How Judith Jones Radically Transformed American Food Writing
Sara B. Franklin on the Legendary Editor
In May of 1948, a young woman named Judith Bailey embarked upon what was meant to be a three-week vacation in Italy and France. Nearly a year later, she posted a letter to her parents, who were baffled as to why their daughter—who had been given all the opportunities of a privileged New York City upbringing—had stayed away and, worse still, remained unmarried for so long. Young Judith had been happily scraping by in Paris, working alternately as a secretary, a literary scout, and an assistant cook for what today would be called an underground supper club. She wrote, “I know you didn’t send me to an expensive college to have me become a cook. But you must understand that in France cooking is not regarded as demeaning. It is an art.” The note was prescient. Its author was the editor we now know by her married name, Judith Jones (1924-2017), who, more than six decades after penning that letter, has become a legend in publishing and beyond.
Until her late 80s, Judith was senior editor and vice president of Knopf. While her literary career was long and dizzyingly impressive, it’s her impact on the culinary world for which she is most publicly known and admired; she nurtured—indeed, in many cases discovered—the authors who shaped contemporary American attitudes towards food and cooking, and is considered by many to be the progenitor of modern American food culture.
For much of her adult life, Judith Jones lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in the same building where she grew up. That’s where I first met her, in January of 2013. Judith was an idol to me, the woman who had helped create the world that fascinated me most: the world of cookbooks. Not just any cookbooks, but the best cookbooks. Cookbooks that redefined the form, cookbooks that translated and narrated cultures both far afield and right here in America. Cookbooks that double as literature.
That January day, she ushered me in and took my coat. Judith led me into her kitchen, a space that functioned as an apt symbol for the woman who cooked in it: compact, efficient, unfussy, and begging to be useful. The refrigerator was plastered with snapshots—her husband Evan, hugging a dog in Vermont; Julia Child and James Beard donning costumes in a warm embrace. Judith’s scarred black Garland stove struck me as both out of proportion for the little kitchen and utterly appropriate: an outsized workhorse of a range for an outsized workhorse of a woman.
At home, then, she spent most of her time reading or cooking, words and food being the passions that defined and dominated both her personal and professional life. The apartment was filled with 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 88, Judith was just months retired from her half-century at Knopf, but her editorial skills were still very much in demand.
Part of Judith’s mystique and legacy is the way in which she parlayed the work and worlds of women into the public sphere. She was not a feminist—oh no, she reminded me again and again. But she did pay attention to where human stories lived, and was unafraid to go there. “There” included home kitchens, historically relegated to housewives and servants. This was her interest in humanity come to life.Judith Jones looked upon her cookbook authors as experts who could help her, along with the American public, across unfamiliar thresholds of food and culture.
It was far from an obvious fit for someone who’d grown up in an era where women of status were meant to maintain a stance of hands-off disinterest towards food. Judith and her sister, Susan, were meant to marry well and achieve lives of social standing and leisure; their mother, Phyllis, kept a copy of the Social Register by the telephone, as a constant reminder. And so Phyllis was peeved, if not surprised, when shy but determinedly independent Judith took up poetry as her course of study at Bennington College, and poured her energy into editing The Bennington Review rather than cultivating suitable marriage prospects; Judith had eyes only for her professor-turned-lover, the poet Theodore Roethke.
Roethke, along with Judith’s thesis adviser, the revered literary critic Kenneth Burke, both leveraged their connections in publishing on her behalf; during Bennington’s winter work period, Judith landed at Doubleday. She took to the work immediately, and returned again the following year, having caught the attention of the kindly editor, Ken McCormick. McCormick was soon made editor-in-chief, and invited Judith to return to the job after graduation, which she happily did. There, sharing a tiny office with a young Betty Arnoff (later, Prashker, who’d go on to become a Doubleday executive and editorial force in her own right), Judith became a darling, as well as a sought-after catch, of the literary establishment. She became Roethke’s handler, and worked regularly with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Koestler, and Gore Vidal. But she quickly grew restless. So, in the summer of ‘48, Judith and her best friend, Sarah Moore, set sail for Europe for a few weeks’ respite and a taste of continental exoticism.
Three weeks turned into three years. In Paris, Judith gulped down the freedom of postwar bohemia. She worked as a gopher for an American salesman, a model, and a personal assistant. She took a lover who’d worked with the French underground, then, in peacetime, taught Judith to cook. She helped run a supper club out of a friend’s apartment (their third roommate was the painter, Balthus), then fell back into publishing when Doubleday opened a Paris outpost. She met a not-yet-divorced American newspaperman, Richard “Dick” Evan Jones, fell in love, and eloped. In 1951, the Joneses returned to New York, frightfully aware of how dull and uninspired everything—especially the food—seemed after their time in Paris.
It was with all this behind her that Judith entered the house of Knopf as assistant to Blanche Knopf, the company’s co-founder and the beating heart of its foreign acquisitions. She’d heard about Judith, the young woman who’d fished the diary of a young Jewish girl from the slush pile in Doubleday’s Paris office and made a case for its publication. Blanche was bitterly jealous, wishing The Diary of Anne Frank bore the mark of the borzoi.
Blanche was formidable, but she was also going blind, and could hardly read anymore. So Judith began editing, in earnest, right away, and it wasn’t long before she was acquiring on her own.
