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Remembering Judith Jones, who insisted on cooking with self-respect

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Judith Jones, the great book editor who discovered both Julia Child and The Diary of Anne Frank, died on Tuesday, according to New York Times reporter Kim Severson. She was 93 years old.

Jones never thought of herself as a cookbook editor, but she’s best known for the cookbooks she shepherded into being. She championed writers who were interested in changing the way America ate in the bland postwar era of canned food: Julia Child, James Beard, Madhur Jaffrey, Lidia Bastianich.

And Jones came by that ambition honestly. Her memoir The Tenth Muse opens with a description of the kind of food she grew up eating in the 1930s: no garlic, onions only in a lamb stew, and then only “two or three well-boiled small white onions per person.” Talking about food was forbidden, she writes; “it was considered crude, like talking about sex.” Jones unapologetically adored the Anglo-Saxon food of her youth (all those carbs and organ meats!), but when she moved to France after college, she fell in love with the French attitude toward food — the fresh ingredients, the flavors, the cultural consensus that food was important and worthy of appreciation.

She couldn’t stand the idea that the people she knew back home were still cooking so sadly and so stodgily. She sent her mother a recipe for “Frenchified meatloaf,” a desperate attempt to pass along her new food knowledge in a familiar form. The recipe calls, optimistically, for garlic to be minced up and mixed thoroughly into the ground meat, but Jones suggested to her mother that if she truly couldn’t bear the thought of eating garlic, instead she might just slice the cloves up and put them on top of the meatloaf while it bakes, and then instantly remove them before serving. (The full recipe is in The Tenth Muse; it is more involved than you might think meatloaf should be, but it is very good; it comes out tasting like a meatloaf/pâté hybrid.)

Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking came to Jones when she was back in the US, working for Knopf. She was a rising star, having just convinced Doubleday not to reject an early manuscript of The Diary of Anne Frank. But while her career was on an upswing, she was feeling dispirited over how terrible the food culture was.

“I realized first thing how hideous the ingredients were,” she told Eater in 2015. And most of the food writing at the time wasn’t about making the most of what flavor was available, but about minimizing your time in the kitchen — not, to her mind, what the point of cooking is. “The goal is making a delicious dinner,” she said.

So when Mastering the Art of French Cooking appeared on her desk, “I just couldn't believe it. It was as though somebody sent a present for me.”

Judith Jones helped change the way America cooks. And she changed the way I cook too.

Judith Jones taught me how to cook. I was 21 and living on my own for the first time, trying to cook for myself, and I couldn’t figure out how to scale regular recipes into something a single person could eat. My mother sent me The Pleasures of Cooking for One, the cookbook Jones wrote about cooking for herself after the death of her husband, and I made it my bible.

Many of the recipes in that book were too elaborate for me. I could not, for instance, imagining purchasing myself a personal soufflé dish, fluted, 2¾ inches high and 4 inches in diameter, and making myself a single perfect serving of soufflé, as Jones apparently did on the regular. But the thing that stuck with me was her unshakable belief in the idea that feeding yourself good food is an act of self-respect.

“I always love the moment of drama,” she writes, “when everything comes together and I quickly dish up my handiwork, arranging it pleasingly on a warm plate, and then take it to the table, where I’ve set a place for one with a cloth napkin in a family napkin ring. I open up the wine and light the candles, turn on some music, and give thanks.”

On Tuesday night, when I hadn’t yet heard of Jones’s death, I was noodling around the kitchen, trying to figure out what to cook for myself. I had a little leftover roast chicken in my fridge, but not really enough for a meal, and a few mushrooms and some cream and a little sad, wilted parsley. “Judith will know what to do,” I thought, so I pulled out my worn, stained copy of The Pleasures of Cooking for One and flipped through for her list of things to do with leftover poultry. “Minced chicken on toast,” Jones advised, so I chopped my mushrooms fine and sautéed them in butter with half a shallot, and then threw in the chicken and a little dried thyme, used the cream to bind it all together, and sprinkled the parsley on top.

I spooned the whole thing onto toast and ate it with my fingers. It tasted old-fashioned and weirdly French, even though minces on toast are about as Anglo-Saxon as it gets, and nourishing and satisfying. It tasted like self-respect, I decided, and slid the book back onto its shelf.

Judith Jones didn’t just shape the way I came to think about food and cooking; she helped shape the way America came to think about food in the second half of the 20th century. She brought us ambassadors from other culinary traditions, and she championed cookbooks that focused on food above efficiency. She was an integral part of this country’s culinary development away from a focus on convenience at the expense of health and flavor, and toward one that prizes food and cooking as part of its culture.

"Judith! We were born at the right time,” Julia Child used to tell Jones. "Yes, Julia,” Jones would respond, “but we had to act on it."