When editor Judith Jones received the manuscript for Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, it was exactly what she had been looking for in her own kitchen. “And if I felt that way, there must be others out there,” Mrs. Jones said from her summer home in Vermont. For her and many Americans, it wasn’t just another cookbook. It was a teaching book.

Mrs. Jones was Mrs. Child’s editor, and because she saw a spark that no one else saw, Americans were able to get out of their boxed dinners and back into the kitchen. Mrs. Jones will be speaking of this experience and her life in food at the Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard annual potluck dinner tonight.

The morning the Gazette spoke to her, Mrs. Jones was planning on lamb chops from a local purveyor for dinner. “I’m alone tonight, but I’ll have a second lamb chop to play with tomorrow, maybe do some beans or a casserole dish one night.”

She does this quite often, purposefully keeping a second round to play with, maybe adding some fresh peas another night with a few potatoes. In her book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, Mrs. Jones encourages her readers to use the “second round” to experiment, and she gives people tools to do so.

“Nobody quite knows how to work out the whole strategy you need for thinking for one, for trying to buy small amounts and how to extend them,” Mrs. Jones said of the challenge. “Mostly I wanted to convey the pleasure in cooking in a kind of improvisational way. It’s creative, relaxing, you spend far less money, it’s better for you, you know what you’re eating, and you’re in charge of your own food.”

A hands-on editor, Mrs. Jones gets right in the kitchen with the authors she mentors and critiques. “I don’t like when a recipe is just turned over to a writer,” she said. “It is that person who is cooking that has something new to say. I want to hear that voice, and sometimes just being there and asking questions something evolves.”

As a result, the people she has worked with have become her family. “They’re my children, and I learn from them,” she said. “I enjoy it, and I think I’m more helpful being that much more hands on. I learn things all the time; it never stops.”

Some of the cooks, chefs and writers she’s learned from include Jacques Pepin, Marcella Hazan, James Beard, Marion Cunningham, John Updike and Vineyarder Joan Nathan, who invited Mrs. Jones to speak at tonight’s dinner. “This was a lure I couldn’t resist,” Mrs. Jones said of Ms. Nathan’s request.

Her most famous author was of course Mrs. Child. The two first met in letter correspondence, and when they finally met in person, their introductions had gone from “Dear Mrs. Jones” and “Dear Mrs. Child” to a comfortable first name exchange. “She was always accompanied by [her husband] Paul, and I can remember him saying, ‘Now Julia, put that to the test.’

“She was a tall, Smith College gal who had a passion, you could tell that immediately,” Mrs. Jones said of their first meeting, adding: “What she wanted was to teach us the finesse of good cooking.”

French cooking to be specific, which Mrs. Child believed was the only acceptable codified technique of cooking.

“She awakened America to good taste and the enjoyment of cooking,” Mrs. Jones said. “We had been smothered in a blanket of Puritanism,” she said of the time before Mrs. Child’s influence. In her wake, America was learning to smother butter on just about anything, and take abject pleasure in it.

Mrs. Jones’s favorite guests at her table were Mrs. Child and James Beard, chef, writer and the namesake of the highest cooking award. “They were a great combination,” Mrs. Jones recalled. “People asked me, weren’t you afraid to cook for them? I’d say, I’d so much rather cook for people who liked to eat.”

It was Mr. Beard’s “do as we please” American attitude, Mrs. Jones said, that gave her a kind of freedom. “I had hard work from Julia, and I needed Beard to let me let go a little.”

Her career has seen her at the helm a food revolution in the 1950s. She also read and recommended the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank. She is today senior editor and vice president of Alfred A. Knopf. But Mrs. Jones’s greatest rewards in life are the simpler ones.

“When you’ve learned something from a book or an authority, then you make it your own and play with it,” she said, of cooking specifically. “Suddenly you use a little bit of that tarragon in the garden, or add a little bit of sorrel with a fishcake ... A new taste comes, and it’s just right. It’s a thrilling moment.”

When asked if she had a favorite food or recipe, Mrs. Jones said she often avoids the question; if she does answer, her response usually is whatever is in season. “The wonderful thing about cooking is it changes all the time,” she said. “Part of the pleasure is, it’s not written in stone.”

Mrs. Jones considers “eating slowly” an extension of the food revolution that Mrs. Child brought about 50 years ago. “It’s such fun once you start practicing it, growing a few herbs, bringing a little something from the earth to the table.

“We are respecting our food more instead of grabbing our bite, the great American way.”

The American way, a roller coaster of eating habits, always has been a leading example, in both good ways and bad.

“America has been in forefront in terms of embracing new tastes,” Mrs. Jones said. “That’s partly because we are such a mixed country of so many ethnic personalities and tastes.

“We care about food but we don’t always show it,” she added. “I feel that an important force are the people who are trying to make families aware of what they’re feeding to their children.”

While in the past Americans looked to Mrs. Child for leadership in the new age of eating, Mrs. Jones said first lady Michelle Obama and chefs such as Jaime Oliver are some of the new leaders of the movement.

“Without being censorious, [Jaime Oliver] is really trying to stimulate people and make them realize the consequences of the bad eating that we indulge in America,” she said. “A lot of people are getting on the bandwagon.”

Mrs. Jones is wary of Americans’ tendency to be extremist; she reminds eaters and cooks alike to be flexible. “With all the new trends, you can’t be too fanatic,” she said. “You want to bring a bit of that to home cooking, because you don’t just follow rigid formulas; you want to make people aware of cooking with their senses.

“This awareness has finally penetrated to the home kitchen and to how people shop,” Mrs. Jones added. “We’ve got a long way to go but things are going to multiply and really hit.”

So what would Julia think of the way we’re eating today?

“She would like particularly if she could see how many young people are involved,” Mrs. Jones said of her friend who died in 2005. “She would have been thrilled that young people wanted to learn from her.”

Mrs. Jones is just as enthusiastic about younger generations taking responsibility for their eating habits. “There’s been an amazing change that has taken place in the past 50 years,” she said. “Particularly today, there is finally an awareness of what we’re buying and what we’re looking for and trying to use better local products that you know something about.”

When Mrs. Jones isn’t cooking for herself, she enjoys dining at Claire’s in Hardwick, Vt., and Elements in St. Johnsbury, Vt., or the Grammercy Tavern when she’s at home in New York city.

But cooking for one has become a routine, and she enjoys the company of her three-month-old puppy at her feet. “What I really love is to watch the sun go down and eat my own food.”


The Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard sixth annual potluck is tonight from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury. Please bring a local dish prepared to serve six people. A $10 donation for members, students and teens and $15 for other adults is suggested. The event is BYOB and bring your own place setting. For more information, see online slowfoodmarthasvineyard.org.