The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food by Judith Jones.

the-tenth-museI can’t think of the last time I read a memoir that was as aptly named as Judith Jones’s The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food.  I don’t necessarily mean the “muse” part; Ms. Jones’s “life in food” is so apropos, as each of the book’s three hundred pages devotes practically every single word to food, eating, cooking and cuisine.  Not only that, but also consider this: basically each of Ms. Jones’s days has somehow involved the analysis of food.

As an expat in post-World War II Paris, Ms. Jones first learned about cooking and food — well-seasoned, lovingly-prepared food.  In addition to waking up her culinary senses, Ms. Jones describes her life traipsing around the French capital, details of which sound positively ahead of their time.  Who else can you think of that ran an illicit supper club in a princess’s apartment?  Not many names come to mind, if any at all.

Eventually, Ms. Jones becomes an editor for Knopf; while she goes on to work with and befriend such people as Anne Tyler, Marcella Hazan and John Updike, it is her relationship with Julia Child that is by far the most interesting.  As the woman who brought Mastering the Art of French Cooking to America, Ms. Jones also brought us Julia Child herself.

Of course, there’s more to both the memoir and memoirist than Julia Child and la belle France; Ms. Jones tells tales of friendship with Jeffrey Steingarten, of cooking with Lidia Bastianich and traveling with her husband.  In some ways. Ms. Jones’s writing reminds me of M.F.K. Fisher; both describe their prim culinary upbringing and their food-related travels, and both women came-of-age in Paris — something I’m obscenely jealous of.  And, as in the case of Ms. Fisher, I can’t bring myself to call Ms. Jones anything other than that — this is a grand dame of cooking and writing here.  She deserves respect, I think.  Maybe I’m uncharacteristically old-fashioned in this way, but there you go.

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler.

alone-in-the-kitchen-with-an-eggplant I had picked up Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone several times last year, but for one reason or another, I never purchased the book.  It was getting to the point that I thought perhaps I was jinxed, and that the reading experience wasn’t meant to be.  This is what I went through: no room in my suitcase when flying home from Oregon after going a little overboard at Powell’s; only a copy with a torn cover at the bookseller’s at home; out of stock.  Finally, though, a happy ending: I recently got my hot little hands on a pristine edition, which I promptly toted around town.

Here’s the concept behind the book: editor Jenni Ferrari-Adler was living alone for the first time in 2004 while at grad school in Michigan.  As she adjusted to the Ann Arbor rhythms, Ferrari-Adler realized a few things.  Firstly, that she had to “remember how to make friends,” something I know I personally forgot how to do after leaving college.  Secondly, that she was loaded — with time.  She writes:

There were hours… everywhere I looked. In addition to time, I had a galley kitchen, a shelf of cookbooks, two heavy pots, and a chef’s knife. I lived near the farmers’ market, a cooperative grocery, and a butcher shop. My bicycle had a basket. Which is all to say it was an excellent domestic setup.

In the midst of a rough winter, Ferrari-Adler makes for herself a meal following an Amanda Hesser recipe.  As she eats, she reads “Single Cuisine,” Hesser’s piece on cooking for one, and comes to a realization:

This was all I really wanted — to be let in on other people’s secrets. What better place to start than in their kitchens?  Remembering Laurie Colwin’s essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” …I giggled [reading] the description of Colwin’s absurdly small Greenwich Village apartment, “the coziest place on earth,” where she did dishes in the bathtub. She’d brought her kitchen into my living room… The connectedness I felt was the opposite of the drifting into space I’d experienced whenever I spent more than three consecutive nights alone. We read to feel close to people we don’t know, to get into other people’s heads. I get the same sensation of intimacy from following a recipe. I began to scheme: Hesser, Colwin, and me … maybe I could break the silence and help men and women everywhere be less alone together.

And so, Ferrari-Adler shoots off correspondences to writers like my beloved Ann Patchett, my old teacher Steve Almond and grand dame Marcella Hazan.  It’s incredible, to read of Jeremy Jackson‘s romance with beans and editor Holly Hughes’s frustrations with cooking for a family.  It’s also, of course, impossible to thumb through an anthology such as this without thinking about what you yourself had cooked or currently cooks when putting together a meal for one.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had to make a full-blown dinner for just me.  Lunches I make all the time, lately something like a mâche and mixed herb salad with yellow tomatoes, crumbles of French feta, half a segmented orange and the barest sprinkle of lemon juice swirled with olive oil, sea salt and freshly grated pepper, eaten with some chicken or maybe fruit.  Dinner, on the other hand…

But when I did cook for just one, there were a lot of empty pasta boxes in the trash.  I remember one dish involving a tomato deseeded, diced and sealed in a container with its sundried sisters, sliced olives and olive oil; this mixture would sit in the fridge overnight, and the next evening I’d empty the jar over penne and toss a few basil leaves on top.  Another meal was spaghetti mixed with plain yogurt, then doused with garlic powder.  Yet another: rotini, cubes of mozzarella, olives, more sundried tomatoes, chopped red peppers and an entire bottle of Kraft Light Done Right! Italian dressing, eaten cold.

If not pasta, then eggs.  I would place the largest skillet on the stove, and glide a nugget of butter directly in its center.  While it melted, I mixed three eggs together with diced yellow peppers and milk.  Then I would pour it all into the skillet and reduce the heat to medium; once the edges crisped, I’d use a spatula to push the cooked bits to the side and tilt pan to and fro until the liquid eggs set.  Just before sliding it onto my plate, I’d fold slices of Kraft American cheese into raggedy squares and scatter them across the eggs’ surface.  Later, on my futon, I’d use my finger to swipe the dish clean.

Not so glamorous stuff, this, but if I may — that marinated sundried tomato pasta dish was so good.  My cheesy scramble too.