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Landon Nordeman

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Judith Jones, In Her Own Words

The editor behind Julia Child and Lidia Bastianich — not to mention Langston Hughes and John Updike — on life, books, and cooking

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Editor's note: Judith Jones died on August 1, 2017, at the age of 93, almost two years after this profile of the legendary editor first ran. Read her obituary here.

T

he phrase "living legend" is perhaps overused, but if the words still retain any of their original significance, Judith Jones is its embodiment. At 91, she's somehow simultaneously spry and frail, girlish and dignified. There are moments where she pauses — a memory lapse — but always returns a second later, sharp, ready with a temporarily forgotten name, or a detailed anecdote about her former employers Blanche and Alfred Knopf, founders of the eponymous publishing house where Jones worked from 1957 up until her retirement in 2013.

She may be best known for her championing of a certain manuscript on French cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle, but her legacy exceeds that considerably. When it was published in 1961, Mastering The Art of French Cooking ushered in a golden age of cookbooks in United States and marked the start of Jones's prodigious output as an editor and shaper of the category. When she was hired at Knopf, however, she was known as the young woman who, a few years earlier, had persuaded Doubleday to publish Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, after discovering the French edition in a pile of submissions she had been ordered to reject.

She may be best known for her championing of a certain manuscript on French cooking, but her legacy exceeds that considerably

"The idea of working on cookbooks never even occurred to me," Jones writes in her memoir The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. "Blanche had hired me primarily to work with translators of French authors she had signed up after the war, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus." Irish author Elizabeth Bowen and American journalist John Hersey were also among her early charges; she worked with the poets Langston Hughes and Sharon Olds; she oversaw all but the very first of John Updike's books, some five dozen in all.

But simultaneously, Jones was introducing the American public to Julia Child, and soon to similarly definitive regional culinary voices: Claudia Roden (on the food of the Middle East), Irene Kuo (China), Madhur Jaffrey (India), Edna Lewis (the American South), and Lidia Bastianich (Italy). In crusading for these books, Jones not only brought unfamiliar cuisines and ingredients into the kitchens of American home cooks, but she also helped their writers share their passions, and find and develop their voices.

With all of that, we still seem only to mention Jones by association. She is "Julia Child's editor," or part of the ‘70s culinary power posse that included James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, and Richard Olney. That may be because her friends and writers generally cast long shadows, or because, as happens across all genres, readers tend to give all the credit to the byline, allowing the individual who makes the author look her very best — or who knows how to find a story where it seemed like there was none — to slip quietly into a historical footnote.

You might say that this is the job of an editor, and you might be right. But the fact of Jones developing, and often personally discovering, so many incredible and diverse voices — in food, but also in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry — can hardly be a coincidence. There are through-lines here: her zealous tenacity, boundless curiosity and, rarest of all, her striking ability to both recognize and coax out talent. She would sooner apply the word to her writers, but "legendary" is the only suitable adjective for her output, and the woman herself.

I'd wanted to meet Jones for a long time. We attended the same small all-girls school on the Upper East Side, and despite matriculating over a half-century behind her, I'd taken it as a sign that we must surely be simpatico. Over the course of several conversations in her Manhattan apartment, one in the company of photographer Landon Nordeman, we spoke about her approach to editing, the highs and lows of her storied career, and the wisdom she's acquired along the way. Here's Judith Jones, in her own voice.

Judith Jones by Landon Nordeman

I'd had a few years out after college, but I hadn't really settled down anywhere, so I went to Paris, and stayed for two and a half years. I had never learned how to cook, and neither did my husband. We sort of came together over food. We would try things in tiny little kitchens with garde-mangers on the windowsill. But we made things, and we were so excited, and they were pretty good. I think that was what helped me love cooking, because it was making do, but making it fun and creative, and not everything was perfect.


