Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Fine Read

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Judith Jones' The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. Jones is a fine author but made her mark as editor par excellence at Knopf. She was responsible for bringing The Diary of Anne Frank into print. That alone would seem to be the accomplishment of a lifetime. However, Jones also discovered and published Julia Child, Claudia Rosen, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey and Irene Kuo, to name a few.

The Tenth Muse treats Jones' life from privileged childhood through Paris sojourn, where she meets the man of her dreams, and back to create a life in New York and Vermont. The book provides an engaging portrait of a young woman's coming of age after World War II and moves through the joys and challenges of her professional and personal life. However, let's be clear; this isn't an exhaustive autobiography. Jones falls in love with a married man and waits for his divorce; she treats them always a couple but his children and his ex-wife are not really addressed. Two adopted children appear and then are rarely mentioned again. Authors move in and out of the narrative as situations and story lines allow. I wouldn't call this a comprehensive portrait but rather a series of linked sketches. Still, the book works and is a compelling read.

There are two important things about this book. First and most directly, The Tenth Muse provides a great window in the burgeoning food culture in the United States in the last half of the 20th century. This is the time that America literally learned to cook and Jones was very much a part of that scene. It's worth noting that the scene is very much East Coast centric, New York specifically; luminaries such as Alice Waters seem not have intersected Jones' life or at least didn't make the final edit. Nevertheless, her firsthand experiences, insights into, and shaping of the leading culinary influences of the day prove to be a fascinating read.

What I appreciate most of all about Jones' book is the joy of the amateur made good. She journeys to Paris and stays with nothing more with a desire to develop her taste and a need to work. This is the classic liberal arts student (literally) tasting success. She develops as a person and a professional but conveys a curiosity, desire and spirit that make me long for a seemingly freer age, where opportunity seems to be at arm's reach.

If food is a passion or you wonder how many of our leading culinary influences found the light of broad public acceptance, give The Tenth Muse a read. I think you'll be delighted with Judith Jones. I am still marveling at her independence, boldness, and gifts with words and food.

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