“When I was growing up, we didn’t talk about food at the table. It was sort of vulgar, like talking about sex at the table. We didn’t say, ‘Yum, yum,’” moaned publisher Judith Jones with mock lasciviousness.
It’s only natural that Jones, who has summered in Vermont her whole life and now spends each late spring through October in the Northeast Kingdom, should have a sense of humor about the stuffiness of bygone food culture. After all, she helped bring American dining into the 20th century. Anyone who has seen the 2009 film Julie & Julia knows that the now 87-year-old Jones was the editor at publisher Alfred A. Knopf who rescued Julia Child’s classic tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking from the reject bin.
At a Bastille Day dinner in Greensboro honoring the book’s 50th anniversary, Jones recalled that Knopf executives complained, “If a book by that name sells, I’ll eat my hat.” She continued, “The men working at Knopf said, ‘Mrs. Child, no American woman wants to know this much.’”
Luckily for American gourmets, Jones and Child were right about the home cook’s hunger for knowledge. Another guest at the dinner, Montpelier-based food historian Jeff Roberts, talked about witnessing that shift. “When I majored in history, no one talked about food. Man, how things have changed,” he said in wonder. Though many credit the Food Network with the foodie-fication of America, it could be argued that 50 years ago, Mastering the Art of French Cooking fired one of the first shots in our nation’s culinary conquest.
Dressed in white, with aqua glass beads around her neck and subdued green eye shadow to match, petite Jones looked far too young to have logged kitchen time in Child’s early days. So it was a surprise when she told Seven Days that her father’s family used to travel by horse and buggy to visit family in the Barre-Montpelier area.
“I’ve always had deep ties to Vermont,” Jones said, then described how her Green Mountain relatives taught her the value of food. In Montpelier, Jones’ grandmother fed hungry “popos” (poor people) during the Depression, advertising with a sign in a tree in front of her house that read “Friendly.” One of Jones’ aunts, married to a doctor, would stay up late making his favorite foods while he was on his rounds. “It was truly an act of love,” Jones said.
Despite her Vermont experiences, and a love affair with Parisian food in the late 1940s and early ’50s that paralleled Child’s, Jones had never worked on a cookbook before Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Instead, she’d made her name editing the works of John Hersey and John Updike and rescuing another now-iconic book from the reject pile, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.
But food became the focus for Jones, now a Knopf senior editor and vice president. She’s shepherded works by cookbook luminaries such as James Beard, Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden and Lidia Bastianich. Eventually Jones began writing cookbooks of her own, while her husband, Evan, did much of the work at their Vermont farm. Jones’ BrynTeg farm is still one of 55 suppliers to USDA-certified Hardwick Beef, which distributes grass-fed beef all over the Northeast.
When Evan passed away in 1996, Jones took to the kitchen solo and produced her modern classic, 2009’s The Pleasures of Cooking for One. “[Doing]the whole act of cooking, I don’t feel as alone as I might,” she told Seven Days.
In Vermont, Jones is far from alone. At the Bastille Day dinner held at Greensboro’s Lakeview Inn, friends and family surrounded her, including Jones’ stepdaughter, Bronwyn Dunne, a chic South Burlington culinary instructor and the event’s organizer. Also present was famed food writer Marian Burros, who lives nearby when she’s not at work in Washington, D.C.
The dinner’s first course arrived — and, said Jones, memories flooded back with it. No wonder, since Global Bite Catering had prepared four courses from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The entrée was a collection of three amuse-gueules that were favorites of both Child’s and Jones’. “Céleri-rave rémoulade is something you always had,” Jones later said of the mustardy slaw made from crunchy celeriac. “Julia introduced me to mushrooms à la Grecque,” the grande dame continued, referring to the tender fungi simmered in water, oil and herbs.
While Vermont chefs have mastered terrine preparation in these recent, charcuterie-obsessed years, Global Bite’s terrine de porc, veau et jambon still stood out. Topped with a yellow pansy and multicolored flower petals, the tender chunks of meat were speckled with thyme and worked in savory unity while maintaining their individual characters. Best of all, a cap of fat at the top was perfect for spreading on warm bread.