When I came back to the United States I realized first thing how hideous the ingredients were. I mean, it was a low time in cookbook writing in America, and there was also the fact that there didn't seem to be an audience for them. There was the — what did Jim Beard call it? He had a lovely funny term for folks who cooked at home. "The Quick and Easy Crowd," that was it. Those were the disappointments; you just felt like, why bother? And so when I saw part of the Mastering the Art manuscript, I just couldn't believe it. It was as though somebody sent a present for me. But I was sitting at Knopf, editing Albert Camus and a few others I had found. I think finally when I was given the go-ahead, Mr. Knopf said it at the editorial meeting — I didn't go because I was too junior, but it was brought up. My friend Angus Cameron, who was the hunting and fishing man, presented the idea, and finally Alfred said, "Well, let's let Mrs. Jones have a chance." That was the beginning of it. I mean, it was just magic.


I was a general editor, so cooking was just a part of it; I didn't want to be working on more than one cookbook in a season. So I don't think I got into the politics of the food world, and the meanness. There were a few people that were mighty difficult. I shouldn't name names.

Judith Jones by Landon Nordeman

The cookbook editors were a Home Ec lot, and they weren't particularly creative people. We used to kind of joke about it, and being a cookbook editor, you were defensive — because you know, it was low, the bottom of the ladder of success. There weren't particularly good cookbook editors, and mostly they worked for places like Good Housekeeping and they were about being easy — short and easy. I think that tells you all. Because that's not the goal of cooking. The goal is making a delicious dinner.


You never stop learning with food, it's very exciting. I had some sweet­breads the other night; they were so wonder­ful.


For a long time, the women — and they were usually women — who wrote about food were treated as second-class citizens. All because they cook! I think that's opened up. A good writer gets some good assignments, and they're treated better somehow. It just takes time.


I was Updike's editor for every book but his first; he'd left Harper because they tried to tell him what to do and he wasn't happy. Little by little over the years, he'd say to me, "I want to know what you think." I waited it out.

Judith Jones by Landon Nordeman
Judith Jones by Landon Nordeman

The most important thing an editor can do is be a diplomat. It's not your book, but you can subtly try, and it usually ends up that the writers express themselves so much more clearly. At least, that was my experience.


It's funny, because the harder the books were to edit, the more challenging they were, the more fun, in a way. I always wanted to get to know the writer, because once they trust you, you work much better together.


If you want to write, write. It has to be a passion. When you edit, you're willing to stay up all night and then be slapped in the face.


I'm not sure that I'm that conscious of what I'm doing when I edit. I'm just happy when it comes out right and it's written with conviction.


With my first book, I was talking about various phases in my life, and I ended one of those little chapters with the line, "I licked the platter clean." Now, that was my era; that was the kind of thing you would have said. It came straight from my mouth. And my editor had put his line through it, he'd slashed it. So, when I sent it to the copy editor after looking at it, I just wrote "stet," and it was stetted. Sometimes, you just know that's better than argument.

Judith Jones by Landon Nordeman

One of the things that happened for me, cheekily, in the very first book I wrote, was I found that I was stiff, that I didn't know quite who I was writing for. I finally got out of that little study room where I wrote, and went and rolled on the old couch, and I started a letter: "Dear so-and-so."


To me, cooking is an art form, and like any art form, you first have to learn the fundamentals. And then, once they're there, once they're just part of you, and you get up and do a little dance or something, you don't follow somebody else's formula. You can take off on your own, and you learn through doing. Then you can let go of some of these strict rules, and make your own rules. I don't even think level measurements are such a big deal these days.


You don't want to get to a point where people think every­thing's access­ible, because it isn't. Coco­nuts are damned hard to whack open.


Things happen in life. Julia once said to me, and I've quoted her on this, "Judith! We were born at the right time." And I said, "Yes, Julia, but we had to act on it." And she said, "Right you are!"


To be absolutely truthful, I got so excited by Julia's book and what it did for making people better cooks, and the tools that you needed to make it really work in an American city or small town, and I thought, If we could do this for French food, for heavens' sake, let's start doing it for other exotic cuisines! I used the word "exotic," and that meant the Middle East with Claudia Roden, it meant better Indian cooking with Madhur Jaffrey. But how did I know that a person was the right person to do it? If I saw in somebody something I really liked, and was original, then we'd get together and say, "How can we market this and get a larger audience?" and so on, and I'd tell Jim Beard about it, and he'd have some good ideas. That's the way I did it, but it's changed a lot.

