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May 28, 2024
My Lunches with Judith Jones, the Queen of Cookbooks

Lessons learned at the kitchen counter with the editor of Julia Child, Edna Lewis, M. F. K. Fisher, and James Beard.

This is a story told in lunches.

It is April of 2013, and I am in the kitchen with Judith Jones. She is chopping hard-boiled eggs and parsley. On the counter, there is a jar of cornichons and another of capers. Nearby, a stem of cherry tomatoes, a bunch of arugula, and half a baguette. Judith tells me she is making sauce gribiche; we could have it with some roast beef leftover from earlier in the week, served cold with the day-old bread, sliced and toasted into its second life. Judith, who is 88 years old to my 26, moves with the ease of a practiced cook. She rocks her knife blade cleanly across the scarred wooden cutting board. She trusts her hands.

Judith, who has recently retired as senior editor and vice president of Alfred A. Knopf after 57 years, is best known for rescuing Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl from the so-called “slush pile” of unpublished manuscripts in the early 1950s, and for “discovering” and publishing Julia Child. But she also edited the poetry of Sylvia Plath, as well as that of Langston Hughes and Sharon Olds. She was Anne Tyler’s and John Updike’s longtime editor, too.

In the cookbook world, her list was both dazzling and dizzyingly long: Edna Lewis, M. F. K. Fisher, Irene Kuo, Marion Cunningham, Claudia Roden, Anna Thomas. Madhur Jaffrey. Joan Nathan. James Beard. Some of Judith’s culinary authors are less widely known, but where they are recognized, they—and their books—are revered: Bill Neal. Nina Simonds. Hiroko Shimbo. Ken Hom. She cowrote three cookbooks with her husband, Richard Evan Jones, and one, The L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook, with Angus Cameron, her first mentor at Knopf. Then, at 85 years old, Judith published her first cookbook that was all her own: The Pleasures of Cooking for One. She is among the most influential literary editors of the 20th century, and she is widely considered the most influential cookbook editor to date.

Judith and I have met only once before, on a frigid day in January 2013 when I was sent to her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on a sort of professional blind date. When Judith left Knopf, the Julia Child Foundation had set out to collect her oral histories into an archive, to ensure her stories and legacy weren’t lost to memory. My involvement in the project was borne of a moment of kismet; in my first semester of a doctoral program in food studies in New York, I happened to be at my professor’s elbow when she received an email from the foundation, asking if she could assist them in getting the collection of Judith’s oral histories off the ground. I committed the sender’s address to memory and wrote them that day, eagerly volunteering my help. I thought I might become a research assistant; at best, perhaps I would meet Judith once. But to my surprise and delight, I was offered the reins as lead researcher and interviewer—on the condition that Judith liked me well enough for us to work together.

I’d grown up with two working parents who liked to eat. Most of the cooking responsibilities fell on my second-wave feminist mother, an occasional baker who deeply resented the nightly obligation to get dinner on the table. I, however, was drawn to the kitchen, and I taught myself to cook by experimenting with the few cookbooks we had at home (an old edition of Fannie Farmer, the Moosewood Cookbook, Anna Thomas’s The Vegetarian Epicure, and a well-thumbed copy of Joy of Cooking) and mimicking what I saw after school on the Food Network. I used my first check to send away for a subscription to Gourmet, which I discovered in the checkout line at Grand Union in my hometown in the suburbs of New York City. I read each issue from cover to cover and quickly realized I was more interested in the magazine’s stories than its recipes. It was in Gourmet that I first learned about many of Judith Jones’s iconic authors, though at the time I didn’t know who Judith was or that she’d worked with them.

I went to college to study history and public health, but I dropped out in my final term to care for my dying mother. When my dad fell ill and died less than three years after her, I spent a few unmoored years working a variety of jobs in food and farming, trying my hand at a bit of freelance food writing on the side. In the fall of 2012, much in need of an anchor, I began a doctoral program in food studies in New York. I welcomed the program’s structure, but I reentered academia reluctantly: What I really wanted to do was write.

