I arrived at the door of Judith Jones’s compact, six-room apartment in a classic brownstone on New York’s Upper East Side to the sounds of enthusiastic, high-pitched barking on the other side of the door.
It was her little white and furry Havanese dog Mabon who was happy to see me and proceeded to jump up and down as I entered the cozy place where she’s lived for several decades.
On Day Two of that lively two-day gathering, I managed to find a seat at a jam-packed session called The Cookbook Editor’s Role.
On that panel were the interesting editor-in-chief at Hyperion Elisabeth Dyssegaard, Rux Martin, senior executive editor for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and the person many of us had come to hear: Judith Jones.
Ms. Jones spent more than 50 years as an editor at Knopf. She worked her way up during that time making a name for herself as the person responsible for publication in America of The Diary of Anne Frank and as editor for literary greats like John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Hersey and William Maxwell.
Most famously, her eye for original talent led to the discovery of Julia Child when a manuscript for the iconic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking came across her desk, having been turned down by other publishers.
After speaking loudly and firmly to Mabon, who eventually ceased his sociable antics – but not until he cheerily chewed a package of gum from my purse – Judith told me how her long-time collaboration and deep friendship with Julia began.
She grew up in a well-educated, genteel family with homes in Vermont and New York. Now in her late 80s, she has bobbed silver hair, a deep, gravelly voice and understated sense of humour. She is soft-spoken, elegant and gently opinionated.
When Julia’s name enters the conversation, her face lights up.
“She was the one who got me started,” Judith begins, referring to her eventual role at Knopf as a key editor of cookbooks by authors like James Beard, Marion Cunningham, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Lidia Bastianich, Edna Lewis and Nina Simonds.
She continues: “Julia used to say, ‘Judith, you and I were born at the right time.’ When that manuscript landed on my desk, it was kind of an answer to a prayer. I’d been looking for just this kind of book.”
That two-volume ground-breaking tome, first published by Knopf in 1961, was Mastering the Art of French Cooking. These days, its sales have spiked, especially among young people, due to the recent film “Julie and Julia” starring Meryl Streep.
“Julia wrote it with two French women,” Judith recalls, “but she did most of the writing, the research and the thinking.”
For her part, the book made Judith realize her simmering passion for food. “I got that awakening. It was more than about cooking. It was with a relationship to food and a way of life I was so drawn to.”
That way of life, in particular the French love of things culinary, was germinating for both women when they spent younger years in Paris, not together but on separate adventures.
Julia Child’s story is told in the lovely book My Life in France co-written by her grand-nephew Alex Prud’homme from audio recordings he made in California at the end of her life. Julia Child died in 2004 at age 91.
A small stint by Julia on public television in the early ’60s was a spark that ignited her culinary career. “People said, ‘Get that woman back on television.’ It was just a natural talent,” Judith recalls with a smile. “What was so refreshing was that she was so totally herself. She shared all she had learned – but, most of all, a real love of cooking, something sensuous and visceral.”
Julia’s TV cooking show on PBS soon became a hit and her enthusiastic antics in the kitchen garnered a huge following.
Judith tells how someone asked Julia why she massaged the chicken’s breast with butter. Imitating the latter’s memorable, plummy tones, she repeats the answer: “She said, ‘Well, I think the chicken likes it.'”
Julia’s voice wasn’t as evident in Mastering the Art as it would be in later books, all edited by Judith.
“That book wasn’t written in the first person,” she begins, “and I think Julia tried to keep her personality down. It wasn’t until later books that her personality emerged. By then, people knew her from television.”
Here are more topics Judith and I discussed during my visit to her home:
On cookbooks: “I can’t imagine not being surrounded by cookbooks. They’re my friends. I think cookbooks are an evolving thing – they’re not perfect. There’s a lot to play with in the electronic age. I have an iPad but haven’t yet learned to use it. The Internet is good for young cooks. But I still love cookbooks and want to go to bed with them.” She feels there too many cookbooks: “They’ve become such a big commodity and everybody is getting into it. It’s become a whole new territory and there isn’t much new now.”
On recipes: “I think you use them to learn techniques and rules. Then, like a dancer, you can pirouette on your own. If you don’t understand those rules – what cut of meat to buy, for example – you’re not going to have the equipment. It’s true of any art form. People don’t like to think of cooking as an art form – but I do.”
