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Stanley Colbert

Julia, Judith and me: a recipe for success Add to ...

Julia Child and I have something in common: We both cooked dinner for the fabled cookbook editor Judith Jones. In 1961, Ms. Child's prowess encouraged Judith to insist her boss publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For Julia Child, as they say, the rest is history.

In my case, the rest is history, too, although slightly different.

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Eight years before Julia Child, in 1953, when I cooked for Judith, all I wanted were two warm bodies. I had invited a beautiful young woman I just met to a home-cooked dinner, and when she raised a quizzical eyebrow, I hastily added there would be another couple present. Now, all I needed was the other couple.

I had just started the Lord & Colbert literary agency with my friend Sterling Lord, and we were each lucky to be able to take $25 a week as salaries from our opening efforts. Our first money book, Somebody Up There Likes Me , was still months away, as was Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Sterling's wife had a well-paying job that allowed them to live sensibly, if frugally. For me, on my own, the solution was to give up a lovely apartment in Greenwich Village and move into the office, sleeping on the visitor's sofa and storing my clothes in desk drawers and the file cabinet.

The office had a most unusual kitchen, a valentine to the days when it was an apartment, instead of commercial space. A small closet contained a miniature refrigerator and, atop it, there were two gas burners. Above that was a miniature oven. A modest sink was nearby and about six inches of counter space. Despite this almost primitive setup, cooking at home was infinitely cheaper than eating out.

Evan Jones, a quiet, talented writer, was in the office when I made the date. I knew he was married and that he would understand desperation when he saw it. He called his wife Judith, explained the romantic circumstances, and after a bit of hesitation, she agreed.

For reasons many cooks will understand, I bypassed the obvious bibles, The Settlement Cook Book, and The Joy of Cooking, and decided on serving a combination of the "flavours of the day" and a dish I had mastered over the years.

To accompany my choice of wine, a modest red called Gallo Hearty Burgundy (less than a dollar in those days) I served what a well-meaning friend had described as a sure-fire opening dip: Lipton's Onion Soup mix stirred into cream cheese, and served on slivers of toast.

This was followed by a heaping bowl of spaghetti, made with a sauce based on my mother's recipe, which I loved. She learned it from the Italian women in her neighbourhood who took pity on an 18-year-old bride with no cooking skills. It had to cook for several hours, and I began it that morning, between trying to sell some manuscripts and enduring the hoots of my partner, Sterling.

The main course was roast chicken. When the miniature oven produced a rather pale, undercooked bird, I basted it with orange marmalade, the only condiment I had at hand, and turned up the heat.

Dessert consisted of Birds Eye frozen strawberries over some bakery biscuits and a dollop of whipped cream. Coffee followed, of course; not espresso, which had not yet come into its own, but Maxwell House.

It was a pleasant evening, I thought. My date loved the spaghetti sauce. Evan and Judy shared small talk about the weather, politics, writing, publishing, movies; everything but food, I now recall. The Joneses said goodbye. My date stayed a bit longer. That was 56 years ago.

In talking about food trends to a reporter, Judith recently was quoted as saying the 1950s were probably the low point in the art of cooking. When I read the quote, I had the sinking feeling that she still remembered our dinner. Perhaps that's why there was never a reciprocal invitation or even a thank-you note.

But if it was an offence to the educated palates of Judy and Evan, for me, the evening was, as French cooks say, " un succès fou." Less than six months later, Nancy and I were married. She moved in with me in the office, sharing the sofa and the desk drawers. Evan Jones went on to become a respected writer of food articles. In time, Judith became the doyen of cookbook editors. Nancy became Canada's leading literary agent, who helped change for the better the role of a writer in the publishing process.

My spaghetti sauce has survived and is a welcome treat for our children and grandchildren when they visit. Roasted chickens are a bargain at the local supermarket. Lipton's Onion Soup mix with cream cheese, sadly, has become a thing of the past.

Stanley Colbert is a former literary agent and head of HarperCollins Canada.

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