Legendary book editor Judith Jones is renowned for discovering and editing Julia Child’s first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961. But she was also the literary muse behind many gastronomical luminaries, among them Jacques Pépin, James Beard, Madhur Jaffrey and Edna Lewis. Jones also co-authored three cookbooks with her husband, the food writer and editor Evan Jones. Now widowed, the 85-year-old is about to publish another, The Pleasures of Cooking for One.
Q: You write in the book that after your husband died in 1996 you didn’t think you’d ever enjoy preparing and eating a meal alone. How did you come to rediscover the pleasure in cooking for yourself?
A: I just did it and found that it was so—and at the little table that we always ate at with the candles and nice napkins. He was always a great one for respecting the things that make something pleasing for the eye. He’d never let us put a ketchup bottle on the table, for instance. So I just found it was respecting and honouring something that had been a part of my life. And there was this sense of the past and the present melding.
Q: It seems the stereotypes of people eating alone are someone gulping down something over the sink or eating in front of the television. What is your ritual?
A: I almost always listen to music, either a classical station or something I put on myself. I don’t like the distraction of talking voices. I do often read, though, either a newspaper or The New Yorker. And I always have a glass of wine.
Q: You begin the book with the statistic that 51 per cent of New Yorkers live alone. And studies show that more people now are single than are married. Yet still there’s resistance to cooking well for yourself.
A: Yes, it’s true. I get people whose eyes glaze over when I mention this cookbook. And I know I’m never going to win them. What I hear most of all is “Why should I cook when it’s just for me?” But really, it’s a lack of respect for yourself. Do you just want to grab a bite? I feel it’s not healthy eating if you just grab a bite. If you prepare a nice well-balanced meal and you’re satisfied, you’re not going to be eating in another hour or two, nibbling on something. Also, as I say, sometimes you will push away those two extra hunks of meat, and say “Hmm, that will taste really good with a few beans if I make a little casserole tomorrow night.” You don’t eat more than you need so that you’re satisfied with the pleasure.
Q: Even though we increasingly live alone it seems that we cleave to the idea that cooking is something that’s only worthwhile if it’s done for others.
A: It is engrained. I wrote about cooking for one in Gourmet magazine and one man wrote in to say “What’s wrong with this woman? Why doesn’t she invite the neighbours in?”
Q: What did you say to that?
A: Oh, I didn’t answer [laughs].
Q: What do you say to the common excuse “I don’t have the time.”
A: I always answer: what are you saving your time for? Is it to watch more television? Or to Twitter? It seems to me this is an important part of living and an almost sacred time of day when you get away from your desk and having to talk to people. And you’re able to concentrate on something that’s very sensuous and very pleasing. It’s half an hour of your time. Some people spend that much time on their makeup.
Q: Yet obviously there is an appetite for this information. You write that you received a huge amount of feedback when you included a few recipes for one in your memoir The Tenth Muse.
A: Yes, that’s why I wrote this book. I did get so many responses from people saying: “Tell us more. Tell us about it. What should you have on hand?” They wanted details. So I kept a record of what I did and what I enjoy and I hope I can capture a few minds. For it will change their lives because I believe that people who miss that pleasure miss out on one of the fundamental pleasures of life.
Q: There are a number of cookbooks targeted at cooking for one but they all seem to focus on quick and simple recipes.
A: They focus on one dish, on making only one dish. I focus on one dish leading to another, how you cook through the week. That’s what’s really needed.
Q: Your cookbook is unique, even radical, in including recipes for dishes we don’t associate with cooking for ourselves like cheese soufflé and beef shank and oxtail ragú, for which you offer a second meal, or “second round” [oxtail with grits or polenta] and even a “third round” [penne with a meaty sauce]. I liked that because people who cook for themselves think that if they cook a big stew they’ll end up eating the same boring leftovers for a week.
A: But you shouldn’t have to, particularly if you draw on a lot of cuisines. There’s always that end piece [of meat] where you can make a nice stir fry with vegetables with a Chinese accent. You can add some tomatoes and stock and make a delicious pasta sauce. So you’re going from Chinese to Italian, you’re giving yourself different flavours so you’re not eating cold beef all week. Still, there are problems to be solved [for the person cooking for themselves]. I really wish I could start a revolution.
Q: What sort of problems need to be solved?
A: Well supermarkets make us buy much more than we need to. So the poor lone cook is in the supermarket and thinks, “Do I really need this big bunch of parsley at $1.99? How am I going to use it up?” You can have parsley salad once in a while but you can’t have it every week. I think we should rebel. And if you got enough consumer reaction to being forced to buy more than we want maybe some supermarket would start a campaign saying, “We cater to singles too.” They’d make a fortune.
