Judith & Julia: Jones Talks Child at Boston University

28 Nov

I don’t know about you, but for me, November has flown by like Hermes, with winged sandals. My kitchen internship with ATK wrapped up last Tuesday, just in time for my holiday cooking preparations. The second half of my 12 weeks I spent on the Cook’s Illustrated team, which really taught me an enormous amount about the two P’s (patience and perseverance) of recipe development (especially when said testing involves grilling on not so warm days!). Suddenly, I understand that phrase, “It’s character building.”  I even got to test and develop my own recipe (on a much shorter time frame of two weeks) and write a Cook’s Illustrated-style article. After this experience, it is safe to say that, although I’ll always love them, I think I might need a break from sweet potatoes!

Sweet Potatoes! (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

November was also an eventful month for me in terms of culinary literature. If you hadn’t figured out from my blog posts by now, I’ve been drawn more and more to writing about both “food writing” and food in writing (i.e., my previous post on AGG). I recently attended a lecture at Boston University by the famed Judith Jones, author of the wonderful memoir, The Tenth Muse, and of course, the Knopf editor that is most responsible for introducing the world to the twin gifts of Julia Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The lecture presented the perfect opportunity for me to quietly celebrate  the contributions of this brilliant fellow Leo (Julia’s birthday is the day before mine) and mid-life career changer.

I wasn’t obsessed with her in a Julie/Julia kind of way, but I did grow up watching Julia on PBS with my mom, along with Madeleine Kamman, Pierre Franey, and Jacques Pepin. I loved that Julia was . . . well, just Julia. You never felt like she was anything but the person who was on camera. And it was her voice I always tried to emulate (not in diction or pitch, but in her tone and spirit of teaching and sharing) when I would play act my own cooking shows.

When I went on honeymoon to Fiji, one of the books I (fatefully) took with me was My Life in France, Julia’s memoir that she co-wrote with her nephew Alex Prud’homme. I’ve never been to France, but Julia’s accounting of her awakening resonated with me. Here I was, around the same age, similarly “lost” in translation on a career path that was less than satisfying. And to learn that Julia Child couldn’t even boil water before France!?! And that she was beset by hostile fellow classmates for daring to step into the kitchen as a tall American woman! Well, suddenly, my long-held desire to go to pastry school didn’t seem so out there.

I also very much related to the great love affair between Julia and Paul. Paul wasn’t just tolerant of Julia’s explorations and self-discovery; he was utterly encouraging and thoroughly supportive of her attempts to find “something” of her own. Julia had both the mental space and an active partner in her quest for self-fulfillment, two things that I am also fortunate enough to share. I came away from reading that book wishing for the courage to follow my convictions and the comfort of knowing that if I ever did, I would have my husband beside me as my number one fan.

The Lecture Menu (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

Jones sprinkled her BU talk with several Childisms–you could close your eyes at some points and swear Julia was in the room! She shared her personal philosophy on cooking, telling the audience that she thinks one is born with certain genes for the love of food (in her case, her food-loving Vermont relatives won over her mother’s disdain for garlic.) After her husband died, she began thinking of cooking for herself as a way to “honor memories” by recreating the dishes that they enjoyed making together. She doesn’t like the word “leftovers”–she prefers “precious gems in the refrigerator.”

BU Gastronomy Students Kept us Well Fed (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

On the great Julia Child, she says that many chefs were initially skeptical of “this big Smith College girl,” but that Julia eventually won them over. The hallmark of Julia’s cooking was what she called “soigné” or the care that she put into every endeavor and task. She referred (smilingly) to the film Julie & Julia as a “silly movie,” but credited its impact on the sales of Mastering to a whole new generation of home cooks. She also told us that she encouraged the very private Child to write her memoir, and that it really took selling the book project as an opportunity to pay honor to Paul Child’s photography to get Julia on board. “Julia wasn’t sentimental,” said Jones. For her, “the past was the past.”

As for the future of cookbooks, Jones is critical of the fact that many chef books these days “have nothing to do with home cooking” and that they have “hired writers that aren’t even in the kitchen.” She also thinks there isn’t as much editing going on as there should be. But she remains hopeful that there are some new voices out there waiting to be discovered.

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