Personal – Front Page but not Center Stage

Jonathan Ernst – for The Washington Post (2009)

This week I had a very odd experience.  For about an hour on Wednesday afternoon, if you had gone to the Washington Post website and seen the lead story, it would be the obituary for Judith Jones, editor and author who brought both the Diary of Anne Frank and Julia Child to prominence in America.  But the Post, instead of running a stock photo from a service of Mrs. Jones with their in-house obituary penned by food writer Joe Yonan, went with one from an article that they did about and with her eight years ago.  And I’m in the background, looking on.  The next day, her obituary appeared below the fold on the front cover with a second photograph.  This time, it’s Mrs. Jones showing me some bread at a farmers market.  How did I manage to sneak into the images used for a woman’s obituary? Let me tell you.

For a long time I was a big fan of the Washington Post Live Chats – a regular way for readers to interact with journalists about things they care about.  Monday had the travel chat, Tuesday was Gene Weingarten’s turf, Wednesday the Dining and Food section chats, Thursday had Home Design/Decor, and Fridays with Carolyn Hax.  As someone whose job wasn’t GO-GO-GO at all moments, I allowed myself to have these chats running in another window while I did my work, as a way to engage my brain.

It was a Wednesday in mid-October, and I was reading the Food Chat per usual.  Joe Yonan put out a call asking if there were any readers who might be interested in helping out with a Cooking for One (his semi-regular column, and subject of his cookbooks) project involving author/editor Judith Jones by coming into DC some afternoon.  I sent in a volunteer email because I was a single cook, I loved going into DC, love the Washington Post, and was interested in doing something that stretched my comfort zone.  A big email was sent out to everyone who had responded, and the first four who responded as available were invited to attend.  I (ever so quick on the email-draw) responded in less than 4 minutes.  And that was enough.  I was in.  Later that Tuesday I was sent details on where and when to meet, and made my plans to take the afternoon off work.

Print story from the Washington Post, August 3, 2017. Photo by Jonathan Ernst.

The afternoon we spent with Mrs. Jones, with Joe and Bonnie Benwick (the other food section guru) was a whirlwind.  I have no memories of meeting at the Washington Post newsroom, but we must have, because that’s what my email said.  We went to the newly founded farmers market that was open Thursday afternoons near the White House (now with a slightly earlier schedule).  We wandered around with a photographer, looking at food, and collecting ingredients.  I chatted with the other invited readers and felt like a rube because they seemed much more responsible and capable in the kitchen.  I remember having a discussion about what our favorite vegetables were (I mean…???) and I felt pretty good being able to talk about Swiss Chard I cooked with my aunt in her kitchen with some garlic and olive oil that was so good.  I felt like a fraud.  I was so uncomfortable with all these knowledgeable people who were less picky than I was, and that if they asked enough questions, they would find out and ask me to leave.  Obviously that didn’t happen.

It’s possible that our trip to Whole Foods was the first time I’d ever been inside one.  I was still at the point where “Whole Paycheck” was too intimidating for me, who was only just starting to appreciate the variety of foods available in my local Giant which hadn’t been available in my grad-school-town’s local Kroger.  I remember walking near the butcher area and how Mrs. Jones remarked on the smaller packages of meat that were available for sale.  [Amusingly, this Whole Foods would later become a place that the Boy and I frequented when we were cooking at his place early in our relationship.]

My favorite part of the day was going back to the Washington Post test kitchens and watching Judith Jones cook.  She chatted amiably as she made a lemony scaloppine of pork and a red flannel pork hash.  These weren’t difficult recipes, but they were just out of my personal comfort zone with cooking and ingredients (beets!).  But we got to sample them at the end, and they were so good.  And the gentle and friendly conversation the flowed as we watched her cook was definitely more my speed.  I’m very good at watching and listening, and I’m even better at eating.  A few weeks later, the article appeared.  My picture appeared (and my name below it in the caption), but that was the extent of my contribution.  No witty comments from me about “too many carrots”.

And that was that, I thought.  Until Mrs. Jones died.  As I said above – my picture (in the background) appeared as part of the main story which was on the Washington Post homepage for about an hour.  And then in the morning, my mother informed me that I (and only I) was pictured with Mrs. Jones on the front page.  When you work in government, they always warn you about doing things that might get you on the front page of the Washington Post.  For the first time in my life, that’s where I was.  Thankfully it was for something that was good/neutral, if sad.  But it’s an odd experience to have this brush with fame – I am merely a background prop (“Washington Post Reader”) in these photos.   Will there ever be a moment when I make the front page on my own merits?  Probably not.  But I’m not ashamed to be used as prop/brief witness to the life of a woman with a fascinating story of her own.  Rest in peace, Judith Jones.

PS – I loved that sweater.  It was from J.Crew and it was AMAZING.

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