Few people get to meet their heroes, but I was lucky enough to know mine.
I met Judith Jones in January of 2013. Through a string of serendipitous events, I was offered the chance to spend several months collecting her life’s oral history. The only catch was that we had to get along, which, I had been warned, wasn’t always easy with Judith.
I hardly made it through the phone call to introduce myself, I was shaking so hard. But she was warm and direct; she had been expecting my call, she said. She invited me to her Upper East Side apartment for tea so we could talk.
On a frigid day, I knocked at her door. High pitched barks and the scampering of paws on parquet floors followed by soft, even footsteps. Judith opened the door, and her dog Mabon jumped at my shins. My breath lodged in my throat; I hadn’t known this publishing giant was so physically small.
She invited me in. I walked past the Julia-inspired pegboard hung with Le Creuset cookware that Lidia Bastianich’s mother once scrubbed until they shone. The kitchen was compact, built for function rather than show. The refrigerator was covered with snapshots—her late husband, Evan, hugging a dog in Vermont; Julia Child and Jim Beard wearing costumes in a warm embrace. Judith’s scarred black Garland stove seemed at once strikingly out of proportion for the little kitchen and utterly appropriate, an outsized workhorse of a range for an outsized workhorse of a woman.
There were walls upon walls of books. Food and poetry, novels and essays on every shelf and every corner, stacked on the glass coffee table, too, alongside proposals and manuscripts. At eighty-eight, Judith was just months retired from her half-century post at Knopf, but she was still very much in demand.
That afternoon, she laid out a pot of black tea and a tin of homemade oatmeal cookies. She wore pressed slacks, a wool cardigan and pearls, a tidily made-up face and a gray bob, all the trappings of uptightness. But her laugh was hearty and deep, and she spoke with ardor about travel, marriage, and leftovers. I liked her right away. She agreed to meet again.
My roadmap was The Tenth Muse, her 2007 memoir that trips easily along the path of her life. Her authors: Julia Child, Claudia Roden, M.F.K. Fisher, Edna Lewis; Irene Kuo, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, James Beard. In her book, she steered clear of her novelists. John Hersey. Elizabeth Bowen. Anne Tyler. John Updike. I wondered why.
I wanted a deeper, richer picture. A full life of such immaculate taste and incredible productiveness is never the result of mere good luck. A rare woman in publishing in the 1950s couldn’t have had an easy go of it, particularly one who was as interested in recipes as she was in prose. There must have been disappointment in her life, I assumed, struggle, even pain.
At first, Judith stuck to the script, repeating stories from her book and other interviews I’d read nearly verbatim. But as we talked and ate together—and we always ate—insight began to seep through. On pulling Anne Frank’s diary from the slush pile during her years in Paris, she told me that her boss at Doubleday, Frank Price, “asked me to reject it, but I couldn’t.” She paused. “I think part of growing up is that wonderful sense of freeing yourself and finding your own world.”
Freeing herself took time. She had been raised with the expectations of privilege: marry a rich man, join the Social Register and live a life of household management. She loved food, but talking about it was as verboten as talking about sex, and pleasure was an altogether dirty pursuit. Postwar France helped her think otherwise. But still, when she and friends stumbled upon Le Pyramid, were fed a superlative meal by Fernand Point, Judith didn’t take notes. “It never occurred to me that there was a life in food.”
Yet a life in food was what she made. Swept into the house of Knopf in 1957, immediately she acquired literary stars, and began working on cookbooks on the side. Julia was first. The Knopf team was skeptical. But Mastering the Art of French Cooking became a cultural phenomenon, and Child a household name. By the time Judith’s colleagues admitted they’d been wrong, Judith had become invaluable.
Judith wove her work in literature with that in food. She treated cookbooks with the same rigor as book books and food writers with the same respect as novelists; she was relentless and persistent, finicky and tireless. She had a knack for timing, and an incredible editorial eye. She intimidated many, only growing close to a few. She almost always achieved excellence.
She is best known for her work in food, but has long bucked being pigeonholed. She still smarts at a Knopf colleague referring to her as “the cookbook editor.” “I thought we were better friends,” she told me. “And it was a joke to him. But it wasn’t a joke. I didn’t want to be just identified… I mean, I was Updike’s editor.” She grappled her entire life with “the ignominy of cooking.”
She was an editor, an executive, an adoptive mother and stepmother, a wife. She was often up into the middle of the night with her manuscripts. “Those weren’t easy years,” she admitted. “I almost used cooking as an escape. That this was my little cocoon, this is my world. And I tend to deny that. But I think I’m fooling myself.”
A current of subversion runs through her career: she brought worth to the work, worlds and words of women, created career paths for smart ladies with few professional paths to follow. Through the quiet power of cookbooks, she argued that Black Lives Matter, as well as Middle Eastern ones.
Child taught her to “stand up and fight” while enduring disappointments of the female body—the inability to bear children, hysterectomies and breast cancer. With Fisher, she claimed a spiritual connection. She admired Lewis’s embrace of humility, and her ability to speak her truth. Judith saw these editor-author relationships as sacred, and success as cooperatively won. “How wefinally broke through,” she said, “was through doing, cooking, creating. That empowered you.” She never followed any path but her own.
After a life in the wings, she set her own pen to paper. Her memoir was first, then her 2009 The Pleasures of Cooking for One, where she finally embraced imprecision—pinches, bits and “abouts” pepper the text. Love Me, Feed Me came last; she was always worrying over it during our conversations.
Only in retirement did she permit herself whole summers at her beloved Bryn Teg, a small house on the side of a mountain in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. For decades, she had schlepped back and forth from the City by train, while Evan stayed in Vermont for long stretches, writing and testing recipes. I loved visiting her there. She made yeasted dough in the morning without a plan for lunch, picked raspberries by the handful, blasted Wagner, and drove her station wagon to the farmers market.
Her authors—so many of them gone now—kept watch over her from the pages of their books, tucked neatly into windowsills. We made pizza, and lingered long over lunch on the porch outside. In Vermont, she poured second glasses of wine, swam twice daily in the cold pond, and checked on her Beltie cows, giving in to the good life.
After six months, we finished working together, but still visited regularly. I brought tokens of my affection in the form of fresh bread, cheese, and macarons. We walked arm in arm to eat pizza while Judith complained about the Second Avenue subway line construction. I surprised her with lunch at Gramercy Tavern, where she tipped her chowder bowl up and drank the last drops.
We walked Mabon to the post office. I tried to teach her to delete old emails, but she threw up her hands in frustration. She told me to keep at it when I struggled for years to become pregnant, told me not bearing children was the one thing she felt she’d missed. She offered to come sit with me in the hospital when we turned to treatment, and I cried in the sterile hallway at her kindness.
I last saw her in May. It had been too long; I had recently moved Upstate and given birth to twins. I showed her a picture of my son and daughter, he gleefully clutching measuring spoons, she wielding a wooden spoon. “She’s going to be tough,” Judith asserted. I beamed.
We sat at a table set with china and crystal. The formality and her growing frailty set me on edge. Judith had finally given in to having a full-time caregiver, Meri, and it was Meri who’d cooked our lunch. We ate small portions of chicken salad and drank half glasses of white wine. Judith’s eyes lit up at dessert, a chocolate confection Meri’s family had sent from the nation of Georgia. Meri explained the dessert’s context to me while Judith tucked in lustily.
“I’m trying to get Meri to do a book,” she said between bites. “You know, the food and stories of her youth!” I laughed, and we drank wine, and ate cake. My Judith was still there.