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Proof In the Pudding: An Encounter With Modesty

Corn meal mush.
David Orban
Corn meal mush.

A number of years ago, a friend invited me to judge a cooking contest in Hawley, Mass. My friend is nothing if not enterprising, and had organized the Pudding Hollow Pudding Festival, an event commemorating a 1780 contest to determine who could cook Hawley’s largest pudding. 

Abigail Baker was the winner back then and declared the official "pudding head." Her winning entry was a hasty pudding in a five-pail kettle.  

For this century’s contest, I was one of several judges asked to sample dishes and select a winner. Not the biggest pudding this time around — but the best-tasting. We judges assembled ourselves before the dishes and made quick introductions. There was a local public servant who announced he was a diabetic, then spooned right into the butterscotch. And there was a woman — quiet, plainly dressed. She shook my hand. “Judith,” she said.

While dipping into puddings, we compared notes. The town officer and I liked a razzle-dazzle tapioca: strawberries and blueberries nestled in a translucent custard, a red, white and blue show-stopper.

Then Judith spoke. She liked a pudding we had quickly dismissed: a corn meal porridge, straw-colored, with earthy hints of molasses and ginger that took awhile to unfold.

“Genuine” she said. “Yankee. Flinty." My fellow judge and I nodded, but hardly heard the comment. We were onto the next swallow, more eager to be wowed than linger over subtlety.

In the end, we tapioca fans ruled the day, and Judith accepted defeat graciously.  

Several months later, I was watching a PBS special on Julia Child when I fully realized who “Judith” was. To say I was embarrassed to have voted down her choice is an understatement.

My encounter with Judith Jones taught me about the integrity of the authentic, the deception of the flashy and momentary, and the virtue of holding your tongue even when you know better than those around you. Jones certainly knew her way around cooking. But what’s been missing in all the accolades following her death is she also knew a little something about table manners.

Martha Ackmann is a writer who lives in Leverett.  Her new book on Emily Dickinson will be published next year.

Earlier this month, the renowned cookbook editor Judith Jones died in her Vermont home at age 93. Jones is celebrated for editing "Mastering The Art of French Cooking" and introducing Julia Child to the world. Ackmann once judged a cooking contest with the famous editor.  

Martha Ackmann is a journalist and author who writes about women who have changed America. Her essays and columns have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
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