By the time I met Judith, she’d become something of a hero to me; she had been ever since I discovered her 2007 memoir, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, in a bookstore near my college campus and realized that she’d edited all the cookbooks I admired most. As such, I’d been nervous to meet her. Palms sweating, stomach doing flips. Turns out I needn’t have worried.

That first day, Judith invited me into her living room and served me tea and homemade oatmeal cookies she pulled from a battered tin kept in a linen closet long ago repurposed as a pantry. We sat side by side on her sofa, our knees nearly touching. A consummate editor, Judith drew me out. Despite the more than sixty-year age gap between us, we found common ground in our feelings about “foodie” snobbism (annoying), the state of American politics (a mess), cold water swimming (enlivening), and dogs (essential). Before I left that day, Judith agreed to work with me.

When I see Judith on the day of the sauce gribiche, the tantalizing tease of spring hangs in the air. She greets me at the door in pressed slacks and a gorgeous, cream-colored silk blouse, with pearl studs in her ears. Her white hair, cut into a girlish bob, is held away from her face by a slim headband. She wears a brightly striped full-length apron cinched tightly around her tiny waist. When I’d called to set a date for our first interview, she’d suggested a midweek afternoon. “But let’s have lunch first,” she’d said.

I’d been surprised. “What can I bring?” I’d asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Judith said. I could almost see her waving my question away, performing the role of total host.

Judith’s apartment is on the ninth floor of the same building where she grew up, on New York Upper East Side. When I arrive there at the appointed time, she ushers me into her kitchen—which is as compact, tidy, and pragmatic as she is—and resumes her post at the counter, humming along to the classical music playing in the next room.

At first, I stand awkwardly, trying to figure out where I, usually most at ease when busy in the kitchen, fit in this kitchen with this legendary woman. When I’d interviewed for the gig, I’d been warned that Judith had a certain “New England” reserve and could be hard to get to know; words like “prickly” and “formidable” had been used to describe her. That hadn’t been my first experience of Judith, but, nervous all over again once we were officially on professional terms, I’d doubted myself, succumbing to the tropes long used to demonize powerful women. And so, when Judith had suggested lunch, I’d assumed that she would present me with a finished meal. That she would want to present herself to me the same way: Composed. Complete. That she wouldn’t want me to witness her in the process of making.

Judith’s performance of formality, I’d soon learn, was but a practiced facade, an affect she’d spent her life using to gain entry to spaces reluctant to let women through, and as a protective shield wherever, whenever, and with whomever she wasn’t sure it was safe to drop her guard.

By which I mean: I was wrong.

When Judith offers me no instructions, I take a chef’s knife from the magnetic strip on the wall, find another cutting board, set it beside Judith’s, roll up my sleeves, and join in the slicing and assembling, helping to set the table. I want to be of use.

Spring arrives in earnest, and Judith and I meet every two weeks for an interview. We begin, always, by improvising lunch. I am with the queen of cookbooks, but we prepare our meals without a recipe in sight. Judith always presents me with some starting point, and from there, we jump off together. Once it was a half-eaten roast chicken, which we picked for chicken salad and punched up with ingredients from the fridge and shelves: crème fraîche, celery, toasted almonds, and dried tarragon. Another time, it was leftover rice paired with a gleaming fillet of fish roasted fast in a hot oven, drizzled with a quick pan sauce of thinly sliced garlic barely browned in a mix of butter and olive oil, and finished with white wine and lemon juice. Each time I call to confirm our interview dates and ask what I can bring, Judith resists my efforts to contribute and plan. (Instead, I bring pretty, if unnecessary, things: delicate macarons, a bouquet of daffodils.) In this way, Judith ensures our joint spontaneity while maintaining a certain degree of control. It is a savvy editorial move.

While we work, we chat a bit, almost exclusively about the food we are preparing. Mostly, though, we are quiet, our senses attuned to the task at hand. We pinch salt with our fingers, lick spatters off the backs of our hands, gently grasp one another’s shoulders for unspoken excuse mes while maneuvering in the small space. We begin to know each other this way, develop a rapport. Only after washing up and brewing coffee do we begin our interviews in earnest.

