In Appreciation of Jean Anderson

The following is a guest post by Elaine Maisner, UNC Press Executive Editor Emerita.

Jean Anderson, photo from Winston-Salem Journal

As the UNC Press editor who published acclaimed cookbook writer Jean Anderson’s very last book, Kiln to Kitchen: Favorite Recipes from Beloved North Carolina Potters, I was happy to receive this request to blog about my appreciation for Jean, who died last month at the age of ninety-three. While Jean and I worked together on Kiln to Kitchen, published in 2019, her ninetieth year, I was privileged to visit her from time to time at her Chapel Hill home. There I witnessed firsthand her love for food and cooking (especially for the cuisines of the US South and of Portugal), her knack for collecting North Carolina pottery, her huge network of professional associates and friends—and her delight in the kind of social commentary that could verge into humorous if a bit wicked critique. 

Jean was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1929, and educated in food science at Cornell and in journalism at Columbia during decades not even close to friendly to women seeking higher education. Her understanding of food science formed the solid foundation for her famed career as an author who cared about teaching home cooks how to be successful in their endeavors. Her oeuvre included some 20 cookbooks, including the massively comprehensive The Doubleday Cookbook, for some time a competitor of The Joy of Cooking, and countless articles and photographs for magazines including Gourmet, Food & Wine, and Bon Appétit. 

All of Jean’s crisp, clear, and stellar recipes were distinguished by her ability to convey the alchemy of cooking. In her award-winning The Food of Portugal, for example, Jean writes, “I puzzled for years over the bread’s unusual ‘break’—that is, the way the top is crazed like that of a giant gingersnap. However, the mystery was solved the first time I made the bread. It contains such a high proportion of barley flour and such a low percentage of wheat flour that there is very little gluten or protein to stretch and form the framework of the bread. What happens as the yeast rises is that the fragile strands of dough rupture, causing an unusually dense texture and crispy crust with the network of cracks or ‘breaks.’” As food writer Kim Sunée said in the New York Times obituary for Jean, “She loved being that voice in your ear and guiding you through.” Indeed, cookbook author and Food Network star Sara Moulton, one of Jean’s closest associates, told the Winston-Salem Journal, “I tell people I had three amazing mentors in my career. Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and Jean Anderson—the three Js. And I put Jean right up there with the other two.”

But more recently I’ve been taken with Jean’s talent for conveying her passion for the tastes and contexts of food. In The Food of Portugal, Jean goes on to write about Chick-Pea Soup Alentejo-Style: “One of the region’s best soups is an earthy one, studded with sausage. It is the porridge-thick Sopa de Grão, made of chick-peas and potatoes, aromatic of olive, onion, and garlic, and accented with shreds of spinach. Even though olives abound in the Alentejo, few families there can afford the luxury of cooking with olive oil. So they use the cheaper corn, peanut, or vegetable oil for most cooking jobs, then inject a fruity olive flavor by stirring a tablespoon or so of olive oil into their soups and stews at the last minute.”

By the time I got to know Jean, she kept me—along with Press colleagues Susan Garrett, Gina Mahalek, and Kathy Ketterman—in an enduring state of amusement with her bottomless pot of tales from her long career. Especially when she got on about her New York City magazine publishing days. I promise you that we received a hilarious and cutting inside view of the day-to-day scandalous happenings in the mid-century Manhattan offices of Ladies’ Home Journal. As cookbook author Nancie McDermott says in the New York Times obituary, Jean “had a heart for the home cook. . . with not a shred of folksy charm.” At the same time, I know that I and Nancie and other UNC Press authors who knew Jean were thoroughly charmed by her inner endearing self. Still, while I nibble in tribute on Jean’s Pão Torrado with Pasta de Azeitonas Pretas and sip her favorite Madeira (“The wonder of Madeira, a volcanic chip lazing in the Atlantic three hundred miles west of Morocco, is that it produces any wine, let along the noble Madeiras, which range from dry to intensely sweet . . . Luscious on the tongue, they have a crisp underlying acidity that refreshes with the tingling wallop of a Granny Smith Apple”), I’ll be wondering what she might have said about me when I wasn’t looking.