My Friend Judy

This is one of those things I never put a lot of thought into because it was always a given that my friend Judy Jones would bounce back any time, or at the very least we’d be back out to St. Louis to see her and Nick and share a couple more meals.  I had a lot of meals with those two in the dozen years I knew Judy…we were both posters at eGullet and met up for the first time at whatever the building was that houses Chaz on the Plaza now.  From our first meeting, I knew that she was someone who had some deep and genuine connections in the Kansas City food community, so I never served up any bullshit about who or what I knew…mainly because it was immediately obvious there was no need to be anything other than genuine.  She wasn’t someone who followed the celebrity chef trend…if she loved a celebrity chef it was because it was someone she had known or followed for a long time and was happy for the recognition they were finally getting.  And I can tell you with 100% accuracy, she was the original hater of the term “foodie”.  If there was ever a lull in the conversation, we could always share a bonding moment with our disdain for the self-appointed, self-aggrandizing, status seeking, trend fellating, name dropping, photo op posers who managed to know very, very little, took way more than they gave and somehow still gained celebrity based on simply having enough money to attend every event where they could leverage being seen.  It’s a little sad and a little funny to think about the amount of uncredited time and money she put into our community and the relationships she developed over time, and what will more than likely end up being a modest (though deeply felt) number of remembrances vs. if we lost someone whose primary contribution was savvy PR and a knack for social media self-promotion.  She was real and made real connections…and while my own selfishness and self-absorbed nature keeps me far short of the mark, my personal “organic” approach to relationships within the food community is something I owe to her.  She pointed me in a lot of great directions, and a high percentage of my relationships started off with a dinner or conversation with her.  For example- The Rieger.  Saturday night was approaching, the restaurant had literally just opened, and I happened to be talking to her and wondered if I should try the new place or go with what I already knew.  She vouched without reservation, pretty much told me I was crazy if I didn’t go….Howard Hanna was the real deal, he knew food and he cooked the things I loved.  It took about three bites to confirm she was exactly right, and it remains our #1 restaurant in KC.  Man, she loved our local chefs on a professional and a very personal level…openings, closings, births, deaths, she had a heart for all of it and was a fierce ally.  She had an eye for talent and loved watching chefs develop their skills and create their specific signature. And it wasn’t like she only cared about the “it” places…I remember her making food for the opening of some little place called The 420 Café or something similar, a pothead munchie joint that was open for about five minutes.

So…..the ballbusting.  If there were ever kindred spirits when it came to heaping verbal abuse upon the ones we love, Judy and I were destined to be friends.  This happened with friends of mine so many times over the years that it became hilarious; the inevitable…”So what is up with you and Judy Jones?” in response to the latest in-person or online withering attack.  Sometimes they’d even be a little pissed or shocked, wondering why I didn’t unleash hell. I finally quit trying to explain it, and would simply tell them “Judy is my one friend who literally has no limit on what I will allow as far as verbal abuse”.  I’d have some rare instances where I’d fire back and get the last word, but mostly she blasted every aspect of my personality and life.  Plus, she’d try making an alliance with people in my family or other close friends of mine.  The alliance would be based on some variation of “Jerry is horrible, we both know that, and I want you to know that I have all of the sympathy in the world for you”.  That’s pretty much it.  All the time.  Every single chance she got.  And I respected her methods because she was great at it and she was very consistent.  She would always correct you, she never forgot any faux pas or transgression, and would refer back to that library and choose the perfect attack with quick delivery and impeccable timing.   That shit will keep you on your toes, and most of the time it just kept me honest in my communication because that meant less ammunition to be used against you later. Good example- the whole reason I always admit in almost every goddamn thing I write that I don’t understand how grammar works is because of Judy.  She was meticulous…you’re going to get got if you try and pretend you know what you’re doing or talking about when you don’t.  If it was a good (relatively speaking) natured battle of words you wanted, she was always on her game.  Hell, I was emailing with her about two weeks ago, and it was purely normal conversation about pretty generic people/place/restaurant stuff, and she still got me.  She twisted it.  Respectable zingers tinged with some delightful viciousness just because.  Straight faced, dry, precise delivery….there won’t be another Judy.  So don’t get any ideas.  I miss it from Judy.  You start throwing your weak, pedestrian slams at me and you’ll get a quick reminder that I’m the guy who walks softly and carries a fucking extinction level event. I can strip you down to your DNA.  You’re no Judy.