Q: Where supermarkets do offer single servings is with processed food, which is the worst thing you can eat.
A: Of course. You get twice as much as you need. And someone else is cooking for you and heaven knows what they put in there. That’s another advantage of cooking alone: you’re in control of what you’re eating and there is a growing awareness we should be more in control of our food and not let the food industry get away with what it has gotten away with—ruining our milk, ruining our beef, ruining our poultry. It’s a horror.
Q: The book offers a lot of tips for the solo cook to avoid waste, including one for what to do with the other half of the avocado. [Keep the skin on it and pit in it, rub it with lemon to keep it fresh for days.]
A: It’s not perfect but it’s better than denying yourself an avocado. You do have to make some compromises.
Q: How can people make cooking alone easier for themselves?
A: There are a few things it’s good to have on hand: a good chicken stock, a beef stock. And if you don’t use it all, freeze it in an ice cube tray: that way you can fish out one cube or two and you can use it in a pan sauce or a hundred different ways. That’s number one. I also make three times as much tomato sauce, which I freeze in small containers. I do the same with cream sauce. Also, when your mushrooms are almost over the hill, sauté them in what the French call a duxelles. You get the moisture out and pack them in a freezer bag. They’re delicious in a sauce. I almost want some leftovers so you’re not starting from scratch every time.
Q: Yet you don’t recommend freezing a dish after you’ve made it.
A: I think that’s kind of boring. I don’t generally want the same dish twice. So I try not to cook a chicken and freeze three quarters of it. I would rather use it again.
Q: You’ve also figured out how to minimize mess while cooking.
A: I think cookbooks are far too fussy saying “in a bowl combine this and that.” I have a marble table next to my stove and I put ingredients on that directly. I don’t have to have six bowls. I also find it useful when mixing, say, flour with baking power to do it on wax paper, then to make your own funnel and pour it into the other ingredients. I don’t like having to look at six bowls and unnecessary equipment after my dinner. I like to clean up as much as I can when I go along.
Q: You didn’t include total cooking times with your recipes, which has become a modern cookbook convention. Why is that?
A: I really feel that we’ve gotten too formulaic in our approach to recipes—they read like scientific formulas—instead of trying to enable the cook to use them as guidelines and to use all those senses: your sense of smell, your eye, even your ear so you can judge for yourself. I think this business of putting a quarter of a tablespoon of salt levelled off is nonsense. Just put a little bit of salt in at the beginning and taste. You’re in charge of how much salt you want and what’s right for you. That builds your confidence.
Q: You write that you discovered cooking for yourself offers the freedom to explore because you have to please only yourself. Has it changed how you cook or enjoy cooking in other ways?
A: Yes, when you’re alone you’re more contemplative and mindful of what you’re doing. I think that the most important thing is taking that extra care—focusing. It’s very good for people as they get old—and I’m 85. It keeps you focused, it keeps you alert. So try to keep it relaxing and contemplative and taste, taste, taste. That’s what I’ve learned mostly.
Q: Julia Child was famous for eating everything, with the proviso that it be enjoyed in moderation. Your cookbook doesn’t shirk on desserts, which makes me wonder if this is your philosophy as well.
A: Yes, exactly. I have never had weight problems. I eat butter. I love cheese. I just don’t eat huge amounts.
Q: One of the pleasures of the book is the tips you’ve learned from the famous chefs you’ve worked with, like Edna Lewis’s trick of keeping sugar cubes with a vanilla bean in a tight jar to use for a crunchy sugar topping. Is your boeuf bourguignon borrowed from Julia Child? Certainly it’s a lot easier than her version.
A: It is modified from Julia Child. It’s just a little simpler but it doesn’t sacrifice anything. I steal a lot from my authors. Well, I really don’t steal, I adapt because I’ve learned so much from everyone. I’ve worked with Madhur Jaffrey on Indian cooking. And Irene Kuo on a Chinese cooking book, and Claudia Roden on Middle Eastern cooking. I really have a store of people to draw on; and they’re all there in the kitchen with me so I’m never lonely.
Q: What are you doing next? Another cookbook?
A: I am doing a blog, The Pleasures of Cooking for One [found at judithjonescooks.com], to get a conversation going. Because that is a stumbling block; people feel so alone and they have a fear of failure. I’m just starting to get my feet wet. It’s all new to me. I didn’t grow up with blogs, you know.