We talk about her early childhood in 1920s and ’30s Manhattan; her mother’s rigid, insecure clinging to status and Judith’s early aversion to that sort of social climbing. She tells me of her first experience in publishing during a winter break from Bennington College; how, at age 17, she was thrown into editing manuscripts at Doubleday without instruction and learned to do the work guided by her gut. She tells me of how dull she found the New York literary scene after the war, how she took off with a friend on a three-week European tour in the summer of ’48 and ended up staying in Paris for three years, meeting and marrying her husband there, an American journalist and a great lover of food. She tells me how dismal the US food scene of the early 1950s seemed after the vividness of that in France; how this is what made her jump when she received the manuscript that would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking at Knopf in 1959.

We talk about her desperate desire for children, and her great sadness at her inability to ever become pregnant; how she changed tack, turning her focus wholly to a career after that. (Later, she and her husband adopted a friend’s two half-grown children after he fell ill. Judith talks about how hard it was to manage her marriage, child-rearing, and a relentlessly demanding career all at once; she had, Judith tells me, no model for that then.) I pepper her with questions about her work in cookbooks, trying to get at what exactly she was trying to accomplish in that form. And while Judith is openly reflective about her personal life in a way that seems to surprise us both, when it comes to her authors, she remains guarded and discreet; she calls those relationships “a kind of sacred trust.”

She wears a brightly striped full-length apron cinched tightly around her tiny waist.

Our work together is not complete by late May, when Judith leaves to spend an extended summer at Bryn Teg, her little mountainside house in northern Vermont. I assume we will need to wait until fall, when she returns to New York. Again, my assumption is wrong. Judith asks if I’d like to come to Bryn Teg once she’s settled in. It is her most beloved place, I know, and I’m flattered by the intimacy of the invitation.

It is June 2013, and I am at Bryn Teg. I arrived midmorning, but Judith asked if she might have more time alone—she is working on the book that will be her last, Love Me, Feed Me—before we convene. So I went for a walk, then a swim in Judith’s pond, the water bracingly cold. Judith and I find one another in her bright, unfussy kitchen with its view of the Green Mountains to the west. We are both more casual here, she in worn khakis and a knobby cardigan, I in faded jeans cuffed above my bare feet, my still-wet hair soaking the back of my tank top. Judith leads me to a small table, lifts a blue tea towel set atop a mixing bowl, releasing the earthy-sweet scent of yeast. Judith tells me she started the dough early in the morning without a plan.

“Pizza?” she suggests, standing close to me. Her eyes are alight, inviting me back into our ongoing on-the-fly culinary collaboration.

I nod.

Judith cranks the oven of her hulking, black industrial-style range and slides two terra-cotta tiles onto the metal rack inside: a MacGyvered pizza stone. Then she fishes half a glossy purple eggplant from the fridge, and a ball of fresh mozzarella, too. She hands me a knife, and we both begin to slice. We work close together. Our shoulders almost touch.

“I have chives and some basil growing outside,” Judith says.

I reach up to the pegboard for a pair of shears and go out back, the screen door slamming behind me, to snip herbs from Judith’s stone-rimmed herb garden. Tiny red fraises de bois grow low to the ground, punctuating all that green.

When I return to the kitchen, Judith is up on tiptoe, using her meager body weight to press the dough into rounds.

We overcook the first pizza, incinerating the fresh herbs on its top. I am flustered, but Judith seems unfazed. I pick the charred bits off—we are both constitutionally averse to waste—and we salvage all we can. The next batch is better, the eggplant browned into submission, melted cheese oozing below. We remember, this time, to scatter the basil and chives after the pie comes out of the oven. The herbs grow fragrant in the pizza’s radiant heat. We eat lunch on the front deck in the bright midday sun. We both have a second glass of cold white wine, a crisp, tart Vermont apple for dessert. Apple in hand, Judith loses herself for a few moments looking out at the mountains. I observe her in her reverie, a sacred moment in her most sacred place.

