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An Interview with Judith Jones, Publisher of “Mastering The Art of French Cooking”

August 6, 2009

In 1962, Julia Child wrote Mastering The Art of French Cooking. The cookbook not only brought French style to America’s kitchens, it inspired women to “emerge from the culinary dark ages,” says Judith Jones, Julia Child’s editor, and close friend for nearly fifty years.

“I think it was surprising to the boys up in Boston,” Jones says of the cookbook’s success. “They thought they had the last word when they said the ‘American woman does not want to know this much about French cooking.’ But, fortunately, I did.”

Mastering The Art of French Cooking so inspired blogger Julie Powell, that she committed to preparing and writing about 1 recipe, every day, for 365 days. Ms. Powell’s personal commitment led to a devoted readership, and far more that that, a new movie.

With the release of Julia & Julia, Beanywood recently spoke with Mrs. Jones about Julia Child’s influence, determination, and limitless love of cooking.


BEANYWOOD: Director Nora Ephron has put together a terrific film. There’s a certain pleasantness about it that really comes through, particularly with the scenes that take place in Paris.

JUDITH JONES: The scenes in Paris, they were so beautiful. I thought that Nora used them very well to show the whole development of Julia’s character, and her very special relationship with Paul, who really helped her, enabled her to just go with it, believe in it. You know, he could have easily said, “What?! You’re at cooking school and you don’t even know how to do this?” Or that she didn’t know any French. But he was always with her. And that’s a wonderful scene when he comes home and she’s chopped up the onions. [She laughs] And he’s almost overwhelmed.

Julie Powell (Amy Adams) admires Julia Child's (Meryl Streep) photo at the Smithsonian.

Julie Powell (Amy Adams) admires Julia Child's (Meryl Streep) photo at the Smithsonian.

BEANYWOOD: Was that for comedic effect, or was Julia this obsessed about cooking? Or was it simply a real love of cooking.

JONES: I think it was a real love of it. I understand this very well because it’s very similar to my background, where cooking was just: You had good, healthy food; the kids didn’t talk about it because it was sort of demeaning to do that; and the idea that a woman go to college and might become a cook was just unthinkable. But to her, and certainly to me when we went to Paris, something in us just responded to a whole way of life about food. I mean, the French have such a good time with food, morning, noon and night; Maybe not so much today, but certainly in that post-War period when all the goods were coming back. I was once in a little boulangerie and a man opened a baguette and shouted with joy and passed it around and the whole place went up in applause. I says, “What is this about?” And he said, “The flour is white again!” All during the War and the occupation they’d had inferior flour. And suddenly this baguette represented kind of a new beginning. To me, in a way, the money they spent on food and going to three or four different shops in the evening. And you might see an old man with toes sticking out of his carpet slippers spending his last franc on a nice piece of pate.

BEANYWOOD: Do you think it was surprising to editors, after the publication of Julia’s book, that it proved Americans cared about cooking like this?

JONES: I think it was surprising to the boys up in Boston. They thought they had the last word when they said the American woman does not want to know this much about French cooking. But, fortunately, I did. And I just felt if I feel this strongly, and this impressed, there just might be other people who feel this way. And I really felt it would change the way cookbooks were written.

BEANYWOOD: That’s very interesting to me, because I have no real knowledge of cookbooks, but what I know is: people, when they love something, they want to share it. And I’d heard somebody say that Julia Child wasn’t a great cook, but she loved it so much that it didn’t matter that she wasn’t great.

JONES: I don’t agree with that because I think she was a very, very careful cook. She respected the rules. In a big auditorium where we were doing a conversation up in Vermont, somebody once asked her, What makes French cooking special? And she went through this description of cooking green beans, then plunging them into cold water, and then bathing in butter. And she said, “That’s soin.” It was a poem, you know? And those beans would be absolutely first rate. She wasn’t the creative cook that a chef is, but that’s a whole different world. I never had bad dinner in her house, I can tell you that.

BEANYWOOD: Do you think Julia had a sense of humor in that she was able to laugh at the image of herself? Or, the way some people interpreted it?

