Judith Jones and Adam Gopnik in Conversation

The Westport (CT) Public Library’s most recent community reading selection was Julia Child’s My Life in France. One of the highlights of this 10th anniversary of WestportREADS was a special event with Judith Jones and Adam Gopnik.

Adam Gopnick and Judith Jones

The two writers are both foodies and, from the sound of it, have been friends for decades.

I was familiar with Judith Jones, having read My Life in France and seen the movie Julie & Julia. Adam Gopnik, however, is new to me. I look forward to reading his work. Upon hearing I’d attended the event one friend told me Gopnik is one of her favorite writers and another friend offered me a copy of his book Paris to the Moon (which I’ll take her up on when I got back for a visit to Chicago).

Judith Jones is now 90 (I Googled it). She’s sharp and obviously comfortable with Adam. When pressed to recommend a good French restaurant in NYC or the Westport area Jones admitted she doesn’t go out to eat much and actually said that she doesn’t consider NYC a good place to go out for dinner. Gopnik, who also doesn’t go out to eat much, agreed. The restaurants are loud and there is a woeful lack of classic French restaurants.

I highly recommend the audio version of My Life in France (especially if your French is awful).

Below are some snippets from the conversation:

Paleo vs. French Food
Both Jones and Gopnik bemoaned the popularity of the Paleo diet and quipped that French food tastes better. Jones was living in Paris in the years following World War II and was there when white flour returned. After years of making bread from scrapings, cheers resounded in the streets. Now Americans prefer scrapings. Julia and Paul Child lived well into their 90s. Jones looks fit as a fiddle at 90. That, to me, says a lot about the benefits of French cooking and real food.

Paris Restaurant Recommendation
Gopnik had a few restaurant recommendations, but Jones recommended that when visiting Paris you rent a little apartment with a kitchen and take advantage of the bounty of ingredients found in French markets and cook for yourself. That’s some hardcore foodie talk.

How to Spot a Fake French Foodie
Also, if you were ever wondering how to tell a pseudo French foodie from the Real Thing it is this: if there’s not a baguette consumed, it is not French. The baguette is not just bread, it is a way of life. You can tell if you have a good baguette if is has those lovely holes (but not too many) and if those holes are shiny.

Only Maids Cook
Jones and Child had a close personal relationship as well as a professional one. Their lives took similar paths. Both grew up in families with a cook because their parents thought cooking was drudge work. Jones’s parents couldn’t understand her interest in cooking. She says it released her, they couldn’t believe it was something that could be enjoyable. As a kid, Jones was always interested in learning what the family’s “maid of all work” would be cooking for her boyfriend back in Harlem after work. She said it was always much more interesting than the bland fare ordered for her family’s table.

What sort of work did Jones have to do on Julia’s manuscript? 
Not much, she said. Child’s manuscript was near perfect. What was needed was a few more “masculine” meat and potato type dishes. Jones did the leg work on finding substitutions for ingredients that were not then available in US grocery stores.

Paris to the Moon by Gopnik

The asbestos problem in Volume II
Just around the time Volume II of Mastering the Art of French Cooking was nearing completion, Jones had a doctor over for dinner. Asbestos came up in conversation. Asbestos tiles were recommended in Volume II for the baking of baguettes. The doctor told Jones that the medical profession was starting to learn about the ill health effects of asbestos. Still, Jones let that first edition of Volume II run. The asbestos recommendation was removed from the second edition. She’s only started talking about that recently, believing that its too late to be sued now.

You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too
Gopnik told a funny story about his grandfather who’d come from Russia as a younger man and learned English. After living in this country for decades, he asked Gopnik one day what the phrase You Can’t Have Your Cake and Eat It Too meant. He couldn’t figure it out. What else do you do with your cake but eat it? Excellent point.

Illustrations in Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Paul took pictures of Julia cooking from above, looking down. It was important to see what was going on from the cook’s point of view. His photos were used by Sidonie Coryn to illustrate the book.

“You don’t edit Elizabeth David.”
Jones also edited the British cook and cult figure Elizabeth David. Jones mentioned David, saying that, “she put her book through.” Jones laughed and then added, “You don’t edit Elizabeth David.” Apparently Ms. David was a force to be reckoned with.

On John Updike
Jones also edited Updike. Gopnik, who knew Updike, wondered why there were scant references to food in his writing. Jones thought of one reference and then added that, “his wives kept him down.” Everyone laughed at that, then Jones referred to a time when Updike was traveling (in Paris, I think she said) and his wife insisted on not going out so they ate room service for the duration.

“I’ll always be a bastard.”
Jones went to an award ceremony with Roy Andries De Groot, author of A Feast for All Seasons, who was blind. At the ceremony the presenter, much to De Groot’s chagrin, went on and on about how wonderful he was. As Jones and De Groot were leaving he said to her, “I’ve always been a bastard and I’ll always be a bastard, they can’t treat me that way!”

The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Jones

Celebrity chefs are not good writers
Someone asked what Julia Child would have thought of the Food Network.  Jones joked that Child
would be reserved and polite in public but then be more open in private after a drink. Joking aside, Jones said that Child didn’t like it when the cooking was sacrificed for something showy. Jones claimed that Child actually didn’t mind celebrity cooks as much as she does. Jones said she doesn’t like celebrity cooks “because they’re not good writers.” Ouch. That comment killed the topic, but Gopnik did a smooth job of transitioning into a new conversational stream.

Three short bits:

  • When Jones was finally granted an expense account at Knopf, she was called out for leaving tips that were too large.
  • Butchers in France still feel obligated to tell customers how to cook the meat you’re buying.
  • The movie Julie & Julia probably sold about around three million copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. 

The conversation was a delight and I’m not even a foodie. The most wonderful thing about Julie Child, both Jones and Gopnik agreed, is that whereas other cooks make things seem impossible, Julie Child made everything seem possible. What a gift that spirit was to the world.


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