Tuesday, January 15, 2008

THE TENTH MUSE by Judith Jones

This review first appeared in Books and Culture (January 1, 2008) as "A Way of Giving Thanks: Midwifing the American food revolution."

"Suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?"
—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

To Lewis, writing from England in the early 1940s when meat was extremely scarce, the point seemed obvious: it is perverse to admire food that one cannot eat. Today's foodies, however—accustomed to glorious food photos in Bon Appetit and mouth-watering recipe demonstrations on the Food Network—might understand his comment differently. Looking at food is a great deal of fun, but why get excited about a mutton chop or a bit of bacon?

Prosperity has a lot to do with our changed attitude, but it doesn't entirely explain why food has become our luxury of choice, why we spend enormous sums on vast kitchens and then go to pricey restaurants whenever we feel like celebrating; why for fun we pore over cookbooks and browse the Williams-Sonoma catalog and attend wine tastings; why we have become The United States of Arugula, the title of David Kamp's description of the American food revolution of the last fifty years. Many people, of course, have contributed to today's consuming passion. Surprisingly, one of the most important is neither a restaurateur nor a chef nor a food critic. Judith Jones is an editor.

Jones, now 83, still holds the title of senior editor and vice president of the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company, where since 1957 she has worked with such luminaries as John Updike, Langston Hughes, and Anne Tyler. In her twenties Judith lived for several years in France, where one of her jobs was assisting the manager of Doubleday's Paris office. One day a manuscript she was supposed to reject caught her eye, and she began to read. "I couldn't stop," she writes. "All afternoon I remained curled up on the sofa … until the last light was gone." The boss was dubious, but her enthusiasm prevailed, and that is how Doubleday learned about Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. It is also the first recorded instance of her acute editorial judgment, which would lead her a decade later to lobby the Knopfs on behalf of an unwieldy cookbook by a trio of unknown authors. The book was Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and its American author was Julia Child.

The Tenth Muse would be a fascinating read if it were only about the bestsellers Jones has midwifed or the famous people she has known. Names such as Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, M.F.K. Fisher, and Marion Cunningham leap off the pages. But this memoir is much more than gossip and nostalgia: it is a story about passion and pleasure in the goodness of the earth. Like Julia Child, with whom she worked closely for many years, Judith grew up loving to eat but knowing little about fine cooking. Though the two women were not acquainted at the time, both moved to France in 1948, and each immediately experienced a life-changing encounter with a fish. Child describes her famous epiphany in the first chapter of her posthumous memoir, My Life in France. Judith's revelation, typically lower key, was no less momentous: "One Sunday lunch [a friend and I] had a fine sole meuniere at a little auberge in the country, and a few days later he made it for me, first showing me at the market how to pick the right fresh sole, and then how to carefully scale and saute it. I was in heaven."

Judith plunged into a lifelong affair with the pleasures of the table—a vocation that put her at odds with her mother, who found excitement about food unseemly. Jones recalls: "We were always being told to get rid of the smells, to make sure that the kitchen door was shut, that the windows were open." Shopping was done by phone, not in person. "One wasn't supposed to talk about food at the table (it was considered crude, like talking about sex). And if we indulged in appreciative sounds like 'yum-yum,' we just might be sent from the table." Cooking was something servants did. It was certainly not something for a well-bred college graduate to get excited about, much less base a career on.

As a girl, Judith had glimpsed an entirely different approach to food when her father occasionally took her to lunch at a French restaurant, or when she and a girlfriend relished "course after course" at an Italian restaurant. Once liberated from her mother's restraints, she and a few friends opened an unlicensed cafe in a borrowed Parisian apartment.

If Judith's parents did not understand or approve of her growing interest, Evan Jones, editor of Weekend magazine, did: "We quickly discovered that we shared the same passion for food." The two of them met when Judith was job-hunting (the borrowed apartment's owner, having learned of the cafe, had evicted her). Evan immediately hired her, then gave her a place to live, and eventually married her. The pair loved "making an ambitious, elegant dinner for friends that would last well into the night, with the wine flowing," and they "thought nothing of cooking for the better part of a Saturday or Sunday to prepare for it."

Returning to New York in the mid-1950s, the Joneses were appalled at the limited range of choices on grocery store shelves. Change was in the air, however: James Beard was opening a cooking school, Craig Claiborne would soon be food editor at the New York Times, and on the West Coast, Chuck Williams was already selling French cookware. "Then, one day in the summer of 1959," she writes, "a huge manuscript on French cooking by Mesdames Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle landed on my desk … . I started taking home recipes and trying them, and my faith was vindicated."

Jones admired not only Child's recipes but also "her earthiness, her unabashed love of food." Years later, with Child in France, Jones would revel in a New Year's supper with "ample French women, who, … unlike the puritans [she]'d grown up with, clucked with delight, licking their fingers and reaching for another bite." Food is about pleasure, a word she frequently uses: "Cooking is a way of sharing, even expressing love." Rich food memories have a power "to evoke a time, a place, and an identity." Soon Jones was developing a whole line of books on cooking, and the American food revolution was under way.

C.S. Lewis may have craved mutton chops and a bit of bacon—or perhaps he was just poking fun at people who would settle for a peek at such mundane fare. In the early '50s, while Britons were still enduring postwar food rationing, Lewis was describing lavish Bacchanalian feasts in Prince Caspian (soon to be a major motion picture). Surely he would have agreed with Jones' almost liturgical words about the symbolic meaning of food:
Other creatures receive food simply as fodder. But we take the raw materials of the earth and work with them—touch them, manipulate them, taste them, glory in their heady smells and colors, and then, through a bit of alchemy, transform them into delicious creations. Cooking demands attention, patience, and, above all, respect. It is a way of worship, a way of giving thanks.
Through food "we connect again to the earth, to the source of our food, and we bind to one another in the sharing of it, the breaking of bread together, the celebrating of life."

Food, in fact, continues to connect Judith, now widowed, to the love of her life:
After Evan died, in the winter of 1996, I doubted that I would ever find pleasure in making a nice meal for myself and sitting down to eat it all alone. I was wrong. Instead, I realized that the ritual we had shared together for almost fifty years was a part of the rhythm of my life, and by honoring it I kept alive something that was deeply ingrained in our relationship.
In Greek mythology, nine Muses inspire the creative process. The 19th-century French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin added a tenth: Gasterea, who "presides over all the pleasures of taste." Jones includes some fifty recipes for readers who feel Gasterea's nudges—she is, after all, a cookbook editor. Quoting an Italian saying, "At the table one never grows old," she asks, "Isn't that reason enough to come home at the end of the day, roll up one's sleeves, fire up the stove, and start smashing the garlic?"

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