A few hours after I left her apartment, Hiroko Shimbo learned Judith Jones was ill. Jones, the Knopf editor who Shimbo had collaborated with on her second cookbook, 2006’s The Sushi Experience, had been a frequent topic of conversation in the hour we spent together one Thursday in July. It was the week before Jones died of complications from Alzheimer’s at the age of 93.
Shimbo, a native of Japan, has lived at the same apartment near Union Square in Manhattan for the past two decades with her American-born husband, Buzz. She is a petite woman who wears her hair in a bob the color of squid ink, dyeing it every six weeks to mask her age. (“May 23,” she told me when I asked her when she was born, laughing with mild exasperation. “Do I have to finish this sentence?”)
Since moving to America, Shimbo has devoted her entire life to cooking. She spends her days consulting on various projects and teaching cooking classes at the International Culinary Center. Shimbo has amassed a body of work that is three volumes strong, cementing her as an authority on Japanese cooking in America.
Shimbo and Jones worked on the second of these three books together in the mid-aughts. The Sushi Experience was a project that Jones described as “all-encompassing,” rich with over 125 recipes and 200 photographs. With the book, Shimbo wanted to honor sushi-making as the art it was rather than the throwaway, commercialized practice she saw it becoming in American restaurants.
During our conversation, Shimbo practically fell over herself articulating her admiration for Jones, describing their union as some miraculous act of providence. She marveled at the fact that Jones had taken a chance on a writer whose second language was English and that she was patient and encouraging throughout the year-long process of working through the manuscript of a book that ended up getting her a James Beard nomination. Shimbo expressed surprise when I told her that I’d heard that Jones was in poor health.
“The last time I saw Judith was two years ago,” she told me just before I left, unaware that Jones would die a few days later. “I will call her today.”
Like many of the writers Jones worked with, Shimbo entered food writing by accident. She had somehow begun teaching cooking in the 1980s, while she was working as a Japanese instructor to foreigners in Japan. Because her students lived in Japan, they were exposed to ingredients and Japanese foods at the supermarket and restaurants every day. So they started to ask her: Why don’t you teach us Japanese cooking?
She figured they were right. Shimbo was a firm believer in the idea that to master a language, one needed to grasp the culture that produced it. One of the most obvious points of entry to a culture was its food.
Shimbo had no formal training in cooking when she began teaching it, though she long had an interest in cooking as a discipline. Born in the city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, she grew up in a clinic-attached house in Tokyo, where her father worked as a physician. Shimbo’s mother’s role was to manage the hospital while making breakfast, lunch, and dinner for all patients. Shimbo was almost always in the kitchen helping her mother out. When she wasn’t able to lend a hand, she’d listen to her mother explain why she was cooking non-oily, bland-tasting hospital food for patients. She absorbed her mother’s knowledge.
Throughout her career, Judith Jones openly championed the works of immigrant women heartsick for home, women who began writing because their displacement had emboldened their hunger, galvanizing them to write: India’s Madhur Jaffrey, Egypt’s Claudia Roden, China’s Irene Kuo. Though Shimbo’s body of work has been lumped into this same category, seen as an extension of homesickness, a different, reverse trajectory emerges in her career if you read more closely. She began writing what would become her first book, 2000’s The Japanese Kitchen, in anticipation of leaving home rather than in recollection of it. She was always writing for her American audience in mind, not herself.
Shimbo moved to the States for her husband’s work in 1999, when she was in the throes of writing The Japanese Kitchen. Finishing the manuscript was an uneasy, taxing exercise. She showed drafts of the book to her husband, whom she calls her in-house editor. He had been hard on her, chiding her for what he saw as poor grammar and a shaky command over a new tongue, English, a register she told me she only felt truly comfortable in two years ago.
But writing the book, which would eventually be nominated for an IACP Award, was an experience that left her determined to devote her next book to sushi, given the particular glut of mediocre sushi restaurants she’d observed in the States since she got there. “Nigirizushi had become very popular in America,” she explained to me of that period. “To my perception, Americans didn’t know the state of the freshness of the fish, or proper sushi rice.”
It turns out a 300-page book on sushi, with particulars about safety and the quality of rice and fish, was a tough sell. At first, no publishers bit. Shimbo attributes the difficulty to working with an agent who couldn’t get it sold anywhere, including Knopf, one of the many publishing houses who rejected it.
So she got a new agent, Janis Donnaud. Donnaud worked tirelessly to endear publishers to the manuscript so many other publishing houses had passed on in previous rounds. Jones, who Donnaud had worked with before, took a chance on it.
Shimbo and Jones met in late 2004 or early 2005—Shimbo can’t quite remember. Before that first meeting, Shimbo’s husband had warned her that Jones was a firehose of brilliance in the publishing industry. She was the titan who guided Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Lidia Bastianich, and Edna Lewis to fame. Shimbo's husband had fed her a terrifying narrative: “You are meeting with one of the most incredible and important editors in America,” he advised her, as if to say, don’t screw this one up.
