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Judith Jones: perfectly in control. (Fred Lum)
Judith Jones: perfectly in control. (Fred Lum)

Sarah Hampson: The Interview

Julia & Judith Add to ...

Judith Jones arrives, perfectly edited.

The 85-year-old wears a tailored turquoise linen suit, her white hair in a neat bob and low-heeled Ferragamo pumps on her feet. Her slim legs are crossed elegantly at the knee and at her neck, a colourful scarf is arranged artfully over her shoulder.

Her words, too, are carefully chosen. She knows just what to describe and what to omit.

The legendary editor and vice-president at Knopf in New York, who still works part-time at the publishing house where she has been employed for close to 50 years, is very much in control of what gets shown, what gets said and how she lives.

At this particular moment, she is discussing Julie & Julia , a delightfully engaging film to be released in early August, about the late cookbook author, Julia Child, and a young woman in New York, Julie Powell, who wrote a popular year-long blog about cooking her way through Ms. Child's ground-breaking 1961 book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking . It was Ms. Jones who had brought Ms. Child's book to the American public after the manuscript had been rejected by other publishers.

Based on Ms. Powell's 2005 book, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen , the screenplay by Nora Ephron plays up the parallels between the two women's lives, even though they never met before Ms. Child, played by Meryl Streep, died in 2004. It is also clear in the film that Ms. Child, who had been informed about the younger woman's blog at the height of its popularity in 2002, did not approve. She refused to have contact with her.

Asked why that was, Ms. Jones, who remained friends with Ms. Child throughout her life, produces a demure smile and offers a perfectly measured diplomatic response. "We looked at [the blog] and Julia said, 'I don't think she is very serious about cooking and I don't want to have anything to do with it.' It was partly the use of four-letter words to describe food. It was just offensive. In our generation, we don't throw them around quite as easily. But I think if she had met Julie, and seen some of her personality …," she says, trailing off, shrugging her shoulders a little.

Long before Ms. Jones discovered Julia Child, she had earned some fame for insisting that The Diary of Anne Frank be published in the United States. After the war, she was working for Doubleday in Paris. "I was just a girl Friday, answering the mail, and my boss one day went off to lunch, and said, 'There's a pile of manuscripts I've looked at. Would you get rid of them?' One was a book in French, but it hadn't been published. It was a bound galley, and I was drawn to it because of the face on the cover. It had a picture of Anne Frank. I started reading and I read all afternoon, and when my boss came back, I said, 'We have to get this book to New York. This has to be published.' And he said, 'What? That book by that kid?' A lot of editors had turned it down in New York."

Almost a decade later, in the summer of 1959, she was back in New York when another overlooked publishing opportunity landed on her desk at Knopf. It was a huge manuscript from three unknown women: Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The two French women, Ms. Beck and Ms. Bertholle, had met Ms. Child in Paris, where she was living with her diplomat husband, Paul. Smitten by French cooking, Ms. Child, who was born in California and educated at Smith College, soon became fluent enough in French to start Cordon Bleu courses. The two French women asked her to help them adapt the classic cuisine for the American housewife. Their exhaustive two-volume manuscript was rejected as too complex for the average housewife. But when Ms. Jones looked at it, and subsequently tried out the boeuf bourguignon recipe at home, she had a hunch that its timing was perfect.

"People were travelling more. Even a secretary could put away her pennies and go to Europe on an economy flight and have her first bistro dinner," she says. "And [when the book was published]the Kennedys had a French chef in the White House."

In her memoir about her life in publishing, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food , Ms. Jones said she was " boulversée " upon reading what became Mastering the Art of French Cooking . "There was nothing like it," she says now. "It was a unique book, and it changed the way that we think about cookbooks, which is that it isn't so much about the recipes, it's the techniques."

The book ushered in fame for Ms. Child, a tall, mannish-looking woman whose playful personality belied her arch upper-class appearance. "As Julia would say, 'I am quite a ham,'" Ms. Jones recalls. "She was totally spontaneous. When she would fish out a little herb bouquet, and it was all grey, and she'd toss it in the garbage, and say, 'It looks like a dead mouse,' that's what she was thinking."

That authenticity is far rarer in the foodie industry now, Ms. Jones says. "It's gone the other way now. You have to be a celebrity. I find it offensive because I don't think they are really teaching and enabling the home cook. So much of it is show-off cooking. I don't think it's a competition. To really understand cooking, well, it's a very subtle art," she says, folding her hands neatly on her lap.

She believes the movie's depiction of Ms. Child's passion and determination, mirrored by Ms. Powell's, close to 50 years later will bring about a renewed appreciation for classic food preparation. "It may help to bring us back to our senses," she says in her staunch New England accent. "And it shows a generation, who doesn't really quite even know, who Julia Child was. It brings her very much to life."

Ms. Jones parlays her love of the meticulous into many aspects of her life. She describes her regimen for staying fit and elegant in a nonsensical manner and seems bemused that anyone would find it extraordinary. She does yoga every night. When she is in Vermont, where she has a house, she swims in a pond, the length of a football field, twice a day. Her swimming prowess saved her life in 1997, the year after her husband, Evan, died. She was driving along a country road in the rain when a small stream suddenly turned into a torrent. She escaped by swimming. "I also do weights to fight osteoporosis," she adds. And to keep her brain fit, she memorizes lines of poetry.

Widowhood is also manageable, she says, because she never lost her love for cooking, even for one. In September, her cookbook, The Pleasures of Cooking for One , will be published.

Preparation of dinner is a highlight of her day, she says. "It's really one of the sacred things in life."

She nods her head slightly, almost imperceptibly. It appears that the word sacred was exactly, precisely, what she meant.

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 

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