JONES: I think so. Yes. I think she did. And she had a very earthy kind of humor. Another time when [I was at Julia’s] for Christmas, when they had their house in Provence, she was pulling the tendons out of the legs of the goose, because the tendons are very tough. I’ll never forget this, and they way I described it in my little memoir that I wrote, the way she threw it onto the ground and got her fingers up under the tendons and yanked [she laughs]. That was all so that the leg would be tender. I think that her passion for doing it correctly was what made her a really fine cook.

BEANYWOOD: On TV, when she was going through the process of a recipe, would you consider her also a teacher?

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Meryl Streep as "Julia Child."

JONES: She was a very good teacher; a teacher in her books and in class. She never did have big classes. She intended to, but when television took off she was teaching that way and reaching more people.

BEANYWOOD: Would you say that Julia was understanding of people? Was teaching part of the fun?

JONES: It was part of the fun if the students were serious. She had no patience for what she called “The Flimsies.”

BEANYWOOD: Really.

JONES: Oh, yes. She would say of a student, “Oh, she’s just a filmsy. She doesn’t care about it.” Because she didn’t think they were serious. That’s why she didn’t want to meet Julie. She didn’t think she was a serious cook.

BEANYWOOD: What would it have taken for Julia to consider someone a serious cook?

JONES: Well, she took me seriously. It was anybody who paid attention and did it for the love of good cooking, not for show-off, or praise, or me, me, me!, you know, but someone who really enjoyed cooking. I think that was the message that she got across, and Americans for so long suppressed that feeling of fun in the kitchen.

BEANYWOOD: It makes me wonder, what was fun for her in the kitchen? What was fun to watch her create? When she was sharing her ideas with you, what was fun for her? I imagine cooking for her was like Baseball to some guys.

JONES: [She laughs] Yes!

BEANYWOOD: Was there particular things that she liked to cook?

JONES: Well, she’d often, for instance, at the end of a long day of working, maybe ten o’clock at night, she’d say, “Oh, let’s stop now and have a little dinner.” And she might say to me, “We should tell Paul to make some little cocktails and set the table.” Then she said to me, “Why don’t you make that little potato dish?” And I’d watch her often do this. She’d go to the stove and maybe just put on some nice little rounds of fillet of beaf, since they’re quick cooking. But it was… she would judge by the eye and the feel, not that she wouldn’t have ten minutes and it wouldn’t be done because there’s too many variables. I’d watch her press with her finger until the meat sprang back, and I’d asks questions, and I’d watch her be sure to let the meat rest because all the juices retreat, and while it was resting make just a little pan sauce. I do this all the time. I’ll throw in some scallions or sometimes garlic or a splash of wine. It cooks down. You pour it over the steak and it’s done in ten minutes. But it’s the soin. It’s that soin thing. soin, it means to care.

BEANYWOOD: I was thinking, as you may have been thinking when you were watching the film, did it occur to you that, oh, Julia would like this. Julia wouldn’t like that. Were you seeing it through her eyes?

JONES: I suspended that part of judgment entirely, because it’s all fete. You’re not terribly comfortable seeing somebody do you anyway.

BEANYWOOD: How did it feel to have someone so close as a family member to be portrayed on TV, and watch that and thing, Wow, I don’t know if that’s really working.

JONES: [She laughs] Yes, well. I think I don’t think Julia was really all that comfortable with the Saturday Night Live satire.

BEANYWOOD: As a kid, I thought it was so funny.

JONES: I know. And I don’t know this, but I just think that she felt it’s not easy to see yourself sort of parodied. [She laughs] And then it can make you self conscious, too. I have writers, some creative novelists, who don’t want to see reviews because they feel that it could influence how they write. Ann Tyler, for instance, who wrote such wonderful novels, she never looks at a review. She never gives an interview either. [She laughs]

BEANYWOOD: That’s very interesting.

JONES: It is, in today’s world, because we’re just so connected.

BEANYWOOD: With social media we’re just tapped in to what everybody’s thinking. It’s constant commentary.

JONES: I do think, without question, Julia would have been pleased that in the audience people would respond so positively that they all want to go home and cook. I mean, I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve seen this movie. That she’d like.

BEANYWOOD: I can definitely see that. And I can definitely see Meryl Streep getting some awards for this. It’s definitely a transformation in a way.

JONES: It shows you what an actor can do when they really live the part.

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Amy Adams as "Julie Powell" and Chris Messina as "Eric Powell."