Most famously, she made the case for Knopf’s purchase of the manuscript that would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by a then unknown American, Julia Child, and two French women, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. “I don’t know of another book that succeeds so well in defining and translating for Americans the secrets of the French cuisine,” she wrote in her report. “Reading and studying this book seems to me as good as taking a basic course at the Cordon Bleu.” Judith was both too junior and too, well, female to pitch the book to her colleagues. So she brought it to Angus Cameron, an Indiana-born editor with wide-ranging interests who, before leaving Little, Brown under political pressure (there were communist whispers) had published The Joy of Cooking while at Bobbs-Merrill to tremendous success.
Upon reading the manuscript, Cameron wrote: “Both as aspirant cook and editor this seems to me, short of actually trying the recipes, the best working French cookbook I have ever looked at…To my knowledge what these authors have done has never been done before…I think there is a solid sales appeal in the best and only working French cookbook.” The response goes on and on, but what more could any reasonable publisher need to hear? While Blanche grumpily scoffed, “What does Mrs. Jones know about cooking?”, Alfred agreed to give Judith a chance. What followed was nearly two years of rapid-fire correspondence, revisions, and edits. Judith was determined to give the book both mass appeal and make it foolproof, even for novices. Published in 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking began, immediately, to reshape the American culinary landscape. And Child, the only American, and the most outwardly charismatic of the three, took her success between her teeth and ran with it; two years later, she debuted on Boston’s WGBH as The French Chef, and quickly became a household name.
Julia was just one among many authors who led Judith into new terrain. The editor looked upon her cookbook authors as experts who could help her, along with the American public, across unfamiliar thresholds of food and culture, none more so that Edna Lewis. Lewis, a granddaughter of formerly enslaved people who’d set up an autonomous community in rural Virginia. Lewis was a home-trained cook who first made her mark on New York culture as the chef/partner at Café Nicholson, an East Side restaurant that became a hotspot for the day’s literati.
Working on Lewis’s breakout cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking (1976), was a major turning point for Judith. Until that point, her culinary work had focused almost exclusively on foreign cuisines, but the publication of Lewis’s book marked a growing interest in regional American foodways. By traveling throughout the US with her husband, Evan, and helping him interview many different kinds of people about their food culture in the early 70s, Judith began to notice Americans pushing back against the wave of postwar homogenization, both articulating and embracing distinct cultural identities through their food. So it was a mark of good fortune when a mutual friend suggested Judith meet with Lewis, who was nearing the end of work on her first book, The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972), with a co-author, the socialite and psychoanalyst Evangeline Peterson. Lewis enchanted Judith with lyrical accounts of the central role farming, foraging, cooking, and eating played in her early life in Virginia.For Edna Lewis, Judith made space for a powerfully subversive story, one that retold the American pastoral from a Black, female perspective.
What emerged was, indeed, a cookbook, but also a detailed memoir that offered a different view on Black life in America, of the South as a region. Lewis’s book, threaded through with the Black experience muted in the context of the everyday, represented a marked shift for Judith: from focusing upon the voices of deeply privileged women—for whom food represented an engaged form of leisure—to examining the skill and elegance in the workaday labor of feeding oneself and community on a subsistence level.
Despite the vast differences in their upbringings, by many accounts, Judith and Lewis developed a deep friendship. “I was so genuinely taken with her,” Judith remembered. “She was such a warm person, and she was extremely modest. If somebody said something offensive, or was telling her how to do what she knew how to do, she’d just look very…” Judith laughed, then became earnest, “She just went forward.” The two women are often ascribed similar characteristics: backbone, composure, humility, and, critically, a deep core of certainty in themselves.
“My whole experience with Edna,” Judith reflected, “taught me a lot about what I care about. I mean, human nature. That you’re responsible for other people. That nobody’s better than the other person. They’re different, they have different backgrounds.” Judith was dancing around big differences in the room: regional stereotypes, class, and, most especially, race. Rather than trying to smooth over their differences, Judith embraced Lewis as a valuable guide into a culture, cuisine, and way of life utterly foreign to her. “You try to take people for what they are and isolate that quality and encourage it.” Judith understood that her work as editor gave her a passport to cross boundaries she otherwise couldn’t; she was in the position to pepper authors with questions, push them to put a finer point on what made their cultures and cooking distinct, and give voice to the particularities of their experiences. For Lewis, Judith made space for a powerfully subversive story, one that retold the American pastoral from a Black, female perspective, and reframed the culinary ownership of Virginia’s Piedmont, where Thomas Jefferson had purchased, enslaved, and trained numerous Black men and women in both agricultural and culinary techniques. In her book, Lewis took that legacy head on, in clear, unflinching prose: we, too, are Americans, and our lives are unfathomably rich and beautiful.
Judith nurtured many other authorial relationships that transcended the professional realm; with MFK Fisher, she said she experienced a deep, “mystical” connection; with Joan Nathan, she traveled the world. The editor had a knack for winning the confidence of her authors and for becoming a trusted confidant But that sort of intimacy didn’t equate to permissiveness when it came to manuscripts: Judith demanded quick, precise work (Anna Thomas’s The Vegetarian Epicure was completed in a mad dash between June and October of 1971), and expected books—and she, their editor—to have their authors’ full attention. When it came time to get down to it, “Nothing mattered to her, only the book,” Italian-American chef Lidia Bastianich told me. Judith was, she said, both controlling and encouraging; “Very gentle, very firm. She knew exactly what she wanted.”
Lidia paused a moment, sipped her coffee and looked straight at me. “She was right, you know. History has proven her right all the way.”