an important contribution because there’s such a huge gulf between what goes on in a chef’s kitchen and what goes on at home.
This is dangerous—think what we stand to lose. What can we do about it?
Judith Jones: Television has to change. I get so sick of the Food Network thing. “We’re more than just about food.” Who wants it to be about more than just food? Food is a wonderful subject, endless. And you get so few really serious people like Lydia Bastianich who make a real contribution. It’s all testerone in the kitchen … I just can’t watch these programs. Until we can get both public television and the Food Network to do shows that make a more genuine contribution, it’s going to be hard to turn it around. … It just may be we can find somebody with a beautiful decolleté who is also a serious cook and can really teach us.
Not long ago, I asked readers of this blog to suggest cookbooks that they would like to see and it sparked a great dialogue and many interesting suggestions. What would you like to see?
Judith Jones: I think there should be a cookbook on, and I may do it myself, the whole rhythm of home cooking and what makes it such fun, so creative, and how to buy, how to think through the week, how to, particularly if you’re alone, buy a little tenderloin of pork and how to use it three totally different ways.
And to write a good recipe, and I feel this very strongly, you have to express exactly what you do. You have to be able to explain well. Good writing, I like good visceral writing. One of the things I keep quoting is, “In a bowl, combine the first mixture with the second mixture." What does that tell you? … Julia would say, “PLOP it in the pan, SMASH it against the…”–visceral words.
I know people here will be curious about what you think about the proliferation of food blogs.
Judith Jones: I must say, I think there’s something very good about them, in that, you’re awfully alone in the kitchen and I think that’s one thing people resist about cooking, but if you share with others, you know, what went wrong with your soufflé, and people can cheer you on and tell of their disaster or success, sharing little secrets, it’s stimulating.
The thing i do have against some of them is that they’re so carelessly done and the language is so terrible. Four letter words—we won’t name names—they don’t go very well with food!
With thanks to Judith Jones, I am trying to read her book, The Tenth Muse, as slowly as possible because it’s such a pleasure. About a quarter of the book is devoted to recipes—aspiring cookbook writers, take note on how it’s done!—the rest is Paris, and Julia and Jim and stories of Madhur Jaffrey and Claudia Roden and Hiroko Shimbo, and Jones’s late husband Evan. My favorite part is Paris after the war but every bit of it so far is excellent.