About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

#29 - The Tenth Muse

"The best Italian cooking is in the home, and that, if you are going to enjoy this daily pleasure, 'You must give liberally of time, of patience, of the best raw materials. What it returns is worth all you have to give.'" --Marcella Hazan

"'I seem to be drawn to scenes involving food, and I think that's because people's attitudes toward food reveal so much about them. Are they feeders, or withholders? Enjoyers, or self-deniers? What exactly is on their plates -- or in the saucepans they're eating directly from as they're hunching over the stove? It's all a kind of shortcut to tell my readers whom they're dealing with.'" --Anne Tyler

"'If you take away from food the wholeness of growing it or take away the joy and conviviality of preparing it in your own home, then I believe you are talking about a whole new definition of the human being.'" --Wendell Berry

"When I pursued the root of the word 'religious,' I found that it is thought to spring from religare, meaning 'to bind, to tie fast, to reconnect.' Isn't that what we do when we cook? We reconnect again to the earth, to the source of our food, and we bind to one another in the sharing of it, the breaking of bread together, the celebrating of life."
--Judith Jones
As anyone who knows me can attest, I'm a foodie. I love just about everything about food and cooking, from growing it to grocery shopping to hunting for recipes to sitting down with friends and family for an appetizing, home-cooked meal. (I do not, however, love doing the dishes.) It's not too surprising, then, that The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, by Judith Jones, struck me as a potential good read. It didn't disappoint; on the contrary, I was bowled over by how much I enjoyed both Jones' writing style and what she had to say.

The dust jacket describes Jones as a "legendary editor who helped shape modern cookbook publishing," and that's probably not hyperbole; she championed and shepherded the publication of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The Tenth Muse is her memoir, retracing her steps from a no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes childhood in World War II New York and Vermont to college days at Bennington to an extended post-college sojourn in Paris (where she discovered and fell in love not only with her future husband, Evan Jones, but with the pleasures of the French kitchen and table) to an illustrious publishing career. And I was a bit skeptical at first; most people's life stories aren't nearly as interesting in the second or third person, and after a promising first chapter, Jones devotes two chapters to her time in Paris. Initially, these read like an elderly relative relating old memories in far too much detail, but that's just because you have to soldier on a bit further to Get It. The reader needs to be as deeply immersed in the French approach to food as Jones herself was to understand how driven she later became to translate these attitudes and techniques to the U.S. -- where in the mid-1950s, remember, "a casserole of canned string beans mixed with a can of mushroom soup and topped with canned fried noodles was more to everyone's liking," and many of the fresh vegetables, herbs, cheeses, and variety meats essential to French cooking weren't even available in most places.

Where The Tenth Muse really shines, in my opinion, is when Jones veers a bit further afield from the strictly personal, and offers her take on the evolution of attitudes toward food and cooking in the U.S. from the 1940s up through the present day. She may assign Julia Child an overly large role in this transformation -- after all, this is Jones' story, and Child was her star client -- but she hardly suggests that Child did it single-handedly, and makes numerous reference to Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and other food-world notables of the era even in the "Julia to the Rescue" chapter. Their efforts, together with other beyond-the-kitchen trends in international travel and immigration, opened the floodgates, and Jones talks extensively about the influence of "ethnic" cooks and cuisines (Marcella Hazan's Italian, Madhur Jaffrey's Indian, Claudia Roden's Middle Eastern, and Irene Kuo's Chinese, to name a few), and then devotes a chapter to defining "what, in fact, is American cooking," admitting straight away that doing so "proved to be more elusive than we'd anticipated."

Personally, I was most excited by two of the last chapters. In "What is Taste?" she tackles the questions "Can taste be acquired? Is there good hunger and bad hunger?" More than once, I myself have had the same experience she describes of preparing a mouthwatering homemade casserole to please a young guest, only to have it rejected because s/he preferred the boxed stuff and declared that my own version wasn't really mac and cheese, so I felt vindicated by her discussion of processed food producers' tactics:
"'Those "comfort foods,"' [Schlosser] writes, 'become a source of pleasure and reassurance, a fact that fast food chains work hard to promote.' ... And it is obviously important for them to ensnare the taste buds of the young. That way, their victims are hooked -- once that ersatz flavor is imprinted on the taste memory, the real undiluted flavor no longer attracts. Their taste is corrupted, often for life."
Next, in "Treasures of the Earth," she talks about the rise of the organic and local foods movements, and their implications and impact. While I don't think I'll be craving fried beaver tail any time soon, I did find myself battling the urge to run down cellar mid-chapter to croon over my leek and broccoli seedlings. (I succumbed this morning before work, but I usually do this time of year, even if all I've been reading is the newspaper.)

While I did relish the wide-lens approach Jones takes in the latter half of the book, it's also my chief criticism; this volume can't quite decide whether to be an autobiography, or a broader social history, and the focus shifts pretty noticeably midway through. (My other criticism is that almost a third of the real estate is taken up by recipes, but that's mostly just sour grapes, as I don't dare test-drive 'em in my own kitchen with a library copy of the book.) This isn't a fatal flaw, though ... particularly given that it's still a fairly short book (200 pages even if you don't count the recipes), and written in such a generally warm and engaging style.

All right, this is the second night in a row this book has kept me up past bedtime, and the low batteries in my keyboard are finally giving up the ghost. I'm taking that as a sign that it's time to power down and recharge.

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