BEANYWOOD: Did Julia live in Cambridge all her life?

JONES: No, she grew up in Santa Barbara, California. And then she and Paul lived in Europe for… I think it was probably about six years. And then they came home. They were trying to decide where they wanted to live and they picked Cambridge for many reasons.

BEANYWOOD: Julia does a TV show, but one can’t assume that it’s automatically going to be successful in the way it was. Did she realise her audience was going to be as big as it was?

JONES: Oh, no. I fact, there’s a moment; I think it’s in the film, when Paul says, “And maybe you can be on television.” And Julia just scoffs at the idea. And that was genuine. I don’t think she thought for a moment that big, awkward Julia could teach French cooking on television. And it happened purely by accident because they were living in Cambridge, and Julia began to know a lot of people, and there was sort of a literary program where I had been reading. And they asked – because I guess they’d met some of these people at a cocktail party or something – and they asked Julia if she would come on and talk to them. So she agreed. And then she said to Paul, “I can’t do it without taking my omelet pan, and a little burner and some eggs, and some butter! [She laughs] And the next thing you know, she was making, sort of over a Bunsen burner, flipping omelets and talking all the time. In those days, WGBH got such a deluge of letters saying, Get that woman back on television!  So they planned The French Chef series, and that’s how it happened.

BEANYWOOD: What do you look for in writer, someone you can have a relationship with?

JONES: First of all, I think just because it’s a food book or a cook book, the writing is as important as any other kind of book. I think there should be a voice. And with the cookbooks I work with, I don’t allow this truncated kind of recipe writing -“In a bowl combine the first mixture with the second mixture” – that’s my bugaboo. I knew immediately that Julia had that gift of observation and being able to translate in good, visceral words, what she wanted to convey. And it actually grew, too, over the years, because she was writing that first book in the void. It was three voices, although it all filtered through her. I think I tried to encourage her to get a little more personal in the later books, From Julia’s Kitchen and so on.

BEANYWOOD: I remember that one. My mother had it in our kitchen. I wonder if good advice today to any writer trying to find a voice is: don’t worry about being personal about yourself. Do you think it’s a problem, or do you think it’s a good thing?

JONES: I think you have to be, but it also has to be relevant. It isn’t just for the sake of me, me, me. But when you’re writing about food, it enriches the experience if you maybe tell about the origin of when you first had it at your Auntie Marion’s, and the reaction to it. I think people want that, and that’s the reaction I’ve gotten over the years. People will say, “I love the stories.”

BEANYWOOD: Were there any reactions that you remember that Julia loved. Were there any reactions to her books that she loved?

JONES: Today there’s so much immediacy, and there wasn’t that. You’d wait for the reviews and little by little Julia got to know the whole food community. They all respected her. When I sent the book to Jim Beard, he immediately said this is one of a kind.

BEANYWOOD: Jim Beard?

JONES: Oh, Jim Beard doesn’t mean anything to you? Well, Jim Beard… he came before Julia. He touted things like how to food things in scotch buckets. And he did demonstrations in restaurant kitchens, before it was a big thing. So, he was really kind of a forerunner. And he was a huge man. He wrote a delightful memoir called “Delights and Prejudices.” So when I sent it to him, he immediately said to [his people], “We’ve got to get them to know the food community, let’s give them a party. I’ll sponsor it.” And at the end he said, “I certainly wish I’d written that book.” That was a great concession, and it came from the heart. Not that he could have written it, because he didn’t have that kind of analytical mind, but that was the reaction it got. [Restaurant critic] Craig Claiborne felt that way.

BEANYWOOD: I can tell you this, cooking isn’t my thing, but boy my girlfriend loves it. She really enjoyed the movie, and she did want to go home and cook afterward.

JONES: And the time is right, too, for a resurgence of feeling about her, because I think we’ve gone too far the other way with those dreadful Food Network shows. [She laughs]

BEANYWOOD: It did inspire her to want to cook more with butter. She loved butter. And me, I’m always thinking too much butter might be harmful.

JONES: Well, Julia lived to a ripe old age of ninety-two. I’m eighty-five. I eat lots of butter. [She laughs]


Julie & Julia is now playing at Lowe’s Boston Common, the AMC Regal Fenway 13, The Somerville Theater and Lowe’s Harvard Square Cinema.

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