Follow the Muse with Cookbook Editor Judith Jones

Judith Jones, vice-president and senior editor at Knopf, who brought us cookbooks by Julia Child, Madhur Jaffrey, Irene Kuo, and Lidia Bastianich among many others, spoke yesterday about her new book The Tenth Muse as part of the Beard on Books monthly literary series at the James Beard House. Also an adventuresome eater and prolific cook, Jones began her lecture and reading with a quote that sums up her life experiences. When current Poet Laureate Charles Simic was asked in a recent New York Times interview: "What advice would you give to people who are looking to be happy," Simic replied, "For starters, learn how to cook."

Acknowledging Beard's house, Jones recalled the many times when she and Jim, as she calls him, used to work on projects together at his home, and when they would get hungry Jim would sway in front of the refrigerator looking for ingredients to whip up a quick meal. Mr. Beard, as we call him, used to say, 'There's always something in the refrigerator to eat.'

Jones spoke of her journey in food as being never ending even to this day and that food still gives her a sense of pleasure. Growing up in New York City, Jones was raised on bland food because her mother did not allow garlic and many other foods considered foreign at the time. For Jones, her first taste of garlic was a moment of discovery to the world of food. In fact Jones had initially thought to title the book, Do You Really Like Garlic? Jones recounted the time when her 91-year-old mother had asked her that question and Jones answered, as her mother had come to expect of her wayward daughter,'yes.' Jones inevitably decided to go with the title The Tenth Muse from Brillat-Savarin's description of Gasterea, who he considered to be the forgotten tenth muse of classical mythology, in his book The Physiology of Taste.

While working on her memoir, Jones reexamined the letters that she had sent home from her years in Paris in her twenties, which her mother had saved. She admitted that she was surprised to rediscover a very modern, rambunctious, and fearless girl. She went on to recount a moment in Paris when she left her purse on a park bench in the Tuileries Garden, and found it missing when she returned to retrieve it. She took this as a sign to stay in Paris. She ended up staying for three-and-a-half years. Inspired by the French appreciation and love for food, in these years, Jones eagerly learned the basics of cooking from locals while holding down a number of odd jobs. Along with an American friend she opened a makeshift restaurant inside an apartment catering to Americans living in Paris. While working for the newly opened Paris office of Doubleday, she met her soon-to-be husband.

Once back in New York as a married woman, Jones began working at Knopf as a junior editor. She received the manuscript of what was to become Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She recalled this moment as the answer to her prayers, considering that specific time in American cookery as a wasteland of limited, sub-par produce and deficient cookbooks. Her goal was to make the voices of these writers heard.

Jones's journey in food came to a head when in 1980 she and her husband rented a home in Vermont not far from where she had vacationed as a child. They ended up purchasing the homestead to use as a summer vacation home. In this time the Joneses were brought closer to the sources of food by planting vegetable gardens and fruit trees while also learning to reap the benefits of the wild vegetation.

Jones answered a few questions before sitting down to sign books. In response to a question about cooking as a single cook, Jones called it a strategy, that sometimes one must ask the butcher to split a package of meat or be willing to buy a head of broccoli and eat it for a week. When asked about what she thinks of cookbooks today, Jones said that they are too fancy and that too many chefs are creating books with the help of hired writers. She believes that these books are not useful to the home cook, because one never learns the secrets of cooking and many times the ingredients used in the recipes are expensive and inaccessible.

The Tenth Muse is a fantastic book filled with beautiful anecdotes from an author brimming with stories to tell. For Jones, cooking is no longer just for sustenance. As the French say, it is an art. Jones's passion is effervescent and contagious. She shows us her dedication in creating such wonderful cookbooks. Without Judith Jones, Julia Child's cookbook may have never been published. And for this we thank Jones for changing the face of American culinary culture and for starting a revolution.