It is October 2013, and Judith is back in New York. I’d called to tell her that the transcripts I’ve made of our interviews are ready for her review. She invites me to lunch; says I can bring them in person. I’d expected her to ask me to send the documents by post (Judith barely uses email, having never quite figured out how). It is my first hint that our relationship might continue. I want it to. Badly. After years of admiring her from afar, I’ve come to adore the woman herself.

I take care to gather thoughtful offerings to bring with me, things I think she will like: fresh bread, pears, dark chocolate, and two kinds of cheese (one creamy and French, the other a firmer one from Portugal). When I arrive, Judith has started preparing a green salad, put together a vinaigrette in an old mustard jar. I unpack my bag. Judith unwraps the cheeses and sets them on plates to come up to room temperature. She puts her face close to each wedge to deeply inhale its barnyard scent. Without invitation or instruction, I get a knife and cutting board and help finish the salad. By now, our kitchen dialogue has become a familiar routine. I wonder if it’s possible that Judith and I are becoming friends.

It is late October 2014. I show up at Judith’s, dressed up, on a date we’d made to have lunch. I’d told her not to worry about anything, that I’d take care of it all. I have planned a surprise. There is no particular occasion, but that autumn I am in a celebratory mood. In September, I got married. We invited Judith, though I knew she’d be in Vermont. She had sent her regrets.

Judith is startled when I arrive at her apartment empty-handed, even more so when I tell her I’m taking her out. But she rises to the occasion. She goes to her bedroom to change, puts on a bit more makeup. We walk the short distance to the subway station to ride the train downtown. I take her arm as we descend the stairs. Judith and I have never been out in public together before.

The restaurant is a New York classic, blessedly immune to food trends. When we round the corner toward its glassy entrance and Judith realizes where it is I’m taking her, she seems relieved; she tells me she feels it’s one of the only really good restaurants left in New York. The host takes our coats. In the dining room, I wonder if anyone recognizes Judith. Part of me wants them to. I am so proud to be beside this remarkable woman, now 90 years old. I want her to be celebrated everywhere she goes. But the staff, accustomed to celebrities, is discreet; whether they know who Judith is or not, they make no extra fuss. I order champagne and oysters to start. Judith chooses a seafood chowder; I, a grilled pork chop. Judith makes audible sounds of appreciation as she slurps cold mollusks from their shells and then hot soup from her spoon. When she has finished most of the chowder, she brings the bowl to her lips and tips it back to get the last creamy drops. I laugh out loud. I love the ardor with which Judith eats and lives, her unabashed pleasure in her own pleasure.

It is early spring 2015. I have canceled many lunch dates with Judith at the last minute because I am undergoing fertility treatments and am at my doctor’s beck and call; I am at the hospital almost daily. I am anxious and exhausted. I have not yet told Judith any of this (though I will soon, and it will be both a tremendous unburdening for me and a point of deep connection between us, Judith having tried so hard to conceive many decades before). Instead I have made up excuses every time I bail and felt a deep shame at doing so. Finally, I’m able to keep a date with Judith. When I arrive at her apartment, though, Judith seems exhausted, too. Neither of us asks the other why. We delay talk of lunch, instead diverting ourselves by walking to the post office so that Judith can send a package. On the way back, she suggests we stop at a corner Italian place. Judith says she likes the pizza there.

I want her to be celebrated everywhere she goes.

We are both wrapped in jackets and scarves, but we are Northeasterners at the tail end of winter, starved for sun, so we sit outside. Judith’s little dog lies under the table at her feet. We are both keeping secrets about our bodies and their unruliness; I do not know, yet, that Judith has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. But I notice that the woman whose vigor, to me, has seemed unflappable, so robust into her tenth decade, seems suddenly more distracted and frail.

There is construction going on down the block, and it’s difficult to converse. The sun is bright but not very warm. We’re both chilled by the time the check comes. I grab it before Judith can, but she insists we split it down the middle. We walk back to her apartment, make coffee. Afterward, Judith says she thinks she’d like a nap. I kiss her cool cheek, then slip out.

