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Judith Jones On Cooking

November 30, 2009

(Photo by Christopher Hirsheimer)

When you saw “Julie and Julia” did your heart soar when Judith Jones convinced Alfred Knopf to publish “Mastering the Art of French Cooking?” Of course; she saved the day.  But then, later, how did you feel about the famous editor when she failed to come to Julie Powell’s apartment to taste her boeuf bourgignon? Did she break your heart too?

The ambivalent feelings I’ve carried with me since I left the theater evaporated on November 6th when I met Judith Jones in person. Ms. Jones, a featured speaker at the Food for Thought conference run by the Vermont Humanities Council, turns out to be witty and warm and wonderfully passionate about good food and cooking. As Oldways starts planning a major effort to Get America Cooking, it made my soul sing to hear Judith Jones champion the importance of relating through our food through cooking.

“We’re very peculiar as Americans,” says Jones. “We have a love-hate relationship with food. For more than fifty years we’ve been told by the food industry, ‘Poor little woman. You don’t have to cook; it’s demeaning. Let us do it for you.’ For a while Julia turned that around. ‘Come on in, it’s fun – no apologies!’ ” Here, Jones does a perfect imitation of Julia Child, startling the audience, who did not expect Julia’s signature booming voice to be channeled through this tiny eighty-five year old woman whose feet don’t even touch the floor as she sits on stage. Jones grins and returns to her chronology, in her own voice.  “But then came the 90s and we became afraid of everything. ‘That has two tablespoons of butter … we’re going to die.’ I think we should grow up. Have fun.”

Jones believes that we need to “get our hands into our food more” and loosen up. “We’ve been too rigid. A half teaspoon of this and a quarter teaspoon of that, exactly. Dump the teaspoon of salt into your open hand before you put it in the bowl. Then next time you’ll remember what it felt like and you won’t need the spoon.”

Not everyone necessarily shares her passion for cooking, Judith Jones is quick to admit. “We all have different cooking genes,” she says. “I think I got a heavy dose. I’d come home from school and watch our maid cook. I’d ask her what she was making at home, that weekend, and she’d describe some dish from Barbados, and my imagination would soar! By the time I went to college I was always the one who cooked – turned out it was a great way to seduce the boys.” She sighs, lost inside herself as her life speeds by. “And then I went to Paris. I never dreamed there was a whole society that revolved around food. This was right after the war. People were walking around in carpet slippers with holes in the toes, but they would use what little money they had to buy a perfect piece of paté.”

“We’re caught up in the wrong things,” Jones goes on to say. Maybe too much abundance stifles creativity in the kitchen. “We’re too profligate. We have this nice half loaf of stale bread, and we just throw it out. We don’t make bread soup, or bread salad.” Peasant cultures honor every scrap of food and find a way to dress it up, give it place of pride on the table.

Jones feels strongly that cooking is central to eating well. “I don’t buy that it’s impossible to work and put a nice meal on the table. I did it, when we were bringing up two children. Sure, it’s a little bit more of a burden, but that dinner hour was sacrosanct.”

Today, at eighty-five, Judith Jones still works as a senior editor at Alfred Knopf and the dinner hour is still important, even though the kids are grown and her husband Evan died in 1996. Her newest cookbook, out this fall, is titled “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” She rejects the argument that today’s lives are just too busy to cook. “What are we saving our time for?” she says. “More television?”

At the end, moderator Marialisa Calta asks Judith Jones what it felt like, to see herself played in the movie “Julie and Julia.” “It was interesting to be both a villain and a savior,” Jones replies, reflecting briefly. “But I wish they’d dressed my character a little snappier!”

(Alas, I did not have a camera with me, so I’ve illustrated this from a YouTube interview. If you’d like to have your own brief encounter with Judith Jones, check out the video.)

– Cindy

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    December 1, 2009 5:05 pm

    Having no prior knowledge of Julia’s story or Jones’s part in it, I wasn’t looking at Jones the human being. While I was watching, I was thinking about the plotting of the movie and the way that Judith Jones had been used as a foil twice, first against failure and then against success, and in a round about way against failure again as her cancellation forced Julie to look at her endeavor as worthy regardless of what Judith Jones thought.

    However, your post reports the views of a modern, interesting woman. She is one hundred percent right, cooking is not the monumental task so many people make it out to be. I’d go a step further. It’s actually easy to routinely cook healthy meals, even in a household with kids and two working partners. Typical of our culture, meals are often either fast food with virtually no preparation or major productions with complex menus. It doesn’t have to be that way. Given a few simple guidelines we can find the middle ground, eat well night after night and acquire the skill, the confidence and the repertoire to cook up a storm on special occasions. Without the benefit of cooking our way through Julia Child, which despite what we might think is a more demanding task than most of us want to undertake, and with the aid of fresh ingredients, we can roast, broil, saute and steam our way to a healthy diet. And a little note: we won’t need a maid or a cook to show us how it’s done, just a little help from our friends.

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