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Madhur Jaffrey on the Legendary Judith Jones

The prolific cookbook author toasts the editor who helped shape her career

Judith Jones at home in 2015
Helen Rosner

Thanks to technology and social media, whenever a luminary leaves us now, word travels fast and it multiplies, exponentially, even faster. Since news broke this morning of editor Judith Jones's death, a blanket of retweeted stories previously published about her — and newly drafted obituaries — has covered my feed. As my friend, New York Times reporter and columnist Tejal Rao noted while we were taking in the news, Judith was the kind of editor who preferred to step aside when the editing process was through so that her writers, many of whom were women of color, could shine. She would not have appreciated a pile-on of attention.

I interviewed one of them, Madhur Jaffrey, the prolific and inimitable Indian cookbook writer, for a story I did with Judith for Eater back in 2015. Judith’s own words ended up being so compelling, we decided to let them stand alone. But Madhur’s input is invaluable and seems all the more meaningful now. I only wish that Judith could have read what her writer — and friend — said about her.

I had written a book, my very first book — it came after an article that Craig Claiborne did on me in the New York Times. It was a whole page about an actress who likes to cook. [The manuscript was passed among a few editors, to no avail. Eventually, in 1969, it landed with Andre Schiffin, head of Vintage.]

He said, “There’s only one person who should have this book and it’s Judith Jones.” I sent the book to Judith [at Knopf], and she sort of bought it overnight. She was very interested. She gave it the title An Invitation to Indian Cooking — that was her idea, that it should be welcoming you into that world.

She never interfered with my style, she just made it more coherent and would say, “This is what it should be served with” or “Maybe you could offer…”

For my last book I did with her, I have that green pencil that she used always to make corrections. Her notes were always in green. They were always very careful edits. Some people just take a green pencil and work their way through it and make it something else. She leaves the author’s voice completely there. And the idiosyncratic spelling or thinking, she leaves so that the book is an individual kind of creation rather than a commercial project. She let my recipes run on. I like to give details, because I think people are afraid. I’ve always explained very fully what something should look like when it’s done. People nowadays, it’s all about how it looks on a page.

I learned from the very first book how to do a proper cookbook, and that was entirely Judith’s doing. She’s a really intelligent person. I couldn’t work with someone who wasn’t intelligent and wasn’t interested. Most editors treat you like you’re peripheral, and they have so many other things to do.

It’s a straightforward relationship. One human being recognizing another human being completely.

I do remember, for one of my last books with her, we were supposed to have a photographer, and no one ever has enough money to pay someone to cook all the recipes [for the photo shoot]. Judith said, “I’ll come,” and the two of us cooked together in my house in the country, and Christopher Hirscheimer came, and Melissa Hamilton. Together, they styled and used all my pots and pans and whatever I used for serving. It became a really lovely, very personal kind of book.

I remember going up to Vermont, and staying in her house with [her husband] Evan and Judith, and cooking. You know, there’s a kind of personal interest she takes in her authors. You talk to any of them, and they all have a story. You got the feeling she was thoroughly involved in [each book] personally.

You know she can do anything, and she doesn’t think our [cookbooks] are less than those of great writers. She was living proof of somebody who can edit a masterpiece of fiction and can edit a cookbook, and she’s not discriminating and saying one is a higher form of art and one is lesser. They’re both valid, and one can be done well or badly.

Charlotte Druckman is a journalist and food writer-type based in New York City.