It is April 2017. I arrive at Judith’s apartment to meet a woman named Meri, who has been living with and helping care for her for many months now. It has been a long time since I’ve seen Judith; the previous May, my husband and I moved two hours upstate. Four months later, I gave birth to twins. I have been overwhelmed with caregiving, and my changed body, mind, and marriage are unrecognizable to me.

I have missed Judith and our lunches terribly. Her stepdaughter, Bronwyn, has kept in touch with me via email. I’ve known for nearly a year about the Alzheimer’s. When I finally find childcare, I call Judith’s apartment, speak with Meri on the phone, arrange a visit. I drive to the city with my breast pump in the passenger seat, moving through space between three of the people I love most, two just beginning their lives and one nearing the end of hers. I feel free and heartsick at once.

When I see Judith, I am taken aback by how much has shrunk. Meri is an excellent cook and has prepared lunch, a beautiful chicken salad with mandarins and celery. She tells me that, when Judith feels up to it, they cook together. Meri serves Judith and me in the formal dining room; Judith and I have never eaten there before. I ask Meri to join us, but she declines, saying Judith and I need to catch up. She tells me Judith has been excited for this. Judith focuses her energy on bringing her fork from her plate to her mouth. We sip wine from Judith’s good crystal. I am too sad to eat much. Instead I talk, tell Judith about my work, the streams and mountains, my new house, my babies. I’m grateful to have news to share. When Meri brings in an elaborate chocolate dessert, a celebration cake her son shipped to her from the nation of Georgia—where Meri was born and where her son still lives—Judith lights up.

“I’m trying to get Meri to write a cookbook!” she tells me.

“It’s true,” Meri says, serving Judith a slice.

I laugh, so relieved to know that the Judith I’ve come to love is still alive, still with us. Sometimes, at least.

After lunch, Judith is visibly fatigued, and she needs to lie down. I do not know for certain, but I intuit that it will be the last time I see her. I try to hide that I am choked up when I gently hug Judith goodbye at the door.

It is August 2017. Judith has died. Bronwyn, her stepdaughter, told me there would be a public memorial in the city come fall, but she has invited me to a service for friends and family only at the small, clapboard church Judith attended in Vermont. My twins are 11 months old; my hands are full. But I do not hesitate. I leave the babies with their father and our babysitter and drive the five hours north.

After the memorial, I stand outside, surrounded by those closest to Judith. I am not sure I belong there. I feel better when I spot Meri, who remembers me. She is holding Judith’s dog, Mabon, in her arms. Both my cheeks and Meri’s are streaked with tears.

When Bronwyn sees me, she pulls me aside. She says she has just begun to think about Judith’s apartment in New York. Bronwyn knows I’ve written a few things about Judith’s life and work; I’ve sent my pieces to her. She tells me there is an awful lot of material in the apartment, and she asks if I’d like to have a look, help her decide what to do with it all. I do not quite know what I am getting myself into, and I have no business saying yes to a new undertaking at this moment in my life; I can barely get the babies and myself fed. Still, I want to be of use, and I recognize immediately the possibility that exists in gaining access to Judith’s personal papers. I do not know yet that I will write a book about Judith, nor all the ways my life will change in the years it takes; the ways the writing itself will change my life. I know, though, how much Judith has already shaped me since we first met. I know that I am being offered an almost unimaginable gift. And I know that, because I loved Judith, I must say yes.

So I do.

Sara Franklin

Sara B. Franklin, PhD, is a writer and professor at New York University’s Gallatin School for Individualized Study, where she teaches courses on food, oral history, embodied culture, and nonfiction writing. She is the author of The Editor: How Publishing Legend Judith Jones Shaped Culture in America (Atria Books, 2024), editor of the acclaimed 2018 anthology Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original, coauthor of the James Beard Award–nominated The Phoenicia Diner Cookbook, and the recipient of a Public Scholars fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, The Nation, and Travel + Leisure. She lives with her twin children in Kingston, New York.