This award is given to a book or body of work that has had a significant and enduring impact on the way we cook and understand food.
When Judith Jones “cheekily,” as she puts it, telephoned James Beard to ask him to look over proofs for a new book on French cooking that she was editing, he not only praised the work, he launched a campaign to introduce New York’s food world to its authors, Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child. Their book, of course, was Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the instant classic that changed the way Americans thought about cooking and altered the course of cookbook publishing.
Jones not only made cookbook writing a respectable art, she made it a writer’s art. Her background, after all, is not home economics, but literature. (She famously rescued The Diary of Anne Frank from the slush pile at the Paris office of Doubleday publishing. “That book by that kid?” her boss said.) Even as she set about establishing higher expectations for cookbook writing—insisting that the cook’s voice should be heard in recipes and banishing clunky phrases like “in a bowl, combine”—she continued to edit the fiction of John Updike, Anne Tyler, and other notable authors at Alfred A. Knopf.
With an eye for discovery, Jones introduced us to new worlds of cooking and to authors who taught up-and-coming chefs and home cooks to seek out unfamiliar flavors as well as forgotten foodways from their own neighborhoods and family traditions. Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis, Claudia Roden, Irene Kuo, Nina Simonds, Joan Nathan, Lidia Bastianich, Jacques Pépin, and Child are just a few of the important writers who have credited Jones as a true collaborator in shaping their books. When Jones came up with the idea to revive The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and hired Marion Cunningham (recommended by Beard for the job), she helped spark a new interest in American cooking and, in Cunningham, gave us another beloved food icon. “Judith’s success goes way beyond passion, hard work, attention to detail, and dedication,” says Lidia Bastianich. “She has a unique talent that has allowed authors from all walks of life to truly shine and leave a lasting effect on their readers.”
It’s not too much to say that without Jones, armed with her innate sense of storytelling and powerful eye for editing, cookbooks as we know them today would not exist.
Laurie Ochoa is a member of the James Beard Book Awards Committee.