On Tuesday, my husband, Clif, and I headed to the big city—Portland—to hear a lecture given by “legendary editor” Judith Jones, who “championed” Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking when it was a lowly book proposal at Alfred A. Knopf. (As if that weren’t enough, she was also responsible for the American publication of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Let’s just say the woman has impeccable taste.) The lecture was sponsored by the Portland Museum of Art, and, as their online blurb put it, “made possible by the Bernard A. Osher Lecture fund.” Jones has edited cookbooks by Jacques Pépin and James Beard, among others, and along with her late husband, Evan Jones, she has written two cookbooks. She has also written on her own, including The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. After listening to her snappy talk, I want my very own copy.
I had read about Judith Jones in Julia Child’s My Life in France, and I had also seen her in a PBS special—American Masters, I believe—about Julia Child. In the special, Jones came across as lively and confident, and I hoped she would come across that way in person, even though she is well into her eighties. Well, she certainly did. Petite and slender with a surprisingly deep voice, Jones looked smart in a bright pink jacket, and she seemed to be perfectly comfortable speaking before a large audience. She was sharp, articulate, and funny, and I was completely captivated.
Like Julia Child, Judith Jones had a food epiphany when she went to France, where good food and wine are such an integral part of life, where whole families go to the market together because they love shopping for food. Jones had come from a family who thought that food was “fodder” and that a home shouldn’t smell of cooked food. (I can’t help but wonder if this Puritan attitude transferred itself to our big grocery stores, which seldom smell of food.) Her mother had saved letters that Jones had written from France when she was in her twenties, and on rereading them, Jones was struck by her younger self, by this “cheeky girl who thought that food was a worthwhile pursuit.” (Jones also attributed her love of food to a maid/cook who had worked for her family. This was a woman who wasn’t afraid of the way food smelled, and she used garlic and spices when she cooked in her own home.)
Naturally, Jones told funny (but affectionate) stories about Julia Child and James Beard. She movingly described how lonely she felt after her husband died in the 1990s and how she thought she would never cook just for herself. As it turned out, she was wrong about that, and one of her books is The Pleasures of Cooking for One. She asserted—quite correctly, in my opinion—that “the professional chef is in a different world from us home cooks, and we need to loosen up a little.” As an example, she mentioned fresh herbs in the winter, how expensive they are and how they really aren’t very fresh at all. (I have come to the same conclusion and often used dried herbs in the winter.)
During the question and answer after the talk, someone from Weight Watchers asked how to combine the love of food with health and obesity concerns. How do we strike a balance? Jones responded that bad habits make Americans fat. She explained that she exercises a lot and doesn’t snack between meals. I suspect she also doesn’t go in for fast food or processed food, two major obesity culprits. She also spoke of the importance of taking the time to cook from scratch.
I agree, and these are all things I’ve written about in previous posts. Unfortunately, time is one thing so many Americans lack, and I must say that I have a great deal of sympathy for frazzled parents who spend so much time away from home and don’t make enough money to hire someone to help with household chores, both inside and outside. (And a lot of us fall into that category.)
Yet if we start with the notion that food, real food to borrow from Michael Pollan, is a worthwhile pursuit then surely this is a step in the right direction and quite different from the conflicted attitude so many Americans have about food. We love it; we hate it; we fear it; we desire it. And in the end, we don’t even know what we should eat. All the while, the French, who are among the healthiest people in the world, eat cream, butter, eggs, and white flour, and they relish them all.
No wonder Judith Jones had a food epiphany in France.