10 Questions: Food For Thought

Nancy Ramsey is a contributor to CBSNews.com.

(Knopf )
With Thanksgiving coming up, food is on everyone's mind. But it's long been on the mind of Judith Jones, who's just written a delightful book called "The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food." Jones is now in her early 80s and continues to work as an editor at Knopf. She brought the diary of Anne Frank to the United States and edited such greats as John Updike, John Hersey ("Hiroshima") and Anne Tyler.

And...she introduced us to Julia Child. When "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" wasn't enough for Jones, she turned to finding talented cooks who could bring into our kitchens the secrets of Italian cooking (Marcella Hazan), Chinese cooking (Irene Kuo and Nina Simonds), Indian cooking (Madhur Jaffrey), good American cooking (James Beard and Edna Lewis), and more.

(By the way, the tenth muse is Gasterea, so summoned by Brillat-Savarin, a French politician and lawyer who lived during the French Revolution and loved food: "Tell me what you eat," he wrote, "and I will tell you what you are.")

So with palettes watering, we posed this week's 10 Questions (well, OK, 11 since we felt like indulging ourselves) to Judith Jones.

1. The holidays are coming up. What are you making for Thanksgiving?

I always love a goose, not only because it's delicious and rich, but you can put away all that good goose grease for the winter and use it for frying potatoes, all sorts of things. It's pure fat, and now we're learning it's good for us! It's not hydrogenated. And I'll make stuffing with tart apples from Vermont, and chestnuts. Always chestnuts.

2. In "The Tenth Muse," you talk about the food of your childhood—"unadulterated English-style food." Your mother's food shopping was "invariably done by phone, as though to keep a distance from the things of the earth," and if you "indulged in appreciative sounds like 'yum-yum,'" you could be sent from the table...

I think my passion for food was born in rebellion. The food of my childhood was so dull, perfectly good of course, but the meats were overcooked, and we never, never had garlic in the house.

When my mother was in her 90s, one day she said she wanted to ask me a question and that she wanted an honest answer. I thought she was going to ask me a weighty question, like whether I believed in heaven or hell. She looked at me and said, "Do you really like garlic?"

She looked crestfallen when I said, "Yes, I adore it." For her garlic represented everything vulgar.

I think it was emblematic of the times, from our Puritan heritage. You didn't talk about food or cooking, it was like talking about sex.

3. You went to Paris after graduating from college, just after World War II...

In Paris there's an appreciation for, a celebration of, food as a way of life. It was unthinkable not to get your croissants fresh from the boulangerie. Paris at the time was still recovering from the war, and one day I was standing in line at the bread shop and a man ahead of me broke open his bread and shouted with joy, "The flour is white again!" All through the occupation, bread had been made with the leavings on the granary floor.

4. You write gloriously of discovering and preparing wonderful dishes, of shopping twice a day in Paris for the freshest of produce and the best tidbits from the local butcher. Then you returned to an America in the 1950s where women were opening cans and popping frozen vegetables in the oven. Did you feel as if you were landing with a big thud in the local grocery store?

It was a wasteland. It was a time of home economics, of quick and easy. You'd go to the supermarket, you wouldn't find fresh mushrooms, nobody had heard of leeks or shallots, all those things that give a dish finesse. In the wintertime you had root vegetables and cabbage-y things, which you'd boil to death and then that awful cabbage-y smell came off.

5. Just thinking about that smell is enough! On a more pleasant note, tell us about discovering Julia Childs, an American woman who had attended Smith College and then gone to Paris with her husband. You write that in the summer of 1959 "a huge manuscript on French cooking" by "three totally unknown ladies with no particular credentials" (the others were Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle) landed on your desk at Knopf..."too long, already rejected"...

The men in the company said, No, no, no, an American woman doesn't want to know this much about French cooking. I responded to it because I'd had a very similar time in Paris. But I didn't have any book to tell me how to cook with that kind of finesse, and that's when this fell into my lap. I started cooking from it, and I made the best boeuf bourguignon I'd ever made. I was smitten.

Mr. Knopf didn't think it would sell. When I decided to call it "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," Mr. Knopf said, "Well, I'll eat my hat if that title sells." [At last count, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" had sold more than 1.5 million copies; most cookbooks sell about 20,000.]

