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Mary Bilyeu

Remembering the vast influence of Judith Jones

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    In this May 8, 2006 file photo, Knopf editor Judith Jones delivers her acceptance speech after she received the lifetime achievement award during the 2006 James Beard Foundation Awards ceremony, in New York.

    AP

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Obit-Judith-Jones

In this May 8, 2006 file photo, Knopf editor Judith Jones delivers her acceptance speech after she received the lifetime achievement award during the 2006 James Beard Foundation Awards ceremony, in New York.

AP Enlarge

Judith Jones’ name may not be one you immediately recognize.

But I am, as everyone can tell, a food obsessive. So I knew right away who she was as I saw the breaking news alerts on Wednesday announcing that she had died at age 93. This was one of those losses that takes your breath away.

I am, in some part, a food writer because of her work. She helped to foster my love of cooking and of cookbooks that offer so much more than mere instructions for preparing a dish.

Judith Jones was the editor who brought us the classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, convincing her dismissive superiors at the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house that the long, seemingly intimidating book had merit.

And thus, she brought us our beloved Julia Child.

I would watch The French Chef, Julia’s TV show, with my mother when I was little. Long before the Food Network and Facebook videos, Julia made cooking seem accessible. She had a “you can do this, too” attitude.

And little by little, with encouragement from Julia — who had received encouragement from Judith — I found I could, indeed, cook. (Not as well as Julia, of course, but ....) I learned about French foods and cooking techniques. And I learned from my mistakes and others’ when Julia showed that a broken, poorly flipped omelet could be patched and served without any qualms. Just keep at it and you’ll be successful, Julia and Judith both taught.

But Julia Child isn’t the only gift that Judith gave us. She also edited the works of American cooking teacher James Beard and French chef Jacques Pépin, as well as such experts as Marcella Hazan and Lidia Bastianich (Italian foods), Joan Nathan (international Jewish dishes), Edna Lewis (Southern cooking and soul food), and Madhur Jaffrey and Claudia Roden (Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, respectively).

Judith Jones brought us the world, through its wildly diverse and wonderfully delicious foods.

And because she was passionately curious and didn’t just consider recipes to be the focus — but instead emphasized context and content — anyone who reads the cookbooks she edited learns about history, religion, culture, politics, ingredients, geography, and more through the filter of food. Her fascination with it all was contagious, palpable through the pages that bore her imprint even though her name wasn’t on the dust jacket.

We became better cooks, and more knowledgeable people, as a result of her efforts.

Beyond the realm of food, Judith brought the Holocaust to life for countless people by letting us see it through the eyes of a teenager: She is the one responsible for pulling The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, from a colleague’s pile of discarded manuscripts. She made sure that this account of an average family’s struggle to survive — so extraordinary and yet so relatable — was published in English.

Judith also spent many years as the editor for fiction writer Anne Tyler, whose latest work, Vinegar Girl, I’d referenced just a few weeks ago when remarking upon two distinct types of people: those who eat to live versus those of us who live to eat. I’ve read every one of Ms. Tyler’s 21 books, which I’ve loved since first being introduced to her work in a contemporary literature class at the University of Michigan back in 1983.

It is unusual for someone you’ve never met to have such a deep and lasting effect upon your life. But Judith Jones’ work has influenced me immeasurably.

And she undoubtedly affected you, too, without your likely even being aware of her.

Contact Mary Bilyeu at mbilyeu@theblade.com, and follow her at facebook.com/​thebladefoodpage, bladefoodpage on Instagram, or @BladeFoodPage on Twitter.

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