The opening scene in Judith Jones' memoir, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food (Knopf), says it all: Her mother was well into her 90s, and she had one question for her daughter. All she needed was an honest answer. Jones braced herself for something heavy-duty. But her mother needed to know: "Tell me, Judith, do you really like garlic?"
Absurd to ask? No. It was a moment of truth, because if garlic smelled bad, according to Jones' mother, it must mean that those who handle it and eat it smell bad, again according to Jones' mother. Garlic was "alien." It was "vulgar." But Jones answered in the affirmative. In fact, she told her mother that she "adored" garlic. And soon enough in The Tenth Muse, she's explaining to readers how even as a child, growing up in New York City, she was just crazy about organ meats; how, in Paris in the late 1940s, she went positively ga-ga over a forkful of brains; and later in life, how her late husband had been right: A bite of fried beaver tail leaves her feeling "ravished."
How, then, to explain Jones' love of all things cooked well, especially since she was reared on the blandest of English-inspired, postwar American cooking? Jones doesn't explain. Some things just are. What she does reveal is quite enough, and it's straightforwardly put and always of interest. As in:
The fact that Jones once shared an apartment in Paris with a little-known painter who turned out to be Balthus. The fact that, at Doubleday's office in Paris, Jones helped to secure the publishing rights in America for a manuscript headed for the "reject" pile: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. And the fact that, as an editor at Knopf in New York, Jones was instrumental in shaping and seeing into print a manuscript that had been turned down by other American publishing houses: Julia Child and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a book that revolutionized America's thinking not only about French cooking but about America's food habits as well.
Jones credits a host of others in that revolution — Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and Charles Williams, among them. (That's Chuck Williams of Sonoma County.) But Jones deserves her fair share of credit too — only she doesn't claim credit. She tells it like it was as a cookbook editor who expanded our knowledge of world cuisine to include traditional Middle Eastern dishes (in the books authored by Claudia Roden), traditional Italian dishes (author Marcella Hazan), traditional Indian dishes (author Madhur Jaffrey), and traditional Chinese dishes (author Irene Kuo). Stateside, she championed Edna Lewis, whose The Taste of Country Cooking rescued close-to-lost African-American recipes and the very idea of "food memories."
And on the subject of memories: The Tenth Muse closes with nearly a hundred pages of recipes — recipes drawn from Jones' past, such as the lowly croquette, to a three-page recipe for French bread, which trims the 11 pages that Julia Child devotes to the baguette in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II.
And as for the "tenth muse" in The Tenth Muse: Call her Gasterea, who presides over all the pleasures of taste. Brillat-Savarin named her. Judith Jones does a heartfelt job honoring her.
Happy Birthday, River City Writers
C.K. Williams is one of the nation's leading poets, having won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Flesh and Blood, the Pulitzer Prize for Repair, and the National Book Award for The Singing. He's also published a number of works in translation, and today he divides his time between Paris and the creative writing program at Princeton University. On Thursday, November 15th, he's reading from and signing his works at the Pink Palace Museum Ballroom (3030 Central). The event starts at 6 p.m., with the reading at 7 p.m.
Can't make it to the Pink Palace on Thursday evening? On Friday, head to Patterson Hall, Room 403, at the University of Memphis to hear an interview with Williams, which starts at 10:30 a.m. Both events are free and open to the public.
For more information on Williams' appearances, contact Jan Coleman at 678-4692. And while you're at it, congratulate the U of M's River City Writers Series, which is bringing C.K. Williams to town to close out its fall 2007 schedule of visiting authors. This year, the series marks its 30th year.