Judith Jones, the legendary Knopf editor who died in 2017, is considered by many to be one of the forebears of modern American food culture. After publishing Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 1961, she spent the next 50-plus years nurturing the likes of Marcella Hazan, Irene Kuo, James Beard, Claudia Roden, Madhur Jaffrey, Joan Nathan, Marion Cunningham, Lidia Bastianich, Edna Lewis and many others.
Most often celebrated for helping to open the doors of dinner table diplomacy, Jones published authors — many women and people of color — whose books translated foreign cuisines for an American audience. But her work with American food — namely a series of cookbooks collectively devoted to exploring the breadth of American foodways for American readers — is often overlooked. With Knopf’s rerelease of Edna Lewis’s 1988 “In Pursuit of Flavor” though, this may finally be poised to change.
The reissue of “In Pursuit” is the first glimpse into a larger project of mining and highlighting Knopf’s culinary backlist by republishing select titles. Senior Editor Lexy Bloom calls Knopf’s culinary backlist an “incredible treasure trove, with some beloved classics and some that have been forgotten about.” Leading with “In Pursuit of Flavor,” as attention to Lewis has reached something of a fever pitch, is a bid to capture a new audience: In recent years, she has been featured on a U.S. Postal Service stamp, in the New York Times Magazine, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” In 2018, I published a book of essays by food world luminaries devoted to examining and celebrating her legacy.
While Knopf’s project of reviving cookbooks isn’t explicitly a celebration of Jones’s work and vision, Bloom says unequivocally, “There’s no culinary backlist at Knopf without Judith Jones.” And indeed, while Knopf co-founder Alfred A. Knopf was interested in all things gourmand, it wasn’t until Jones published Child’s “Mastering” that Knopf became synonymous with excellence in cookbooks. For the decade after, Jones sought authors who could do for their own native cuisines what Child had done for French food. Jones’s work, at the time, reflected a sensibility then common among the American elite: that food from elsewhere — especially from France — was far superior to that of the United States.
In the early 1970s, though, Jones’s interest shifted to American food, when she would sometimes accompany her husband, writer Evan Jones, as he reported around the country for Gourmet, and assist him with the research for his 1975 “American Food: The Gastronomic Story.” While Lewis’s “The Taste of Country Cooking” was Jones’s first book devoted to an American regional cuisine, by the mid-1980s, Jones was taking a deep dive. In 1983, Jones, along with Knopf colleague Angus Cameron, co-authored “The L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook” and in 1986, she published Jane and Michael Stern’s “Coast to Coast Cookbook: Real American Food.”
Lewis’s third book, “In Pursuit of Flavor,” co-written with longtime food writer and editor Mary Goodbody, was a quiet lead-up to Jones’s most ambitious, but least known, culinary project: Knopf Cooks American.
Through their research and travels, the Joneses had experienced distinct regional and ethnic foodways, and Judith Jones envisioned a series that would narrate those stories, book by book. Rux Martin, vice president and senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, recalls visiting the Joneses at their home in northeastern Vermont in the late ’80s. Judith Jones, who long had a knack for anticipating the pulse of American culture, “saw important voices emerging for what was going on in American food,” Martin says.
Jones understood that, like a novel — including those by her quintessentially American authors John Updike and Anne Tyler — a cookbook can “give you a sense of a person and how they approach the world from his or her kitchen, and their particular world.” Of Jones’s approach, Martin says, “It was such an articulation of a cookbook as literature.”
Knopf published the first titles in the series — “Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie” by North Carolina chef Bill Neal, and “Hot Links and Country Flavors: Sausages in American Regional Cooking” by San Francisco Bay area “Sausage King” Bruce Aidells and Danis Kelly — in 1990. Fourteen titles followed in quick succession between 1991 and 1997, celebrating the breadth of American culinary traditions. Jones commissioned writers to chronicle the Italian American community of Providence, R.I., and Jewish American cooking across the nation; barbecue, fruit preserves, the Florida Gulf Coast, and the crazy quilt of (pre-hipster) Brooklyn. She even reissued, verbatim, Helen Brown’s timeless 1951 “West Coast Cook Book.”
The final works of the series were “Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood” by Ken Hom, and a book on the vast influence of Latino culture on United States foodways entitled “Latin American Cooking Across the U.S.A.” by the Cuban-born writer, historian and activist Himilce Novas and Rosemary Silva. In a bold move, Jones insisted the latter be published in both English and Spanish. Speaking of these final titles in a 2017 remembrance of Jones, culinary historian Anne Mendelson noted, “The mere fact that she was eager to champion stateside Latin American food as quintessential American food is extraordinary.” Mendelson called the publication of Hom’s book an “astonishing testimony to Judith’s instinctive sense that nothing was more deeply, truly American than the cooking of immigrant families.”
The series marked a critical evolution for an editor whose earlier culinary work seemed intended for well-heeled urban elites rather than diverse and workaday home cooks. Knopf Cooks American “defied the expectations of snobs,” Mendelson said and surprised those who associated Jones with refinement and old-world traditions. In New York, as spending power rose and celebrity chef culture was beginning to emerge, these books were a rebuke; in the face of yuppie gentrification and so-called “fusion cuisine,” Jones was mounting a case for multiculturalism. Only recently, two decades after the series’ final titles were published, Jones’s quiet cause has finally reached the forefront of American food culture and media.
Despite their critical importance, many of the Knopf Cooks American books didn’t sell well. Martin insists, though, that that should in no way detract from their importance. “She was a seer,” she says of Jones. “From Anne Frank to Julia Child, Bill Neal to Irene Kuo, she only published books that made a contribution. And she made it look effortless. That was Judith. That was how she inspired us and continues to.”