Judith Jones

January/February 1993

Food Arts presents the January/February 1993 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Judith Jones, visionary editor.

In a career that spans more than three decades, Jones has presided over a stellar table of cookbook authors and novelists.

Like many lights in the culinary world, Jones's passion for food was ignited in Paris. Not long out of Benington College in Vermont, she had set off to see the world. After she resigned herself to returning to New York City, her passport and plane ticket were pickpocketed in the Tuileries hardens. Ascribing it to fate, she lingered in Paris for three and a half years. There she met distinguished author Evan Jones, who has been her husband for over 40 years. She became fluent in French and French cooking. And while working as an editorial assistant in Doubleday's Paris office, she rescued The Diary of Anne Frank from a heap of rejected manuscripts. (She confides that that coup probably had a lot to do with Blanche Knopf's decision to hire her once she returned to New York.) She joined Alfred A. Knopf in 1957 as French editor and today is senior editor and vice president. Not only has Jones become the grande dame of American cookbooks, but she also edits John Updike, John Hershey and Anne Taylor.

Jones first made her mark in the culinary world when she discovered two unknown cooking teachers—Julia Child and Simone Beck. She helped shape their voluminous manuscript into Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Houghton Mifflin had rejected the tome, claiming, "Nobody really wants to know this much about French cooking." To Jones, however, the transcript was "an answered prayer." The book was published in 1961, followed by a second volume in 1971.

"I loved French cooking and had lived in Paris. I was the right person at the right time. It's all luck," Jones says modestly. A Who's Who list of other cookbook authors followed: Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Rodern, Penelope Casas, James Beard, Marion Cunningham.

Both her love of food and her love of literature have influenced the type of cookbooks she publishes: teaching books with distinctive voices as opposed to chefs' books, which she believes are about restaurant cooking. "When I'm cooking, I like to feel the cookbook author is in the kitchen with me, helping me along," Jones says. "Especially with foreign cuisines."

It has been Jones's skill that has often enabled great cooks to transpose their own voices on paper. Coaxing the melodious Southern voice out of Edna Lewis and onto the page was Jones's most satisfying project. "Edna was the hardest one to get a story out of," she explains. "She would come in once a week and talk. Edna would write it all down on yellow pads and my assistant would type it." From these conversations, the poignant details of Lewis's life emerged: "What did you do for Thanksgiving?" Jones asked. "We didn't celebrate Thanksgiving. We celebrated Emancipation Day," Lewis answered.

Over the years, people have told Jones they love the stories in her books. That and the Lewis experience led her to the thematic concept of her current series, "Knopf Cooks American," which debuted in 1990 with Hot Links and Country Flavors by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly and Biscuits, Spoon Bread, and Sweet Potato Pie by Bill Neal. Eleven titles have been published and seven more are currently in the works. These books, Jones believes, "are a wonderful way of telling our social history."