For almost 25 years, I was one of the lucky ones who could call Judith Jones, who died this week, my editor.
It started in the early 1990s, when Judith invited me to come to her office one day to talk about writing for the Knopf Cooks American series. She wanted me to write a book showing how Jewish immigrants influenced American food and how America influenced Jewish food. I signed on right away. After years of research, I handed in what I thought was a fine manuscript. I’ll never forget the stern phone call I got one day. “Joan, I think you will have to come to New York right away,” Judith said. “I don’t understand what you are doing.”
When I recovered from the tone of disappointment in her carefully chosen words, I thought about what was wrong with the book. I had written it more like a history rather than a cookbook. Within minutes I figured out how to rearrange it so that it worked. Thank goodness for the computer! Under Judith’s tutelage “Jewish Cooking in America” received the coveted IACP/Julia Child Award (named for perhaps the most famous of Judith’s authors) for best cookbook of the year, as well as the James Beard Award for best cookbook of the Americas.
We went on to work together on three more of my most satisfying books: “The New American Cooking,” “The Foods of Israel Today” and “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.” I will never forget Judith’s green pencil (when she used it to write the simple word “nice,” it meant the world to me and her other authors), nor the terror of “sloppiness” she also thundered on us. I will also never forget how she was able to so seamlessly move from the technical aspects of honing recipes to pushing her authors to infuse the language surrounding them with wit and style, for which I am eternally grateful.
Through the years, when Judith was in New York City, we met either in her legendary tiny office at Alfred A. Knopf, first on Park Avenue and then on Broadway, or at the building on East 66th Street that her uncle and father bought during the Depression that was her home ever since. We often cooked a meal together, usually trying recipes from the book I was working on at the moment.
Our days at BrynTeg, her hallowed hilltop home in Vermont (it was made out of hemlock wood), started with a cold plunge into the pond her late husband, Evan, had built for her. Nearby in a screened-in gazebo, Judith read in the late afternoon. This was always followed by a civilized breakfast — if I was lucky, it included her famous waffles — where we discussed the food we would make the rest of that day. Then Judith, the hands-on editor that she was, would go through my marked-up manuscripts. Late afternoons we would have an adventure, visiting Mateo Keller at Jasper Hill Farm, taking another swim or making a stop at the Willey’s hardware store in Greensboro.
It was there and on our trips abroad that I really learned about Judith’s spirit of adventure, a trait I will always cherish.
When working on my Israeli cookbook, we traveled together to Israel with her stepdaughter, Bronwyn Dunne. Judith was the best sport, drinking yogurt at a cheese farm, wandering throughout the Old City of Jerusalem with me, picking up black stones in the Sea of Galilee to bring home, being led by a scruffy cabdriver to the idyllic field with shepherds near Bethlehem where Jesus surely walked.
When I was working on my French cookbook, we met in Judith’s beloved France. To my surprise, in Strasbourg, she invited me to Auberge de l’Ill in Illhaeusern. For her 65th year of working at Knopf, the publishing house had gifted her dinner for two at a Michelin-rated three-star restaurant of her choice. Always the frugal New Englander, and notoriously careful about advances (Judith used to say that John Updike didn’t want a big advance because he preferred getting royalty checks twice a year), she instructed me to eat the prescribed menu lest she seem overly greedy. But we still were able to taste the restaurant’s feathery quenelles de brochet, pike quenelles with a crayfish sauce.
We shared a love of rhubarb. While plucking stalks from her garden in Vermont, Judith told me once, “rhubarb, gooseberries and sorrel are the lemons of the North.” Like most New England cooks, she used to make rhubarb pie the old-fashioned way: with a double crust and baked with strawberries. But something always seemed off to her. “I never like the taste of cooked strawberries,” Judith told me. “And the rhubarb always makes the pie crust a little soggy.” So she showed me how to make a favorite recipe she had developed: an open-faced pie filled with cooked rhubarb and topped with fresh strawberries glazed with currant jelly or gooseberry jam.
While she was making the dough in the food processor, she also taught me a trick she had learned from another of her cookbook authors, Lydie Marshall. “Pulse as long as it takes to say the word ‘alligator’ very quickly,” she said. “Do this 10 times, and the result is a very flaky, light dough.” I have used this technique and this recipe ever since, making it each summer, Judith’s favorite time of year.
Each time I make it, I will remember my beloved editor and how much she taught me about writing and life.
Nathan is the author of many cookbooks about Jewish cooking, including the recent “King Solomon’s Table.”