Brow Beat

An Unforgettable Last Lunch with Julia Child’s Legendary Editor

On a crowded wooden table: eggs and eggshells, a crust in a pan, half-chopped herbs on a cutting board, and a yellow substance in a bowl with a whisk.
James Ransom

One afternoon, I found myself in the presence and home of my hero, Judith Jones. Tucked away in northeastern Vermont, we ate thick wedges of quiche draped with sour cream (it was, I learned after one curious bite, a mingling of fat on fat that accentuated the texture of cream and custard alike). We drank white wine from the supermarket that Judith kept stored, re-corked from a previous day’s glass, in the condiments shelf of the refrigerator. Her dog, Mabon, scratched a small hole in the seam of my t-shirt while saying hello, a shirt I still have and a hole I haven’t mended. Ms. Jones told me to call her Judith.

It was August 2016—almost exactly a year before Judith, venerable writer and editor behind some of the most influential American chefs and writers, passed away at age 93. Benchmarks in her long career include, famously, pulling Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl out of the slush pile; publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child after its multiple rejections; and exploding the canon of American home cooking with the works of Edna LewisMadhur JaffreyIrene KuoClaudia RodenMarcella HazanLidia BastianichJoan Nathan and James Beard, among many others. Judith received the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, the year before publishing The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food (sixty pages of which I read on the floor of a public library in Vermont).

But the story of how I met her actually starts with how I met Bronwyn Dunne—writer, cooking instructor, and Judith’s stepdaughter. I was newly twenty-four when I met Bronwyn. Since graduating college, I had moved from Boston to Shanagarry, Ireland for cooking school. Then, in a tight zigzag, I relocated back to Boston, across the country to San Francisco, and back across the country to Vermont’s Addison County. That first month in Vermont, I picked up an issue of Edible Green Mountains from a milk crate of used magazines at the grocery store, and read a feature on the cook and writer behind a website called In the Kitchen with Bronwyn. Through Bronwyn’s website, I sent a cold email: would she be able to tell me a bit about the Vermont food world over coffee? Shortly after, Bronwyn not only returned my email, but met me for lunch in her neighborhood, at a place known for smoked meats and chili.

A few months later, Bronwyn took me through two enormous storage containers of cookbooks, including her 1975 copy of American Food, authored by her father, the food writer and historian Evan Jones. Bronwyn and I read until we were ravenous, and then grilled off a slab of pork ribs she had stashed in the fridge. Barbecue sauce on our faces, we made our way through every last bone.

I understood that Bronwyn was the stepdaughter of a hero of mine, a luminary in both cooking and editing, though I never expected to meet Judith Jones. When Bronwyn asked if I wanted to come to lunch at her stepmother’s house, two realities merged together, gently and without fanfare, like a pair of soap bubbles: my fork and Judith’s somehow eating the same quiche.

The quiche Bronwyn made for lunch was a custard held together by sheer will, baked to velvet with gruyere and smoky wisps of bacon. I didn’t know what to do with the sour cream when it was handed to me, and mirrored both their plates with one fat, collapsing spoonful over the side of my slice. Mabon held court by the leg of my chair, waiting on a newbie for scraps.

Not wanting to arrive at lunch empty handed, I had woken up early that morning to bake a batch of sesame-honey cookies with cardamom, a spiced riff on a 2011 Food & Wine recipe from Anja Scherwin I have made enough to consider mostly failsafe. I fed the first batch to my chickens, because I accidentally broiled them. The second batch I slipped into a paper bag with a thank-you note attached.

Perhaps it was strange to be surprised when Judith went to eat them, but I had never envisioned the cookies getting that far. How did I even get here? She added my paper bag to the table, alongside the pastries she had already set out. She pulled a cookie from the pile, and took a cavernous bite.

“Delicious,” Judith said, her eyes fastening mine below curved bangs the same inner shade of white peaches. There’s a particular vividness to this moment in my memory. I didn’t know it would be preserved in such a way—stuck in my mind, blinking, unintended to be stored with such clarity. She made a point to eat the cookie and tell me it was good. She didn’t have to. It was a small, generous gesture to a new cook and writer who had come around for lunch. It was extraordinarily kind.

The idea of a hero has undertones of supernatural greatness, and I wonder how our idols reconcile with that expanded, emphasized image of themselves in our minds. It doesn’t leave much room for the everyday acts, like responding to a cold email with plans for lunch, or eating a cookie to make someone feel seen. These snippets of generosity accumulate, with effort, like the rolled-up belly of a snowman. “Those ‘small moments’ with Judith,” started Bronwyn in a recent email from February. “This is what comes up so often with her friends and colleagues when remembering her. There is something she was able to convey, even in old age, that was intimate and global at the same time.”

It has been four years since that lunch, and Bronwyn tells me she doesn’t remember Judith ever pairing sour cream with quiche. Had she put it on the table by accident? Did she want to try something picked up from another cook? Were Judith and Bronwyn actually mirroring me, with the sour cream, in some sort of comical, cyclical response to a new presence on the table? Funny: we have absolutely no idea.

I scrawled in a notebook as Bronwyn drove us home after that lunch, cruising through a labyrinthine pass in a state sliced north to south by the Green Mountains. I wrote down anything remembered from the last handful of hours. Judith had told stories about other food and writing icons close to her, like M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard and Edna Lewis. Bronwyn took a picture of Judith flexing a muscle at a square table set with woven straw placemats. I had elaborated on the sour cream (oddly perfect!) and the eye contact (very kind), and these things, arguably non-events, have indelibly lasted. Judith Jones knew that paying attention to the minor, in-between moments is itself an act of generosity—and that generosity is what builds a life, and a legacy.

Bronwyn’s Quiche With Sour Cream

Bronwyn’s original quiche was a timeless recipe for quiche Lorraine from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s lasting for a reason. Here, inspired by Julia’s recipe and Bronwyn’s execution of it, I add fresh herbs, white onions and, in a nod to Vermont, swap gruyere for sharp cheddar cheese. Eat this quiche with a fat spoonful of sour cream on top: an oddly perfect taste memory of lunch with Judith Jones.

Makes one nine-inch quiche.

• 1/2 cup sliced bacon
• 1 cup thinly sliced white onions
• 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
• 1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as mint, basil, chives, and/or parsley
• 4 eggs
• 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
• 1/2 cup full-fat sour cream, plus more for serving
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 9-inch blind-baked pie crust (I like this all-butter crust and this olive-oil crust
• 1/2 cup grated sharp white cheddar cheese

See full recipe at Food52.

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