Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Tenth Muse - book

The Tenth Muse My Life in Food, Judith Jones (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

It was apparently Brillat-Savarin himself that suggested a tenth Muse, Gasterea, who was to preside over all the pleasures of taste, hence the title of this interesting book about food, cooking, and cookbooks by Judith Jones. You are probably aware of the revolution in American cooking that began with the publication of Julia Child’s famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in the early 1960’s. You may not be aware that it was Judith Jones who, against considerable resistance on the part of several publishers, eventually prevailed and managed to convince Alfred A. Knopf to take a chance on this virtually encyclopedic tome. It was widely believed that American cooks would never take to a detailed and somewhat complicated book on French Cooking, especially after years of being told that cooking was something that should be quick and easy, if not avoided entirely. The enormous and almost immediate success of “Mastering…” came as a pleasant surprise, Julia Child herself, a fantastic personality, became a television star, and profound changes began to occur in American cuisine. Knopf had published a couple of previous cookbooks with limited success but they were not prepared for the Julia Childs tornado. Book tours were not commonplace at the time, and a book tour for the author of a cookbook was unheard of. But it came about with a resounding success and led to a whole series of fine cookbooks on regional and ethnic cuisines, many of the most important ones under the editorship of Judith Jones. I believe it is fair to say that the development of fine cooking, as it exists presently in the U.S., is due as much to Judith Jones as to anyone, including Julia Child. If you look at all the fine cookbooks that are now appearing regularly, many by the finest chefs in America, they cannot, of course all be attributed to Jones, but without her pioneering efforts they would most likely not be appearing at all.

Judith Jones was herself a fine home cook with a lifelong interest in cooking that was further stimulated and refined by her years as a young woman living in Paris. The first part of this book deals with her years in Paris, meeting her husband who was also a fine cook, and their many experiments with various cuisines. I suspect that like many upper middle class Americans, she tends to exaggerate their poverty while living in France (I have reason to believe that this is fairly common but is a topic for another time). In any case, after a few years of experiencing Paris and French cooking, she eventually landed a job at Alfred A. Knopf, publishers, ostensibly to help in the translation of French works into English. A short time after she was there she was handed the Child’s manuscript, which had been rejected by others, and the rest is history. After her enormous success with Julia Child she went on to meet and work with many of our most famous cookbook authors. The Tenth Muse is basically an autobiographical account of her life, as lived in Paris, and subsequently as lived in the world of fine cuisine.
At the end of this interesting account she provides a number of recipes, interesting because they are recipes she used or developed herself after she found herself living alone. They are for one or two people, are relatively easy to prepare, but also quite delicious and satisfying. Although some of them are perhaps a bit idiosyncratic, for anyone who has tried to cook just for themselves, they will be appreciated. From my perspective, I believe Jones has done an extremely valuable service by changing American attitudes towards food and cooking. Alas, this does not mean Americans have given up their taste for fast foods entirely, but important inroads have been made into this unfortunate and unhealthy development, and Judith Jones played an exceedingly important role in changing this unfortunate trend and in the recent history of American cuisine.

Anyone with an interest in fine cooking and fine food will find this an enjoyable and informative book.

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