When the women met, though, Jones’ smile, Shimbo recounted, “melted my frozen heart.” Jones wore a business jacket with a scarf tied around her neck, something of Jones’ signature look. She moved and spoke with elegance and grace. “I felt it was my first time meeting with a real American working lady,” Shimbo said.
Nothing was easy about the ensuing process. When Jones took Shimbo under her wing, Shimbo’s manuscript was quite thick, nearly 800 pages. For the next few months, Shimbo went back and forth between her apartment and Jones’ office nine or 10 times, fetching her manuscripts and taking in Jones’ edits.
Shimbo was mildly horrified when she came across the first draft that Jones had combed through: It looked as if her manuscript had been splattered with green ink, with Jones’ edits populating every page. ”This was the traditional way to do editing,” Shimbo opined to me. “Today, the editor can edit on the computer, and if she doesn’t understand a certain passage, she may just delete it.”
Jones was different. If she didn’t understand a certain turn of phrase or portion of text, she asked for clarification and made a habit of talking through it with Shimbo. “If something was unnecessary, we agreed to remove it after talking,” Shimbo remembered. “But Judith almost kept everything that I thought shouldn’t be eliminated.” When Jones summoned Shimbo to her office to receive edits, Shimbo found it impossible to leave Jones' side, soaking in, with wonder, all that Jones could teach her.
The respect was mutual. Jones had been forthright about the fact that she took this project on mainly because of her own curiosity about making sushi, an art as precise as assembling a car. When it came to shoot photographs for the book’s interior, Jones attended each photo shoot, where Shimbo who would teach her how to make sushi rice and fillet flukes on set.
In her 2007 memoir The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, Jones would refer to Shimbo as her “teacher-mentor,” lauding her for her "exacting directions" and "careful balancing" of the colors, textures, flavors, and aromas in sushi. What she appreciated in Shimbo’s voice was her ability to establish a sense of trust within the reader, especially because there was, when preparing sushi, an inevitable risk to consuming raw fish: death. Shimbo could arm a curious but slightly anxious reader, like Jones herself, with knowledge about what separates a mediocre roll from a masterful one.
After The Sushi Experience came out in October 2006, the two women frequently got lunch together, whether at sushi restaurants or at Jones’ apartment, where they’d talk about the “good old days” in America, a time when Jones thought people behaved and ate better. One day after Jones made sushi rolls, she realized she was late for a meeting with another one of her clients, John Updike.
As Jones hurriedly put on her shoes to go back to the office, Shimbo put out a rather audacious request to Jones: “Please share your sushi with John.”
Jones smiled back and agreed. “Sure. I will do that.”
I wrote Shimbo the morning the world learned that Jones had died, asking her if she’d heard the news. She’d been out earlier in the day, so she took a few hours to respond, telling me that her agent had sent her a note that morning about Jones’ death, but she was just catching up then, at one in the afternoon.
“It is a very sad moment, which I am consuming the news a bit at a time,” Shimbo wrote me. “This is life. We have to carry on her legacy.”
Shimbo explained that she called Iris Weinstein, her friend at Knopf who completed the interior designs for The Sushi Experience, after I left her apartment last week. Weinstein confirmed what I’d heard about Jones’ health, and informed her that Jones was in Vermont with her family.
Shimbo contemplated visiting Vermont for a brief second, but ultimately decided against it. So she wrote Jones a letter, with the expectation that, at the very least, Jones’ step-daughter would recite it aloud to her once it arrived on Aug. 1. Shimbo showed me the letter, unaware whether Jones had ever seen it. It was dated July 28, the day after our conversation.
“You are one of the most important persons who touched my life,” Shimbo wrote to Jones. “Every moment which I spent with you has become treasures in my life … Judith, you gave your love to many people and inspired many people, as well. I was one of the luckiest ones who could work with you directly. Life is unpredictable.”
To this day, Shimbo keeps mementos of her time with Jones. Every one of her manuscripts, edited by Jones in her signature green pen, lives inside a cardboard box in her apartment. She places a photograph of the two women, shot by photographer Jim Smith during the planning for The Sushi Experience, on the shelf that divides her kitchen and dining room. Every day, when she walks by it, she told me, she says hello to Jones.
She wrote the letter, just over a page long, with the expectation that Jones would return from her stay in Vermont by the end of the summer, and the two women would be reunited once Jones was back in New York City. Shimbo vowed to wait to see Jones until then, hoping Jones enjoyed the time with her family in Vermont. She closed the letter with a postscript that read like a note of apology, just in case Jones had read it and felt the urge to take her green pen to it: “P.S. This letter is not edited by my in-house editor, Buzz.”