Julia used to tell me, "Oh, Judith, we were just born at the right time." I think America was ready for it: GIs had been abroad, and cheaper air fares made trips to Europe, which used to be for the rich and the elite, possible. People returned home and saw how plain our fare was. And that was the age of Fannie Farmer cookbooks, canned chicken soup for your cream sauce and then sprinkle those cans of fried onions over canned string beans.

In many ways, Julia changed the way cookbooks should be written too.

6. How so?

To me it's extremely important that the cook who is writing have a voice and is somebody you can trust, who addresses your questions, your anxieties, who tells you how to correct something when it curdles.

7. Now there are so many cookbooks, lots of celebrity chef cookbooks...What's your take on them?

I think we tended to get out too many cookbooks too fast in the last 20 years. It's hard for the good ones to find a place; how are you to know what the best book on Chinese cooking is? You go to these huge bookstores, plus there isn't much cookbook reviewing, it's largely word of mouth.

Chef cooking is a world of cooking away from cooking at home. Freshly cut herbs? Who has those things at their disposal all the time? You have to learn, say, if you're out of lemons, about the things that give lemons the acid tongue. The home cook learns to improvise. The chef cook wants the drama of surprising you with exotic flavors, and the cost and amount of work it takes is of no consideration.

8. Toward the end of your book, you talk about going to the Far East with Nina Simonds, who was working on an Asian cookbook called "A Spoonful of Ginger," and dining at the Herbal Restaurant in the Imperial Hotel in Singapore...?

I had never wanted to do a diet book, anything that talks about what's unhealthy. What I liked about Nina Simonds, she talks about what's good for you. That's a central part of Asian cooking.

We were in the second-floor restaurant of this very elegant hotel, and a man in a white jacket came up to us, took our pulse, checked our tongues and asked us a few questions. Then he said, This is what you should be having for dinner. I can't remember exactly what I had, but it was wonderful, noodles, fresh vegetables, no meat.

9. No meat. You don't exactly come across as a vegetarian in your book...

No, and I am one of those peculiar people who loves innards, or offal, sweetbreads. I love brains too. I think they're heavenly. It's a bit of a fuss, but I prepare them the night before, I dump them in flour, and put brown butter and capers on top. They're unctuous — in English that word's not a compliment, but it's something so tender that it fills our mouth and melts.

10. On a different note, it's something you touch on it briefly in "The Tenth Muse," but in the literary world you're quite well known for having brought the diary of Anne Frank to American readers...

It was one of those coincidences. Toward the end of my stay in Paris, I got a job with Doubleday's representative in Paris, Frank Price. I was what they called a secretary, or a little maid of all work, and we worked out of this beautiful apartment. One day Frank went off to lunch, and I stayed to do letters and clean up. He had told me there was a pile of submissions that needed to be rejected. In the pile was a manuscript that a French publisher was about to bring out.

I saw that face on the cover, the face of a young girl named Anne Frank, and I couldn't resist. I read all afternoon, and when Frank returned, I was so moved that I said, We've got to send this to Doubleday in New York.

He said, Are you kidding? A book by a kid? Fortunately, I knew the editor-in-chief and he trusted my judgment.

We had lunch with Otto Frank, to discuss the publication. He talked about coming back after the war and finding these journals. He said he wanted to keep the dramatic rights. "I don't think I could bear somebody playing my Annie," he told us. Later on, he did allow a play and a movie to be made.

11. What are you working on now?

I still work at Knopf, and I have found through writing this book and talking with people, that home cooks don't understand the rhythm of cooking at home. Sixty-one percent of the people in New York City live alone. I'd like to address that, write about how you make your own creative rhythm throughout the week. Buy a tenderloin of pork, and cook it three different ways.

Home cooking isn't just a dish to impress people, it's the rhythm through the week, how you execute that. I'd like to do a sort of informal cookbook, full of ideas. Instead of one-quarter teaspoon or one-eighths of an ounce and "set aside": Taste, taste, taste as you cook. That frightens some people, but it's how you become a good cook. And remember what Julia always used to say: Never apologize.

I'm old, and I'm alone [her husband, Evan, died in 1996], and I wouldn't think of not making myself a nice dinner when I came home. There's an Italian saying: "At the table, one never grows old." For me cooking is a form of relaxation, honoring the things of the earth. I love for my hands to smell of garlic.

Pardon me, Mother.