Pet peeves about recipes: “One is the way recipes are written. A classic example is ‘In a bowl, combine first mixture with second mixture.’ First of all what’s ‘In a bowl’ doing upfront? You wouldn’t speak that way. And what do you mean by ‘combine’? Do you fold it in, beat it in? Julia always used to say: ‘Beat with a wire whisk and don’t beat too long – you don’t want too much air in it.'” There’s also ‘Set aside.’ It’s the most ridiculous thing. What are you going to do, throw it all out after you’ve done all that work?”
Celebrity chefs: “I don’t like to be mean. Celebrity chefs are good if they get somebody into the kitchen. But I just wish there were more serious shows – like Lidia Bastianich – where you just enjoy and learn. The emphasis on competition and hurry, hurry, hurry is just exactly what we don’t need.”
On her kitchen: “I have a 25-year-old Garland gas stove. And an open ‘apothecary shelf’ for dried goods, rice and all the different beans. I like having them visible to see if they’re running low and for inspiration. I think a kitchen should be warm and not so clinical – everything put away as if it were shameful.”
On why Julia was special: “Julia’s special gift was her enthusiasm. Americans have such a strong love/hate relationship to food. They’re always looking for something that’s bad for them. Look at the whole gluten craze. Everything has to be gluten-free. Julia would say: ‘If you need the vitamins, take a pill.’ She’s not going to spoil her cooking for the vitamins.”
On cooking for one: Judith’s husband and collaborator Evan died in 1996. Since then she has lived alone. “I had written my memoir (The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food) and the last chapter talked about being alone now. I’d chosen recipes that typified recipes in my life.” Her next and most recent book is The Pleasures of Cooking for One. “The supermarkets are so against you. They make you feel like you’re a pariah. Why can’t you buy two big pork tenderloins? If I buy that bunch of broccoli, I’ll have to eat it all and get to hate it like George Bush. I began to strategize. It was such fun thinking through the week how not to waste food – and very creative.”
On cooking for her dog Mabon: “I just bought two shoulder lamb chops in a package. It was too much for me so I gave half a chop to him. It’s such a help. This dog loves everything. He immediately sniffs out the meat, eats it and then goes back to the vegetables.” Her next project: A book about cooking for one’s dog.
On Julia Child’s best advice: “Pay attention, eat moderately, don’t eat too much between meals and just enjoy. That’s what it’s about.”
I took my trusty FlashMic to the rendezvous with Judith Jones. Here is part of our interview for your listening pleasure: My interview with Judith Jones
The Way to Cook was Julia Child’s favourite of all her books. It’s also Judith Jones’s – and mine. Here’s a superb recipe from it.
Split Pea Soup
This is absolutely delicious and, though time-consuming to make as the stock takes about 3 hours, extremely easy. Julia gives the option of using ham bones and leftover scraps from a smoked ham; I used a large smoked pork hock bought from a European butcher, with terrific results. You can make the ham stock ahead if desired. I chilled it for a few hours before making the soup itself in order to remove fat from its surface. Adding salt to the soup may not be necessary depending on the ham you use.
1 large smoked pork (ham) hock
About 12 cups water, leftover ham braising juices and/or chicken stock
1 cup each: chopped carrot and onion
1 large celery stalk with leaves, chopped
3 bay leaves
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
5 cloves (optional)
Place all ingredients in large saucepan. Bring to boil; lower heat and simmer, partially covered, about 3 hours. Strain, discard solids and refrigerate. (I reserve the pork hock before straining, remove and discard its bone, skin, fat and gristle, then chop the meat coarsely and refrigerate to add to soup later.)
3 tbsp butter or vegetable oil
2/3 cup each: diced celery and onion
1/2 cup each: diced carrot and rutabaga or parsnip
3 tbsp flour
1 1/2 cups yellow or green split peas
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Melt butter in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add vegetables; cook, stirring, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour; cook, stirring, until blended, about 1 minute. Remove from heat. Add ham stock and split peas, stirring well. Return to stove; bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low; simmer, partially covered, about 1 hour or until split peas are tender. Add salt, if necessary, and pepper.
Puree soup using a hand blender, food mill or food processor. Add reserved chopped ham to soup. Serve garnished with chopped fresh parsley, if desired.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.