So I just finished Judith Jones food memoir, The Tenth Muse – My Life in Food.
Overall, it was kind of meh. It was an entertaining read to be sure, but I really wish she had a better balance of the food/life thing. The first chapter on her early childhood is strong, talking about how her family ate (like the Brits which means not that great). She talks about the Anglo-saxon cultural influences of not wanting to enjoy pleasure in food. She talks about her one aunt who is a great cook. One funny anecdote that really is illuminating is how grea the food was a Bennington college andh ow students had to help with the food prep.
As the book goes on, that healthy balance of personal and food swings wildly from one way to another. She does a lot of talking about food when she writes about her time in France (at some point she flogs it to death and you wish she’d just get the hell back to the United States). It’s fascinating to see the expat life of people. She’s got a great story of how she and other folksi n her circle of journalists and writers actually started and underground restaurant. But then she kind of glosses over the personal stuff that is kind of momentous. The most egregious example is when she talks about her future husband Evan. She says she shares an apartment with him and another writer. And then at the end of the chapter, you find out she doesn’t want to go back to the United States until he gets divorced from his wife. Up until that point you didn’t know they were a couple. Especially important since he wasm arried with two kids at the time. It seems awfully self-centered that she doesn’t even seem to care she’s breaking up a family. But she spends no time on the conflict. So why even talk about Evan then?
After discovering the Diary of Anne Frank for a publisher, she goes back to the United States and starts editing some more. We get a long and extensive history of her editing Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her lifelong relationship with Julie Child. This is where the book regains its stride as we hear about Julia’s gift for writing a cookbook and communicating and the tranformation of the food Americans cook.
But after that it’s a cavalcade of name dropping as we get a paragraph on Marcella Hazan, Lidia Bastianich, and a zillion other cookbook writers. YOu barely get a sense of the food they are cooking and get only a snapshot of the people themselves. It’s here where Judith Jones’ own personal history is just pushed to the background.
Even in the later chapters of the book where it’s focused on her life in Vermont and the adoption of a neighbor’s children, she raises more questions about who she is than answers them. All of those life experiences scream for elaboration, of which Judith Jones gives none. Interspersed are her thoughts on American eating, all of which were well covered by the United States of Arugula.
I thin kthis book wants to be a cross between the history of the United States of Argula and the personal storytelling of a Ruth Reichl memoir but Judith Jones ends of holding back on both counts.
The recipes at the end of the book are killer though.