Madhur Jaffrey on Cookbook Editor Legend Judith Jones

By Madhur Jaffrey

Published on January 27, 2012

I was first introduced to Knopf editor Judith Jones very shortly after I had submitted my first cookbook manuscript to her. This was the late 1960s. I did not know Judith, even by reputation, though I was cooking regularly from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This, of course, was the book she had championed and persuaded Knopf to publish in 1961.

Judith seemed very proper. With her classic suits, neat pageboy, sensible shoes, and deep voice (which, much to my embarrassment, I'd often mistake for a man's when she'd answer the phone), she seemed to be the epitome of old-fashioned grace and civility. Yet, she had a rebellious twinkle in her eye and often wore long, dangling earrings with her staid suits. She bought my book within days and we took to each other immediately.

Her suggestions, which were always offered gently, were about making the book more accessible to readers. I remember her saying, "Perhaps we should put a list of different menus at the back of the book so people know how to put an Indian meal together." She liked my long introductions to recipes and encouraged me to do more. She was as interested in the stories behind the recipes as in the recipes themselves. That book, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, was the first of four we would work on together over the course of 40 years.

Judith is well into her 80s now and just retired from Knopf, where she will be remembered as one of the company's most influential editors: It was Judith who argued that Doubleday should buy the American rights to The Diary of Anne Frank, and Judith who edited literary greats John Updike and Anne Tyler at Knopf. But her cookbook authors always knew that food was her real passion. She has a keen ear for original voices, and published many of the cooks who would go on to become our most beloved culinary teachers: Marcella Hazan, Edna Lewis, Joan Nathan, Lidia Bastianich, to name just a few. She loves bread and butter and wine and innards and cannot abide fussy eaters. She hates the word "easy" in cookbook titles. I know. We had a battle about it. She won.

When she zeroes in on a cookbook author, that lucky person has her full attention. She reads the entire manuscript. When she likes a sentence, she will write in "nice" with a green pencil. This is rare. She wants authors to retain their own styles and will intervene with officious copy editors to soften grammar rules if they hurt the flow of a personal tale. Every cookbook author needs a Judith Jones.

At a lunch recently, Lidia and I looked at each other sadly, agreeing that without Judith as our editor, we would be quite bereft. Judith, who was also there, just smiled her New England buck-up-all-will-be-well smile and refused to look anything but positive. She is raising cows in her Vermont hometown; she forages for mushrooms; she is also working on a cookbook. She will be fine. It is we who will miss her.

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