Aside from two fully employed adults, our home houses several thousand books. Because we don’t practice the “one in, one out” philosophy in acquiring them, the books overfill the shelves and are stacked on flat surfaces around our home. Yet, I often can’t resist picking up another book I haven’t read from the 25 cent table at my favorite book store or a pile at a library sale.
Thus this series, “Off My Shelf,” where I take a book from a shelf or a pile, read (or reread it) and decide whether it stays or goes.
The piles of books on my shelves are like strata of earth. Each layer says something about the time and place I acquired them. I bought Judith Jones’ The Tenth Muse: My Life inFood at a bookstore in Dallas last year. Now that I’ve excavated it from its resting place and read it, I regret taking so long to get to it.
Judith Jones was a major figure at the center of the culinary world in the mid-20th century. After editing the groundbreaking Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Jones found her niche, midwifing a series of books written by people to whom food mattered. Her stories of finding just the right person for each book are engrossing. As an editor, she was always looking for people who had strong connections with the food of their culture from an early age. Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden, and Irene Kuo came from disparate cultures: Indian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese, but they all, in Jones’ words, had “…grown up in a household where food was honored and…felt compelled to recover those food memories.” These women wrote seminal works on each of the cuisines from which they came.
Besides introducing Americans to international cuisines, Jones also helped document American food. James Beard, the gargantuan figure of mid-century American cuisine, helped and advised Jones and she returned the favor when she introduced him to the Californian Marion Cunningham. Cunnigham not only became Beard’s right hand, but also edited the revised the classic Fannie Farmer Cookbook, reinstituting it as a key text in American cooking. Still, Jones reminiscences about her inability to find good, traditional Southern food in restaurants and the difficulty of locating someone who could document such food.
And then she met Edna Lewis.
Edna Lewis cooked the food that acolytes such as Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams remembered from their childhood and still craved and she served it at a restaurant under New York’s Queensboro Bridge. The book that Jones helped Lewis write, The Taste of Country Cooking, is a book of days filled with the food Lewis grew up eating in the American South. It’s revealing that when Jones asked Lewis why there was not Thanksgiving menu in the quintessentially American book, Lewis told her that her family had celebrated Emancipation Day instead.
“Just as in real life we come to know someone through his or her connection to food, so in fiction a telling aspect of a character’ s personality surfaces in his or her feelings about eating,” Jones writes. She makes a good case for how authors use details about what their characters eat…or cook…to reveal what is fundamental about them, invoking authors such as John Updike and Ann Tyler to illustrate her point.
I bookmarked so many passages to copy in my commonplace book and read the recipes at the end of the book hungrily. This memoir deserves a space on my kitchen shelves with other culinary essays, and more than that, it inspired a reading list of books because it’s clear from this one that her passion as an editor, just as her skill as a writer, was to channel an author’s wisdom and enthusiasm into print.