December 17, 2007

The Tenth Muse

The Tenth Muse: My Life In Food
Judith Jones


(December 17, 2007)

Judith Jones broke into publishing when, as a junior editorial assistant, she plucked The Diary of Anne Frank off Doubleday's slush pile. She joined Knopf in 1957 and she's still there, fifty years later, though Knopf's purchaser has itself been sold and resold. At Knopf, she launched a cookbook revolution, starting by the discovery of Julia Child. She edited Child, Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden — the whole modern cookbook revolution. She's bright and witty and she remembers everything and knows how to craft a book.

It's wrong to criticize a book for not being what it doesn't seek to be, but still I read this wonderful book and sigh for a companion volume: My Life In Books. This is an instructive memoir for the historian, not only for the wonderful details and coincidences, but also for what's left out.

  • Jones was at Bennington when Bennington was remembered to be its best and most distinctive. A couple of decades later, David Mamet recalls that Bennington was little more than "Sex Camp”. Was it always so? Jones knows, and remembers, and could tell us.
  • Jones went to Paris after the War, chaperoned by Mrs and Mr. John Gunther and armed with letters from Arthur Koestler. She worked for gangsters, cohabited, breakfasted with Truman Capote. We hear a lot about the meals they ate; I'd love just a little more about what they talked about.
  • Jones moved to New York at the perfect moment. She spent the sixties as an important (and increasingly-influential) editor at a major press, moving from French to fiction to cookery. She must have known everyone; she certainly cooked a lot of dinner parties. I'd like to know a little more about those parties. Did they all drink as much as it seems? She was probably at Capote's Black and White ball: what was it like to be there, on a salary?
  • Jones' crusade to give dignity to women's kitchen work begins just as American feminism was gathering steam. How did she think Mastering The Art of French Cooking fit with The Second Sex? I imagine she thought about this a lot: de Beauvoir was a Knopf author, her editor was Jones's boss, and perhaps the difficulties in acquiring and translating this title was part of the reason Knopf hired Jones in the first place.
  • The middle part of the book is filled with memories of long days in a cookbook writer's kitchen, thrashing out details and perfecting the books. I'd love to hear how, exactly, this worked. How much editorial time and travel could her company expend on a new ethnic cookbook? How did she approach the task of crafting a book? What does she really think about ghost writers? How much structural editing did she undertake?
  • We spend a lot of time at the table, but almost none in the office; time begins, in this volume, when we get home from work. I'd like to know a little bit about the office. How much of her work was acquisition scouting? How much time was spent soothing aggravated writers? How much was spent drinking lunch with Dottie and the gang? She says that, when Knopf decided to "let Mrs. Jones have a chance" by acquiring Mastering the Art Of French Cooking, her boss Blanche Knopf walked out of the meeting (chaired by her husband Alfred!) in protest; did people really do that?