LET’S hit the high points of Judith Jones’ career: pushed through the American translation of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and published Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Edited food legends such as Child, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden, Marion Cunningham, James Beard, Lidia Bastianich and Edna Lewis. And in her spare time edited the fiction of Anne Tyler and John Updike. If you happened across a character like that in a novel, you’d never believe it.
Now she’s summed up that remarkable life -- or at least many parts of it -- in her autobiography, “The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food” (Knopf, $24.95). It’s a fascinating look at how much things have changed in the last century, not just in terms of food itself, but also in how we write about it.
Jones was raised in what sounds like a very traditional New England household; food was regarded as a physical indignity to be endured the best one could. She relates how her mother, well into her 90s, once asked plaintively: “Tell me Judith, do you really like garlic?” It is little wonder, then, that her generation took on the appreciation of flavor with an evangelical fervor -- something that seems almost quaint today when it seems every other person you meet has a food blog.
Still, apparently, her connection to food was early and it was real. Though the family didn’t seem to do much cooking, it did employ a housekeeper, Edie Price, who fascinated Jones. “The Tenth Muse” isn’t a cookbook, but there are recipes that illustrate points, and many of them -- notably some delicious old-fashioned croquettes -- come from Price.
Others, such as her bitki, date to her early college experiments (and as a reminder that a cook never stops learning, she offers a version updated with Middle Eastern flavors courtesy of Roden).
And some come from her period of full foodie flower, when she and husband Evan Jones explored the culinary traditions of their native New England and came up with gems such as frozen maple mousse.
But for the most part, “The Tenth Muse” is more about writing about cooking than about the act of cooking. And for that, Judith Jones, the editor par excellence, is unequaled -- and sure to make many of this generation’s aspiring food writers green with envy.
In her heyday -- roughly the early 1960s through the mid-1980s, though Jones continues to work today -- editors actively sought out previously unheard voices and then worked hand in hand with the authors to bring the books to print. Jones found Roden, Cunningham and even the previously oft-rejected Child through friends, Jaffrey through the slush pile, and Hazan through Craig Claiborne’s New York Times column.
Once she found them, she worked with them intensely. Apparently it was not uncommon for her almost to move in with an author for a month or two during the preparation of the manuscript.
All of this is a far cry from today, when cookbook publishing has been industrialized to the point that it is exceedingly difficult for authors without an established publicity “platform” (i.e. television show or restaurant) to get their books published. And when editors, who generally do little line-editing, are spread so thin their communication with authors is largely by occasional e-mail.
Indeed, the strength of the book for me is Jones’ sketches of some of the people she worked with. These are clear-eyed but generally sympathetic -- she does seem to have a great editor’s affection for writers -- though it must be said that Hazan might not be pleased with her portrait. Apparently Hazan was not so open to suggestion as other writers and was quite frank about it.
As autobiography, “The Tenth Muse” is a throwback as well. While today’s writers seem compelled to confess, Jones for the most part honors the New Englander’s rock-ribbed code of omerta. Even the death of her beloved husband is dealt with in an elliptical fashion that seems a little puzzling. And I couldn’t help but want to know more about her editing Tyler and Updike -- both are dealt with in a sentence or two about their relationship to the table (Tyler’s positive, Updike’s not so much).
But then, this is primarily a book about a life in food, not a life in general. And what a life it has been.