Judith Jones by Landon Nordeman
Judith Jones by Landon Nordeman

The ethics of recipe-writing and stealing is rather interesting. It's only the text that is protected by copyright. You know, you tell people this and they say, ‘Huh, really? Well, I've used it several times.' And I say, well, aside from everything else, it's not very courteous, because someone else has been playing with this and developing ideas, and you don't just go in and go off with them. But it happens! I've even had people say, 'Oh, have you got the recipe? I'd love to make it,' and you have to be hard-boiled.


I think Marcella Hazan could irritate people. The haughtiness of Victor Hazan — I mean, I got to know them well, but even in the writing: "Well, you know, Americans wouldn't understand this." I was very happy when we separated. I just felt, Who needs that? If I didn't need it, who does?


There are very nice people in pub­lishing. I hope that doesn't change.


When we were doing the photographs for one of Lidia Bastianich's books, I had a list of questions for her. And one of the questions I asked was, "Why do you have a hot, hot pan? And why, when you've sautéed your onions and garlic and all that kind of thing, do you push them away to the sides of the pan, and you put in some other vegetables as aromatics, and go [stirring motion] shush-shush-shush-shush?" And she said, "Well, I just learned to do that." Madhur Jaffrey was the only other person that I'd encountered that treated the step exactly like that — exactly! It was a way of giving an intensity of taste. And we all just got so excited by this, because what it told you was that somehow, food flowed from India. That's a long story about one particular thing, but it's very significant.


Lidia was so excited that she was a writer; she would tell people, "This is Judith! She made me a writer!" But when I retired, Lidia was getting away from writing and more into the form of a cookbook, the rules of the game. I tried to say nothing, because I can't be there — you can't have two editors. But it's sad, because good food writing is not a set of sterile rules. Even M.F.K. Fisher — you don't think of her so much as a recipe writer, but when she does throw in a recipe, you're just panting by the time you get to taste it. You can't stand it! You're very much in her hands.

Judith Jones by Landon Nordeman

If a restaurant chef wants to write a cookbook, if he or she wants to do it and is good and really has something to offer, it helps us to learn from them, because they're very creative people. But the real trouble with anybody's home cooking comes when they don't rely on themselves enough, and so it's not a creative force. The world could be perfectly happy or not happy without them, but we couldn't be happy without M.F.K. Fisher.


New cookbooks — I hate to tell you how few I look at, even.


Let's face it, the individual home cook isn't that careful. Perhaps they'll cut a few corners, because it's a little bit boring to check your yeast for four days.


In a funny way, food writing is curtailed by all these whats and ands, and you know, there's not much courage there.


I think what's going to be in for the next decade is emphasis on food as medicine, until we go crazy and don't even want to eat food. I hate it! And the shakes! I mean, I like to use my teeth, and chewing is very good exercise.

Judith Jones by Landon Nordeman

I was going to start a march on supermarkets, and it would be mostly — because this is my other bugaboo — that just to make more money, they push food that is for four, six, eight people, and there's never anything that's just for one person. But you shouldn't be fighting your supermarket. It's just not practical, and they know it isn't practical.


I was thrilled when I read Atul Gawande. He's a surgeon, and his book is on the bestseller list now, and it's just such a beautiful book on the last phase of life before dying. We have treated that last phase as though it were an ordinary chapter in our lives, when it's really a time that's extremely important, that you're very vulnerable, you need people to take care of you, but you do not want to be smothered with it. But he handles it with such grace and such understanding. And I started reading that book, I couldn't stop, and I read it in three days, which is very good. You shouldn't give up.


I still don't think I'm necessarily a cookbook editor.


Charlotte Druckman is a journalist and food writer-type based in New York City. She's the author of Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen, and her cookbook on cast iron-skillet baking arrives in fall 2016 from Clarkson Potter.
Landon Nordeman is a photographer who regularly contributes to The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Saveur, ESPN The Magazine, Time, National Geographic Magazine, W, Vanity Fair and Vogue. He lives in New York City.
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