Judith Jones is one of the most “savvy” and indomitable 83 year-olds whom I know. Last night, I had an opportunity to meet Judith again when she shared some of her reminiscenses with an audience here in Maine at the Portland Museum of Art. The museum had invited Judith to speak in conjunction with their exhibit, “Objects of Wonder: Four Centuries of Still Life,” because so many of those still life paintings included food. All that sounds rather insightful but I dare say they had not figured that Judith Jones is anything but a “still life.”
Judith is senior editor and vice president at Alfred A. Knopf publishers in New York. She joined Knopf in 1957 and her 53-year career is still going strong! Today, Judith is the most renown cookbook editor in the United States, if not the world. The list of authors she has edited reads like an international Who’s Who in the art of cooking: Julia Child, James Beard, Marion Cunningham, Marcella Hazan, Ken Horn, Madhur Jaffrey, Irene Kuo, Edna Lewis, Joan Nathan, Claudia Roden, Nina Simonds, and Anna Thomas, among many others.
Judith was born into a blueblood household in which the cooking was done by maids ensconced in kitchens tucked in far-off corners so the “smells” would not seep out and permeate the home. This was also a time when no upstanding person consumed French food, because Judith notes, “with all those sauces, it surely had something to hide.” Judith says that one of the most daunting confessions she ever had to make to her mother was, “I love garlic.” Her mother was appalled.
Judith managed to escape this culinary wasteland by moving to Paris after graduating from college. She persuaded her parents to let her go for a three week visit. She fell in love with the city, the food and the Parisians’ passion for cooking and eating. At the end of her three weeks Judith “lost” her passport and had to postpone returning home. In the time it took to replace her passport, she cannily managed to secure a job reading manuscripts and subsequently extended her stay for three years.
It was a heady time in Paris. World War II had recently ended and the people reveled in the freedom and access to goods and food lost during the war years. Judith recounts a joyous moment when she was standing in line in a bakery and the owner stood behind the counter holding a baguette of bread fresh from his oven. He lifted it over his head, broke it in half and proudly revealed its warm, aromatic and fluffy white interior to his patrons. Everyone cheered! Wartime shortages had precluded such luxuries as white flour. Judith was enamored of this new life where people took such joy in a simple loaf of bread.
One of her most memorable “working” moments happened when she rescued Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl from a “reject pile.” Judith might have been new and inexperienced, but she was fearless about what she believed in – and she believed Anne’s story. She insisted the story be published in English in the US and it was.
In 1957, Judith finally managed to tear herself away from Paris. She returned to New York and accepted an editorial position at Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. In the beginning she worked primarily on translations of French writers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Over the years she has worked with many distinguished authors, including Elizabeth Bowen, John Updike, Peter Taylor, John Hersey, William Maxwell and Anne Tyler. But food was never far from her heart.
When Houghton Mifflin turned down Julia Child’s manuscript, Alfred Knopf brought it to Judith’s desk, saying “I think you might understand this better than anyone else in the office.”
Judith loved the massive tome by three unknown ladies – one American and two Frenchwomen, Louise Bertholle and Simone Becks. She wrote in her memoir, The Tenth Muse, “I was bouleversee, as the French say – knocked out. This was the book I’d been searching for.” She convinced Knopf to publish the manuscript, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the world of food has never been the same since.
Judith has written many articles, essays and books of her own. She is the co-author with Evan Jones (her late husband) of: The Book of Bread, and Knead It, Punch It, Bake It! In 2007 Judith published her memoir, The Tenth Muse: My life in Food, and in 2009 she published another beautiful, groundbreaking book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One.
When Judith is not at her desk or her stove in New York, she is at home in a rural corner of the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont, where she and a cousin are raising Angus cattle, which she calls “the girls.” She is healthy, fit and downright spunky. She calls this time of life her “ripe old age,” as opposed to her “old old age.”
Dare I say, we should all ripen as well…
Judith has already received the “James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.” I think they may have jumped the gun for who knows what else this 83-year-old dynamo will achieve in her years to come!
NB: In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of Judith’s editors. I asked her and her husband, Evan, to write a book on bread for children, and when they delivered the manuscript to me it was as much of a magnum opus as Julia’s for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Not easily daunted myself, I asked Judith if I could submit the tome to a colleague to be published for adults and if she and Evan would work with me to pare the manuscript down to a second book, appropriate for children. We did and the result was two award-winning books.