Legendary Editor Judith Jones Dishes on Julia Child (and Her Imitators)

By: Erin Zimmer

In honor of her new memoir, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, 83-year-old Judith Jones visited the Library of Congress yesterday. The longtime Knopf cookbook editor—who was responsible for discovering Julia Child and worked with other authors such as John Updike—had no trouble making an audience of mostly middle-aged women giggle, especially when joking about imprecise cookbook language. The phrase “set aside” still confuses her: “What do you think I’m gonna do—throw it out?”

With the same visionary intuition that drew her to Anne Frank’s diary buried in a pile of rejected manuscripts, Jones helped Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking become a kitchen bible. She encouraged Child to use down-to-earth words like “plop” in explaining the formal techniques of French cuisine, and in her eyes the book is just as useful today. “One of these days,” she predicted, “we’re gonna get sick of Food Network.”

Asked about contemporary food culture, particularly the cooking memoir Julie and Julia by blogger Julie Powell—a young New York City woman who attempted 365 days’ worth of Child’s recipes to quell her quarterlife crisis—Jones revealed she isn’t a big fan. Powell’s painstaking attempt to recreate Child’s work wasn’t the issue; it was all those four-letter words in her writing: “Those don’t have a place in cookbook writing.” (She was ready to observe Powell at work but canceled after reading the expletive-littered passages.) Jones is anything but old-fashioned or prudish. In fact, she’s very much in touch with her youthful spirit.

In addition to plugging The Tenth Muse, Jones was passionate about her children’s book, Knead It, Punch It, Bake It!, first published more than 25 years ago. Writing the step-by-step breadmaking guide for little hands was “particularly magical” for Jones, whose eyes got big when she described punching dough with kids. It all goes back to her signature adage, a major theme in her new book: “One never grows old at the table.” Judging by her young-at-heart attitude, yesterday, she’s spent a lot of time at the table.

The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, by Judith Jones, $24.95.