Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Q&A with Sara B. Franklin


Photo by Katrin Bjork


Sara B. Franklin is the author of the new biography The Editor: How Publishing Legend Judith Jones Shaped Culture in America. Her other books include The Phoenicia Diner Cookbook. She is a food writer and historian, and she teaches at New York University.


Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of editor Judith Jones (1924-2017), and how would you describe your own relationship with her?


A: Judith has been something of a personal hero to me ever since I read her 2007 memoir, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to build a life out of my two foremost passions, food and books. I had no models for that, until I discovered Judith.


It was obvious to me, even in reading her memoir (which was written at a fairly surface level, both about her career and her personal life) that Judith had been tremendously important in shaping American food culture, and also what an original she was.


Her path was unconventional, built upon intuition, savvy, and guts. I identified with her, and she became an important model for me. 


Fast forward to fall of 2012. Judith had recently retired from her 56-year-long career at Knopf in 2011, and the Julia Child Foundation (JCF) had set out to conduct an oral history project with Judith, collecting stories of her life and work via interviews.


I was in my first semester of a Ph.D. in food studies in New York at the time, and just happened to be at my oral history professor’s elbow when she opened the query email from the JCF looking for guidance on their project.


My professor looked up at me and said, “You’re a food person, this might be interesting to you” (I was always the “food person” in rooms full of political scientists and historians, sociologists and economists.).


I peeked over my professor’s shoulder, saw the name Judith Jones, and committed the sender’s address to memory. Right after class, I wrote to the JCF, introducing myself and volunteering my help on the project in whatever way I could.


I imagined, if I was lucky, that I’d help gather preparatory research for some seasoned oral historian; at best, perhaps I’d get to meet Judith, shake her hand.


But much to my surprise and delight, after several emails back and forth, the foundation handed me the reins of the project–as lead researcher and interviewer, both–on the condition that Judith and I met and got along well enough to work together. Which is how I ended up at the door of Judith’s Upper East Side apartment on a freezing cold January day in 2013. 


We hit it off right away, and over the course of several months in the spring and summer of 2013, I interviewed her about her life. Before we sat down for our formal conversations, we always cooked and ate lunch together, building ease and rapport as we went. 


The interviews from that project went off to live at the Schlesinger Library (video and audio recordings, as well as transcripts, of our interviews are available to the public there). Our work together was through, but Judith and I remained dear friends until her death in August of 2017. She became an important mentor to me, someone I admired for her wisdom, humor, integrity, and audacity.


But it was more than that; during my time with her, I’d realized her influence on American culture stretched far beyond the realm of food; she was also a heavy-hitting literary editor, and a trailblazer as a woman (and, in the 1960s, a working mother) in publishing at a time when there were few.


I’d long felt, in my gut, that she deserved more public attention and reverence that she got, and more and more, I began to think she deserved a full-length biography.


After Judith’s death, her stepdaughter offered me access to her personal files; there were two rooms full of material! It was an incredible trove of information and detail, opening doors to stories and people (including luminary authors Judith worked with, such as Sylvia Plath) I’d never known anything about when Judith was alive. That’s how the research for this book began in earnest. 

Q: The author Alicia Kennedy said of the book, “Through her editorial work, Judith Jones changed the perception of what it meant to be a woman who cooks. Through The Editor, Sara B. Franklin gives shape and weight to a career that could have continued on as a footnote; in doing so, she proves Jones was too good and influential to live on like that.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think Kennedy was spot on in that assessment. Judith told me that she spent much of her life pushing back against American notions of “the ignominy of cooking,” the idea that cooking is so quotidian, so ho-hum, so invisible that it, and the people who do it, don’t deserve our attention or respect.


Judith, as both an avid home cook and an editor, vehemently disagreed. Of her cookbook authors–the majority of whom were women–Judith said, “They weren’t little housewives; it took courage to be who they were.”


The same applies to Judith, herself. She was born into a kind of privilege that afforded her advantages and choices, and had the vision, moxie, and courage to build a career out of bending convention to change American culture and taste.


Q: What initially got Judith Jones interested in editing books about food?


A: From an early age, she was interested in food, both eating it, and stories about it. She also learned, as a child, that American attitudes towards food largely rejected food as a source of pleasure; Judith’s mother, by all accounts a snobbish and rigid woman, considered food to be “base,” necessary as nourishment, yes, but not something to relish or talk about.


Food became one of the areas where Judith could rebel against the kind of society life she’d been groomed to live. She began cooking with the family’s maid, Edie, who told stories while she cooked, and later experimented with cooking for her father and friends.


But the real transformation came when she went to Paris in 1948, and dated a French journalist who was a wonderful, instinctual home cook. He brought Judith to Parisian markets and into his kitchen, awakening her to both the skill and the sensuality involved in preparing one’s own food. 


When Judith returned to New York in 1951, she couldn’t find any cookbooks that helped her replicate what she’d cooked and eaten in Paris; the ingredients on offer in the U.S. at the time were far inferior, in Judith’s mind (this was the postwar consumerist era of supermarkets and highly-processed foods that radically changed the American food landscape).


And so she was primed when, as an editorial assistant at Knopf in 1959, the manuscript for what became Mastering the Art of French Cooking landed on her desk.


She recognized, immediately, how unique it was for its usability–it was immensely detailed, enough so that someone who knew next to nothing about cooking could use the recipes to success– and believed it could change both the cookbook field and American taste in a major way.


Her bosses at Knopf doubted the book would sell, but Judith sensed, instinctually, that it would. She was right. Today, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is one of the most famous cookbooks in the world, and Julia Child (who was one of three authors of that book) is a global celebrity.


She went on to publish an astonishing number of cookbooks across her long career, many of whose authors–M.F.K. Fisher, Edna Lewis, Claudia Roden, Joan Nathan, James Beard, Madhur Jaffrey, Lidia Bastianich, to name just a few–became, and remain, food writing royalty via Judith’s editorial guidance. 


Q: What do you see as her legacy today?


A: Judith is one of the least-recognized, but most influential, figures in 20th and early 21st century American culture. She was a remarkably versatile editor who worked on poetry, fiction, history, journalism, scholarly work and, of course, cookbooks for nearly 60 years. The depth and range of her career is astonishing.


As readers, we often fail to ask who’s shaping the stories that we’re exposed to, or don’t realize that authors’ work doesn’t just spring, fully formed, into print. Editors are the invisible force behind the scenes, working with authors to shaping stories, and, in so doing, shaping the ideas to which we are exposed, and thus our culture.


Judith was also an incredible champion of pleasure. She refused to give in to what she called Puritanical notions of pleasure–especially in the areas of food and sex–which framed pleasure as vulgar, something to be avoided or hidden. Judith believed pleasure to be a birthright, something to which everyone has access, and an empowering lifeforce.


Even today, Americans have an uncomfortable relationship to pleasure; we’re very susceptible to the notion that pleasure comes with guilt or shame. Judith’s stance on pleasure is still unconventional today, but when she was a young woman, it was seen as downright radical. She was a true trailblazer on that front.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m still in the very early phases of thinking about my next project, and so I’m hesitant to go into too much detail.


But in broad brushstrokes, it’s a book that’s more personal and more overtly political than this one, a book exploring what happens when we stop trying to escape our geography, our bodies, and our ties to one another, and instead stay put.


It’s about the richness that comes from choosing depth over breadth, about setting roots (or acknowledging what already holds us in place) rather than constantly living at the surface, seeking novelty and, in so doing, spreading ourselves thin and feeling isolated, without a sense of belonging. Its working title is “Going Nowhere.”


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment