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Judith Jones Toasts a Culinary Life in 'Tenth Muse'

by Linda Kulman
Jan 8, 2008

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Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

The year was 1959, the end of a decade when the food industry's "prevailing message was that the poor little woman didn't have time to cook, and, moreover, it was beneath her dignity," Judith Jones writes in her compact memoir, The Tenth Muse. But Jones, then a young editor at Alfred A. Knopf, viewed food differently. Born with what she calls a "fluke gene" that allowed her to take pleasure in food — even in a household that banned garlic — she was on the hunt for an authentic French cookbook. That's when Julia Child's thick manuscript landed on her desk.

"I hoped we'd had our fill of quick-and-easy, and there was an appetite for the real thing," Jones explains. "I felt the time was right."

Jones, it turns out, was correct, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking changed the way millions of Americans ate.

Child's revolutionary cookbook is only the first of a long list that Jones has brought into American kitchens over her 50-year career as an editor. The Tenth Muse discusses her other culinary finds, which include Claudia Roden (Middle Eastern food), Lidia Bastianich (Italian), Joan Nathan (Jewish) and Edna Lewis (Southern). In 2006, Jones was awarded the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.

"I work very closely on cookbooks," she says, "because ... you can have a wonderful cook but not necessarily a great writer. I think a voice is very important, and the magazines and newspapers have done everything to destroy a voice in a recipe. My favorite example: 'In a bowl, combine the first mixture with the second mixture. Set aside.' What are you going to do, throw it out?"

Earlier in her career, Jones, then a "Girl Friday" with the American publisher Doubleday in Paris, came across a manuscript of The Diary of Anne Frank. Instead of writing the rejection letter her boss had assigned to her, she got the book published in this country.

It goes without saying that food has sustained Jones not just in body, but also in soul over the years.

"At the table, one never grows old," she says, quoting an Italian saying. "Isn't that enough reason to come home at the end of the day, roll up one's sleeves, fire up the stove and start smashing the garlic?"

This discussion of The Tenth Muse took place in December 2007 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington.

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Recorded at Politics and Prose, Washington, DC.

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