When I read "My Life in France" by Julia Child a couple of years ago, I was struck by the vast effort it took to edit and publish her first book in the United States, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Written with her French co-authors, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, this enormous volume spelled out in exacting detail how to make classic French dishes in the home kitchen – without losing the sense of deep pleasure that its authors found in cooking.
The sheer size and intricacy of the book seemed to destine it to obscurity until it reached the hands of an up-and-coming editor at the publishing firm of Alfred A. Knopf. Judith Jones, a fellow Francophile with a passion for food, saw genius in the work and teamed with Child to edit the book and make it a grand success among American cookbooks.
After 50 years at Knopf, Jones (now senior editor and vice-president) has written her own memoir: "The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food." Throughout it, her passion for food comes through loud and clear. Whether she and her husband Evan rejoice over the success of the boeuf bourgignon made according to Julia Child’s recipe, or she revels in the bounty of chanterelles and gooseberries she finds while rambling over her northern Vermont property, she writes with clear-eyed love for the quality of the food she brings to her own table.
And without expressly making the case for local, organic, sustainable food, Jones’s descriptions of meals and the joy she finds in raising or foraging for her own food should persuade almost any reader, and she tips her hat to those cookbook writers who have made such an approach to food more widespread.
The back-to-the-earth movement that the sixties generation had spawned did put the emphasis in the right place, and the food world soon climbed on the bandwagon. More than ever, we began to focus on the quality of ingredients, emphasizing the importance of whole grains and garden-fresh vegetables untainted by chemicals.
The land of tuna casseroles
Having grown up in a family that served only staid, simple, British-influenced meals, she developed a passion for food and cooking that led her to France. After she returned, as a young married woman in the early 1950s, Jones found a great deal of frustration in trying to cook as she had in Paris. So many of the ingredients she had come to love, from fresh herbs to boudin blanc, were unavailable in the States, and the trend in cookbooks and recipes tended toward convenience food.
"In fact," she notes, "we were almost made to feel guilty for indulging in such a mundane occupation when we could be pursuing higher goals."
That all changed in 1959, when a fellow editor handed her Child’s manuscript: "From the moment I started turning the pages, I was bouleversée, as the French say – knocked out." The meticulous detail in each recipe, the emphasis on quality ingredients, and the whole approach of the authors in breaking down each recipe into simple steps that, once learned, could apply to many other recipes appealed to Jones’s own culinary approach, and she threw herself into the task of testing and editing the recipes, corresponding with Child (still in France) to highlight difficulties and areas needing additional work. Her commitment to the book went well beyond the financial reward of her work:
…I was convinced that, if the book was so right for me, there were bound to be maybe thousands like me who really wanted to learn the whys and wherefores of good French cooking. Ordinary Americans, not just the privileged, were traveling to Europe now, in droves, and their taste buds had been awakened. I hoped we’d had our fill of quick-and-easy, and there was an appetite for the real thing. I felt the time was right.
The success of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" led to more cookbook editing for Jones, taking her away from her original assignment of working with French philosophers such as Camus and Sartre and their translators. The ground-breaking cookbooks she has had a hand in include Claudia Roden’s "A Book of Middle Eastern Food," Marcella Hazan’s "The Classic Italian Cookbook" and "More Classic Italian Cooking," Madhur Jaffrey’s "An Invitation to Indian Cooking," Edna Lewis’s "The Taste of Country Cooking," and Marion Cunningham’s update to "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook."
Fodder knows best
After half a century of working with cooks and authors who not only upheld their food traditions but also extolled the glories of fresh food and good eating, Jones has seen enough food trends and constants to speak up about how we need to approach what we eat:
Other creatures receive food simply as fodder. But we take the raw materials of the earth and work with them – touch them, manipulate them, taste them, glory in their heady smells and colors, and then, through a bit of alchemy, transform them into delicious creations. Cooking demands attention, patience, and, above all, respect. It is a way of worship, a way of giving thanks.
Some of the food writing published now (and, presumably by extension, some of the chefs working now) comes under patient scrutiny and criticism. Jones notes that when chefs fail to think "like home cooks," using expensive ingredients or experimental techniques, it creates a barrier between professional and amateur cooking, putting off people who are then afraid to venture into the kitchen and wary of the expense and time involved in cooking. More than anything, she declares, she wants people to get into the kitchen, to engage their senses, and to enjoy how to cook: “You develop a love of cooking by watching, absorbing, licking spoons, and asking questions of someone you want to emulate."
Jones rounds out the book with a collection of recipes from different periods of her life, from the comfort food of her youth to dinners for one shared only with the spirit of her beloved husband. She shares stories associated with many of the recipes (like any good home cook would) and encourages “improvisation” in trying the recipes at home. Above all, she simply exhorts everyone to take pleasure in cooking and eating:
There is an old Italian saying, A tavola non s’invecchia – “At the table one never grows old.” Isn’t that reason enough to come home at the end of the day, roll up one’s sleeves, fire up the stove, and start smashing the garlic?
Jones should know. Her book bursts with an ever-youthful taste for life, serving up inspiration for a new generation of home cooks and, undoubtedly, cookbook writers who want to share the joy of everyday cooking.