Q& A: Judith Jones

Green-Penciling Her Way Into Cookbook History

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Judith Jones is the editor who polished the stars of American cooking.

Her taste is golden, her instincts uncanny. She began almost five decades ago, when she recognized the genius in Julia Child's extensive recipes. Through the years, she squabbled with Marcella Hazan over the need to cater to American tastes. She nudged the breadth of our ethnic pantries, working with Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden and Irene Kuo, and she learned how to listen to cakes baking, as Edna Lewis had shown her. She limited the numbers of Jell-O salads in Marion Cunningham's recipe collection.

Testimonials to her prowess are easy to come by and run along similar lines. "Judith is an amazing hands-on editor," says Joan Nathan, one of her famous authors for Knopf, where Jones is a senior editor and vice president. "When she writes 'nice' in her green pencil, you could fly away with happiness."

Jones has filled her newly published memoir, "The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food" (Knopf), with the kinds of detail and recipes a food lover can relish. Dressed in a smart yellow-and-navy knit suit, the petite and reserved 83-year-old icon recently discussed the nuts and bolts of cookbook editing with assistant Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick over a properly brewed pot of tea at the Park Hyatt. She even agreed to offer instant critiques of the season's big cookbooks, which had been lugged along on a whim. Excerpts of the conversation follow:

There were about 3,000 cookbooks published last year. Does that sound about right?

Was it that many? I try not to know those numbers. They discourage me. When I think only six of them were worthwhile. . . .

How do you know what works? Sales numbers?

You really have to rely on your own instincts. Sales don't always reflect how good a cookbook is. I did two recently that didn't go very far. It just sort of broke my heart. Despite all the work, you can turn out a beautiful book, you think you are experienced, you can call the shots. But it's a horse race.

Are cookbook editors worried about the proliferation of recipes and create-your-own cookbooks on the Web?

Certainly it's competition, the fact that you can go home and Google "leftover pork" or something and get ideas. It works for the nieces in my family who have their own young families. They just say it's quicker. To me, what's quicker than looking in a book?

More and more, the celebrity cookbooks get the publicity . . . you know, the lower the decollete. . . . But Lidia's [Bastianich] decollete is okay.

The celebrity chef thing must be bittersweet; it does sell cookbooks. What effect have you noticed?

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