The adjective “legendary” has been losing its lustre in recent years. We often use it to connote longevity and persistence rather than greatness. The descriptor feels quite apt in the case of book editor Judith Jones, who died today at the age of 93. (She stepped down as Senior Editor and Vice President at Alfred A. Knopf in 2011, at the age of 87.) Imagine the second half of the 20th century without The Diary of Anne Frank (which Jones rescued from a pile of rejected submissions), Julia Child’s cookbooks, or John Updike’s fiction.
In a 2015 profile at Eater, Charlotte Druckman wisely gives Jones the stage. What follows is a string of observations and casual aphorisms on the evolution of food writing in the past few decades — including how she championed Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
When I came back to the United States I realized first thing how hideous the ingredients were. I mean, it was a low time in cookbook writing in America, and there was also the fact that there didn’t seem to be an audience for them. There was the — what did Jim Beard call it? He had a lovely funny term for folks who cooked at home. “The Quick and Easy Crowd,” that was it. Those were the disappointments; you just felt like, why bother? And so when I saw part of the Mastering the Art manuscript, I just couldn’t believe it. It was as though somebody sent a present for me. But I was sitting at Knopf, editing Albert Camus and a few others I had found. I think finally when I was given the go-ahead, Mr. Knopf said it at the editorial meeting — I didn’t go because I was too junior, but it was brought up. My friend Angus Cameron, who was the hunting and fishing man, presented the idea, and finally Alfred said, “Well, let’s let Mrs. Jones have a chance.” That was the beginning of it. I mean, it was just magic.
My favorite part, though, might be this morsel on cooking as an art form. It’s a passage that applies just as much to the pleasures of growing as a writer and an editor:
To me, cooking is an art form, and like any art form, you first have to learn the fundamentals. And then, once they’re there, once they’re just part of you, and you get up and do a little dance or something, you don’t follow somebody else’s formula. You can take off on your own, and you learn through doing. Then you can let go of some of these strict rules, and make your own rules. I don’t even think level measurements are such a big deal these days.