Judith Jones on Cooking for One


The summary of Judith Jones’ life’s work so far is enough to make your head spin. She is currently senior editor and vice president at Alfred A. Knopf, which she joined in 1957. Before that, she had worked for Doubleday in New York and Paris, where she accomplished little things like reading and recommending for publishing The Diary of Anne Frank. She first joined Knopf as an editor Camus and Sartre in English translations. Over the decades, she has cultivated an astounding stable of food writers, editing the work of Julia Child, James Beard, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Jacques Pepin, and Lidia Bastianich, among many others.

Jones has also written four cookbooks, two of which were co-authored with her late husband. The newest, just published on October 1st, is The Pleasures of Cooking for One, a lively, practical, and passionate book about being alone in the kitchen (with or without an eggplant).

We caught up with Jones and chatted about cooking for one, the closing of Gourmet, and having Julia Child and James Beard over for dinner.

I love that you write that, although the book includes simple recipes, it’s not for the “flimsies.”

Right, that’s something Julia used to say. The book is not for people who think they want to cook, but really they want shortcuts. It’s meant to sort of seduce people into getting into the kitchen. It’s the idea that cooking is creative, fun, and relaxing, instead of that image of the beleaguered housewife in the kitchen. The food industry has been getting away with that for way too long. Cooking is fun, I’m sorry.

What are some of the particular pleasures of cooking for one?

Particularly if you live alone, when you walk into the kitchen in your apartment or your house, you bring the whole place alive with the smell of cooking, the warmth of it. I feel that cooking for one is very creative. You conjure up something out of the refrigerator, or from what you’ve put away in the freezer. Maybe you forgot to buy that lemon, but there’s no reason another tart accent wouldn’t work, so maybe you put in some balsamic vinegar. It makes you feel alive.

You set a nice table and sit down, light the candles–I love candles–turn on music. It’s a ritual, and I think we need these things in our rushing life. If there’s one phrase I hate it’s “grab a bite.” I think it typifies what’s wrong with our eating habits.

Is there something different about that ceremony of eating–lighting candles, putting on music–when you’re alone, as opposed to when you’re with friends or family?

It’s different with others because you have distractions. If they’re guests, you’re entertaining them; you have to be there for them. Cooking for one is a lot easier. Alone, it’s more contemplative, and a wonderful time. I find it’s very hard to read and eat at the same time. I may be glancing at the cartoons in the New Yorker or something, but I’m really concentrating on my food. There’s more awareness when you’re alone.

Is there a particular recipe or particular protein that you’d recommend a young, eager but inexperienced cook should start with?

Well, in the book, I tried to keep in mind the young person who doesn’t even know what to have on hand. There are sidebars and boxes on exactly that: What’s the handiest equipment, what you should have in the vegetable bin, in the refrigerator.

But do you recommend that a novice cook start with something particular, like a roast chicken, or just start with what they have a hankering for?

Yes, start with what you have a hankering for. I just glance around the meat counter, and you might see, oh, lamb shanks, which are delicious because they’re close to the bone, and have juiciness that other parts of the lamb don’t. And they usually sell shanks two to a package. So you cook them on a Sunday, because the shanks take an hour and a half or maybe even two hours to cook. Then you have that other shank–something to play with for the rest of the week. It might go into a bean dish, a classic hash, a pasta sauce. To me, it’s a little treasure waiting to be used. What I want to avoid is cold pork all week.

That’s probably how most people think of leftovers.

They do, but you can make a perfectly delicious sauce that brings it to life. And as Americans, we are so lucky to have absorbed so many influences. You can do a Chinese stir-fry one night, and an Indian curry the next night. Of course, you’ve got to have the spices to do that, but once you’ve invested in the basics. And don’t buy too much of them, and do get rid of them when they turn to dust. Inevitably, there’s some waste, but you can keep it to a minimum.

In your years as an editor, food writing has proliferated. Do you feel that’s a good or bad thing?

Well, I think that it’s good, and particularly the books and food memoirs that remind us of the sources of our food, and that we should be more attentive to what we buy and where it comes from. We’ve let the food industry run us for so long. I know it’s hard if you have a big family, but especially if you’re just one or two, go that extra mile, and buy the grass-fed beef, and maybe have a little less of it. I just think it’s a very good thing that’s been happening, this awareness. And in the long run I hope that it will change people’s habits.

And then there are the memoirs that are inspiring, that make you feel that food is a real art, a real pleasure in our lives. We lost that in the early part of the 20th century, and the recovery has been phenomenal. People are going out and buying Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and they really want to learn. Frankly, I think we’re all a little sick of chef stardom, and food as competition, and the Food Network telling us “We’re more than just food.” Well, who wants to be more than just about food?

On the other hand, Gourmet has just closed, so it’s a contradictory scene isn’t it?

Yes, I was going to ask your thoughts on that.

Young people are using the internet to get their cooking information. It’s fast–you get an answer right away. It’s not always a good answer. But it’s expensive to subscribe to these magazines and they are clutter.

It is sad, though.

Yes it is, it was part of our culture for a long time, since the 1940s.

It was interesting that the restaurant gossip website Eater expanded within the same week that Gourmet closed. Do you think this says anything about the direction food writing is going in?

Well, I think that a lot of the problem with what you get just Googling “roast chicken,” is whose roast chicken? It’s just a formula recipe, without the details. Do you need to massage the chicken breast, as Julia did? It’s just a scientific formula, and that’s not what cooking is. Get the voice back in it. I’m reluctant to let them [online outlets] use recipes without the header, or a sidebar if there is one, because then you get the voice. But signs are good that people want to be able to make a good roast chicken.

I’m sure people have asked you every question imaginable about Julia Child, but would you tell me about a memorable meal you ate with her?

Well I do write about this in the book–there were these occasions when Julia and I would work all day. The energy she had! And one night around ten she said, “Well, let’s stop and make a little dinner.” And she set the table, and looked in the refrigerator for a nice piece of meat. And she said “Judith, why don’t you make a little potato dish?” And so I made a sort of potatoes Anna, of which the French would not approve, and Julia respected the classics, if you know what I mean. I had the sliced potatoes in a little pan, and I had sneaked a little smashed garlic between the layers, which is not traditional. I turned it out onto the plate in a nice, brown circle, and Julia tasted it and she said, “Mmm, good!” And Paul said it was delicious. And I was in cook’s heaven. That was one of my memorable contributions.

People used to ask me, how could you have Julia Child and James Beard to dinner? But both my husband and I felt it was much more fun to cook for people who were appreciative, and might have a good suggestion. You don’t get touchy and personal about that. It’s more fun than cooking for people who say, “I don’t eat this, and I don’t eat that!”

It is hard as a single cook to have a good-sized dinner party. You’re not there enough for the guests, because you’re the cook in the kitchen. Everyone’s laughing at some joke when you bring in the main dish, and you’ve missed it! For dinner parties, I really restrict myself to one-dish meals, like cassoulet. But let’s not dwell on the negatives. I feel people have to get their start cooking for themselves, and then you’re ready for the dinner party.

Are there any cookbooks published in the last year or so that you think are particularly good?

Well, you know, it’s very difficult as an editor–your writers are like your children. You mention one, and then the other says “why didn’t you mention me?” So I will have to dodge the question.

I will say what I generally like in a cookbook. I like the voice, learning something, not just doing a recipe, but learning something about that style of a recipe. I like the cook/writer to explain things. Once you’ve learned something, like the secrets to a good paella for instance, it’s with you forever. That’s what I look for. And I can argue with that person in the kitchen if it doesn’t turn out right.