The diners — many sporting pins with the logo of the École des Trois Gourmandes, after the informal culinary school founded by Child and her cookbook collaborators — didn’t have to wait long for le plat principal. Hardwick Beef provided chunks of stew meat for boeuf à la Catalane. The simple, mild, tomato-based sauce coated the slightly toothsome beef in a dish that might have been too wintry for the hot day if it were not for the cool, tangy ratatouille accompanying it. The gratin Dauphinois was rich but not heavy, flavored with Comté cheese that stretched in the middle layers and crackled on top.
Another of Jones’ many friends in the Kingdom is Andy Kehler, co-owner and herd manager of Jasper Hill Farm. When he rose to introduce three cheeses aged in his Greensboro cave, he received rock-star treatment, drawing hoots and professions of love for his cheese from the mostly retirement-age diners.
Audience requests for one of Kehler’s biggest hits — Winnimere — went unfulfilled, however. He explained that the late-winter favorite is currently off season. Instead, Kehler had brought Bayley Hazen Blue, the cellar’s signature nutty, sweet and sour blue cheese. Servers presented simple green salads, once again dressed with purple and gold petals. Diners tossed in the blue cheese, along with sharp-but-creamy Cabot clothbound cheddar and Scholten Family Farm’s soft, mild and wonderfully umami bloomy-rinded Weybridge.
After the meal, Jones sang Jasper Hill’s praises along with the other diners. Of Kehler’s brother, Mateo, she said, “Just like a great cook, he has a genius to bring things to their proper fruition. I don’t know all the cheeses, but he’s never failed.”
Julia Child’s favorite dessert was the final course. Global Bite chef Charlie Hays had taken to heart Child’s advice to do his own variation on the rich chocolate Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) cake. It’s usually flavored with pulverized almonds and almond extract; his version contained amaretto for a boozy, nut-flavored burn.
Burros declared the cake delicious, but, in true French style, it was the taste of the terroir that stole that show. Light, slightly sweet whipped cream and a pile of vine-fresh wild strawberries provided two of the most satisfying flavors of the night.
Living in Vermont seems to have instilled in Jones a preference for fresh fare. Every few weeks, she said, wildcrafters Nova Kim and Les Hook visit her with a special delivery. She described preparing a recent favorite, angelica root, also known as wild celery. “I found that the stalk is quite hard. It needs three or four minutes steeping,” she said. When the root is malleable, Jones stuffs it, like a gourmet version of ants on a log, with wild mushrooms and breadcrumbs.
“That’s what I love about those things,” she said of cooking with wild edibles. “I never throw anything out. I think we’ve become a very wasteful society. It challenges your creativity — you can always make a little of that or a little of this.”
Being in the beef biz has helped her to use cattle in the same way. “There’s no offal I don’t love,” Jones said with an excited smile. “The heart, the cheeks, brains. I love sweetbreads.” But with organ meats, she noted, “You have to be careful and take care. You can’t just throw it in a pan.”
How did the accomplished cook enjoy Global Bite’s feast, even without offal and wild angelica? “I thought the food was delicious,” said Jones. “I had a lot of nostalgic moments. [Hays] didn’t follow [Child’s book] slavishly. Julia wanted you to be creative.”
Jones will have more time to experiment with culinary variations of her own starting this fall, when she officially retires from publishing. That’s not to say she’ll be taking it easy. Besides working on another book of her own, Jones will continue to consult with writers, just not professionally. “I want to be able to say no,” she said with a naughty chortle.
To celebrate Jones’ new liberty, she and Dunne will host a culinary event over Columbus Day weekend, once again at the Lakeview Inn. Burros will be there, and Jones hopes Indian actress and cookbook star Jaffrey, whose long-ago American stage debut was at St. Michael’s Playhouse in Colchester, will also join in the fun.
No matter what follows for Jones, it’s fair to say she’ll be keeping busy — and eating well.