Food writer Amanda Hesser's 'The Essential New York Times Cookbook' goes to 1850 and back

Amanda Hesser says it took six years to complete the cookbook. “I went through everything and picked out recipes that said something and were relevant.”

Photo by Sarah Shatz

Amanda Hesser says it took six years to complete the cookbook. “I went through everything and picked out recipes that said something and were relevant.”

Amanda Hesser pulls earrings from a plastic baggie and carefully puts them on and smiles gently for a photographer. We're sitting at breakfast on a Wednesday morning. Outside the restaurant window, a couple passes and points at her, as if they know who she is, and though I'm surprised at first, they probably do know her. Then the owner of an entirely different restaurant stops by the table, and she says hi and says she reads all of Hesser's columns; and then the photographer mentions she also reads all of Hesser's columns and, in fact, she makes Hesser's recipe for eggnog every year, and it's good.

Hesser smiles.

You would too. By journalism standards, by most standards, Hesser, an occasional food columnist for the New York Times and author of the bestselling Cooking for Mr. Latte, has a charmed life. Her author's bio is almost a parody of success: She designed "a 17th century-style herb garden at a French chateau," played herself in the movie Julie & Julia, developed a food blog and iPhone app, picked grapes in France, cleaned rabbits in Italy.

Still, one doesn't envy the job she took on with The Essential New York Times Cookbook, an enormous tome that mingles Nancy Reagan's monkey bread with Craig Claiborne's Swiss fondue, simple clam stew with cranberry chutney.

So, what's the difference between this Times cookbook and the endless array of others? Between this and, say, Craig Claiborne's classic?

There's a distinct difference. This book covers the paper's entire archive, back to 1850, and . . .

Claiborne covered maybe a decade.

Not even. That was a large book, which suggests it covers a lot — but I didn't look at it, really. There's no need to update or improve on it, either. This was more of a chance to look at food culture and food styles across many decades. But Claiborne is in there, of course. He wrote about Alice Waters and her baked goat cheese salad, for instance, which became this cliche, but initially, was a revelation.

Soups went through styles too.

Soups were one thing that got changed a lot. And because of blenders, basically. You could puree ingredients, and before you had to cook something a long time, until it was soft, then furiously press it through a sieve. So people didn't eat it as much, except on special occasions.

Was anything too old-fashioned?

We have a number of recipes from the 19th century, but that age is not why those recipes are in there. Great recipes were the point. There weren't too many recipes that seemed too old for us, but there was this heavy bechamel period, and terrapin (turtle) was a frequent ingredient in the 19th century. But I did include sweet breads, quail, which we still eat, just not in the same quantity. I went through everything and picked out recipes that said something and were relevant. I wanted a time-travel thing but not for it to become a museum. I wanted a cookbook people turn to, not a historical book.

Was there a complication threshold, where a recipe, made today, was too arcane?

Rarely. I mean, look, the cassoulet is not a weeknight dish. Paul Prudhomme's Cajun-style gumbo has a lot of steps. But it's not hard. You have to invite a friend over to chop. There was something called Charlotte mousse but I couldn't find a recipe. I could have altered one but my job was unearthing the gems.

Is there an obsessiveness that takes over at some point on a job this large?

That's why it took six years. By the end I was sending my editor crazy notes, like "We haven't acknowledged chocolate souffle! The book is ruined!"

Food writer Amanda Hesser's 'The Essential New York Times Cookbook' goes to 1850 and back 01/04/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:52pm]

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