I don’t put a premium on knowing a lot of people just to know a lot of people, and I rely on or confide in very few.  I tend to be an extremely outgoing, extreme introvert.  You know you’re my friend because I talk to you (I’m not a guy who has a problem actively NOT talking to someone) and possibly bust your balls…specifically, I use humor to bond with people while keeping a safe distance.  I try to work on that, because I genuinely enjoy spending time with the people I know. Funny is just an easy and lazy way to communicate.  While I am all for expanding my circle of confidants, Judy held a pretty special place in my life.  As much as I could trust her amazing knack at verbal abuse, I could trust her even more during some of the most serious moments in my life.  What made her special was that the number of people who felt the same way about her outnumbered the people I knew….period. She was there during one of my very last meals prior to my gastric bypass…the full chef’s tasting at Bluestem where she ate some of the only dessert I ever saw her eat willingly…a variation of Baked Alaska by a young Chef Joe West. She was also the very first person to come visit me after I got home from surgery, and brought me some of her tomato water because she knew at that point I could only have clear liquids. The day after I left Shawnee Mission after drying out from alcohol for five days in a locked ward, she was the first person I told about what had happened over lunch at the Corner Café.  There was no shocking her because way more people than just me knew they could trust her with their deepest hurt and biggest fears.  I remember the biggest thing that stuck out about confessing a severe drinking problem to her was that I couldn’t tell if she was a little hurt or thankful that I didn’t ask her for the ride to the hospital like some of her other friends.

I think the last KC meal we had with Judy and Nick was in El Comedor.  It was July First Friday and the hottest day of the year.  This was before they had anything resembling air conditioning in the Airstream, and I’ll tell you…Judy was a trooper.  She would have killed any one of us for a nickel, but she was a trooper.  I can’t remember how long their relocation to St. Louis was after that, but that “Summer of Port Fonda” was near the beginning of the “KC as THE new place to be” renaissance. The assumption was always that Judy would definitely be back to KC, so I did my best to keep her up to date on what was going on.  We had a long discussion about it at one point, and it stuck with me in a heavy way….in short it was about the frustration from spending so many years in Kansas City and doing her best to convince friends from different parts of the country that Kansas City was more than just flyover country, and convincing a popular local chef long before the farm to table movement was in full swing, that spending more money on locally grown produce was just the right and responsible thing to do…doing all of that for so long and then being on the other side of the state watching the boom she’d been waiting for. I won’t draw this out or pontificate about the horribly ironic and shitty toll that life can take on people who do not deserve it.  I spent a good part of my life being a self-destructive dirtbag and here I sit remembering a friend who was an all around healthier and better person than me.  She had more than one moment that looked like the end, and we talked all about it with her and Nick over dinner at Sidney Street Café during a visit two summers ago when we had our first big overnight trip without the baby. There was frustration to be sure, but also a deep appreciation for the moment.  Nick is the best.  One of the most even-tempered and friendly guys I know, and in the middle of all of this I can only hope he’s finding comfort in the friendships that he and Judy built over the years. Judy managed to make it through such a big part of a terrible situation that the only thing that made sense was that she’d be back here.  She’d finally get to meet our daughter, and she’d meet the new chefs that have arrived during this new period in KC and have plenty of fresh meat to school in a very specific style of brutal friendship.  This is a hell of a loss.  Those of you who know what I mean really, really know what I mean. Without Judy I probably wouldn’t have met many of you, and I definitely wouldn’t have an approach to the food community that is based on an honest, slow and steady approach to developing real relationships instead of just acquiring and stockpiling moments. I don’t have anything too unique or groundbreaking to say, but there was no way in hell she wasn’t getting her own page here.

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