The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food
by Judith Jones
Published by Knopf
304 pages, 2007
Please, May I Have Some More?
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Judith Jones hails from another era, one where garlic-fearing bluebloods hired cooks who served fish on Fridays and no upright person consumed French food, a cuisine that, with all those sauces, surely had something to hide. Daughters, after educations at Spence and Barnard, were expected to make good marriages and carry on the family lineage. Jones managed to escape this almost-forgotten mold, moving to Paris after college, where she hung out with an artistic crowd who loved foods that gave her mother fits: oysters (which, young Jones assures writes her parents, “had no ill effects”), entrecote, chicken liver pate, and the unpasteurized cheeses still widely feared on North American shores.
In Paris Jones met fellow writer Evan Jones, whom she cohabitated with while awaiting his divorce, recounting the terrible moment her mother and Aunt Marian come to visit. At her wits’ end, Jones confides in her landlady who, in grand French fashion, hides all of Evan’s belongings in her closets.
Jones went on to get a job with Knopf publishers, embarking on the storied career recounted here. It was Jones who found Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and pushed it toward publication. (Warning: her dinner with Otto Frank will make you cry.) But it is an unwieldy manuscript by three unknown ladies that will make her career: Julia Child, Louise Bertholle and Simone Beck’s massive Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For foodies, the world has never been the same.
The Tenth Muse, named after Brillat-Savarin’s Gastrea, recounts many such moments: we have Judith Jones to thank for initially publishing Claudia Rodin, Irene Kuo, Marion Cunningham, and the incomparable Edna Lewis. It was Jones who, with her good friend Jim Beard, quietly pushed “American” food from its deracinated, canned, white-bread self into something tastier, fresher, and more-garlic laden. Jones strove to publish good cooking well before Alice Waters waved mesclun at the masses. Her steady groundwork laid a foundation for Waters: the millions who warmed to Julia Child were ready for the next step.
Jones’ description of making do with the poor food available in New York in the 1950s after the luxury of Parisian markets will inspire sympathetic shock in today’s spoiled readers. No leeks. No shallots. No nice cheeses. As for the bread, it was so awful that Judith learned to bake her own. Unable to find the boudin blancs (sausages of chicken and pork with cream) that made the French holiday season so memorable, Judith and Evan learned to make them at home. Jones devotes many pages to the glorious meals prepared with Evan. And while this is a foodie reader’s paradise, there were a few moments where I stumbled, for if ours is the era of too much information, Jones’ time was more discreet, leading her to skim over some critical events.
When the Jones’ adopt two teenage children, we are given little information apart from a mention that their biological parents “never had much time for family life” before mysteriously dying. The children are reluctant eaters whose sudden appearance in the Jones’ lives is used to remark on the preponderance of junk food in American culture. When adopted daughter Audrey grows up and appears (within a few pages) with a picky eater stepson of her own, Jones breaks down and prepares the boy the boxed macaroni he longs for. But little else is said of family life, or how taking on two teenagers after many years of writing and travel impacted the family. Evan Jones’ two daughters from his first marriage are discussed only in passing, leaving me to wonder how this Brady bunch of a group got along.
Jones has every right to her privacy. Yet in writing a food memoir, one is invariably writing about family. What happened when stepchildren and adopted teenagers materialized ‘round the kitchen table? Was all harmonious as the family ate another wonderful meal? How did Jones manage working with such a brood? We are left wondering. Later she admits that 1980 was: “...a bad year for us. Evan had had a series of slight strokes....Then I underwent a mastectomy.”
The ramifications of either event is never discussed; instead Jones slides back into the easy food writing, describing the meal Evan brings her the night before her surgery (pâté, cheese, baguette, wine) and the discovery of the couple’s country home, Bryn Teg. There are a few happy years in Bryn Teg, the couple again ahead of the food curve as they sample the purslane, ramps, wild asparagus and the many varieties of mushrooms growing on their property. Evan’s death in 1996 -- arguably a critical moment in the memoir -- serves as a jumping off point for the pleasures of dining alone. And while Jones’ description of eating well singly couldn’t be more timely, the man who wrote and cooked alongside his remarkable wife deserves more than passing mention.
The Tenth Muse closes with life at home in New York where, adventurous as ever, Jones learns to downsize her tasty meals for one. The appendix of recipes attests to this: after sections devoted to her childhood (hash, timbales), a lovely array of international dishes (those boudin blancs, stir fry), and the wild foods of Bryn Teg (gooseberry in many guises, maple syrup) we are given a bittersweet section called Cooking for One. Here we learn how to make the most of buying a duck -- six tempting recipes -- and what to do when you, alone, long for leg of lamb. This is a cookbook in itself, one I hope Jones is moved to write.
Ultimately Jones’ winning personality and her fascinating story overcome the book’s drawbacks, for if The Tenth Muse were bad, or Jones less engaging, I wouldn’t be left asking for more. | October 2007