February 2011

Charlotte Freeman


East Coast, West Coast

Last month I went back to our family farm in the Midwest for my grandmother’s 100th birthday. The farm has been in our family since the 1870s, and as a child I was fascinated by my mother’s stories about the farm when she was a child. There was a tenant farmer who raised vegetables and a milk cow and a flock of meat chickens that they’d process at the end of every summer. By the time I was a kid, the only thing that grew on that farm was commercial corn, soybeans, and horses. I remember being utterly puzzled that there was nothing to eat on the farm, and when I asked, my grandmother replied, “It’s cheaper to buy food at the store.” But even as a kid, I knew that the tomatoes we got at Miller’s Foods in Somanauk didn’t taste like the ones Mrs. Gunderson grew in her garden on the far side of town. Those were tomatoes that you had to eat leaning over so you didn’t get tomato all over your shirt.

While I was there, we went to lunch with some of my aunt’s barn customers (There’s a restaurant again in Leland -- some years there is, some years there isn’t. Right now, they’ve got a good bar that serves burgers), and while we were eating, one of them described buying appliances for her new house. “I don’t know why I even bother,” she said. “I mean, I cook more than most people, but most people don’t even need to cook anymore… most people are buying prepared meals.” This woman’s an executive for one of the biggest of the Big Ag companies, and while I liked her personally, I couldn’t help but see her as the voice of her industry, one that is determined to convince us that cooking is too hard, too expensive, and too boring to be worth our while.

Just like my grandmother back in the day was wrong about store vegetables, so too are the Big Ag processors wrong about cooking. I know I rant about this every month, but I am continually astonished that something as basic as putting dinner on the table is coming to be seen as a hobby, or a luxury of the educated classes. And so, this month, I’m going to look at two big new encyclopedic cookbooks of the type that everyone should have around for those nights when you’re looking at a chicken, or random veggies in your fridge, or the pantry full of dried pasta, and you’ve just got... nothing. No ideas. Stumped. Because in order to defeat the corporations that want to take over our kitchens and our refrigerators, we’ve got to learn to cook our own dinners.

There were two great cookbooks that can help with this issue, both released last fall: The Essential New York Times Cookbook and The Sunset Cookbook. They’re the kind of cookbooks to which one can turn if you’re having a dinner party, or if you want to recreate an authentic ethnic dish you love (like pho, which appears in both books), but more importantly, they’re the kinds of books to which you can turn when you just want to make dinner, and you want it to be a little more interesting than the the other nine million times you’ve cooked dinner (or when you don’t feel you can face one more takeout meal).

Amanda Hesser spent six years compiling The Essential New York Times Cookbook. In the introduction, she outlines the three two-year long projects that went into this book -- first, she turned to the Times readers, placing small notices asking for their “most stained recipes.” The spreadsheet that Hesser and her assistant (now business partner) Merrill Stubbs collated ran to 145 single-spaced pages, and it took them two years to cook their way through. Any recipe that had more than three votes, they researched and cooked. Two years later, they tackled the historical archive, and they were nothing if not completist about this portion of the project: “Merrill listed the tile of every recipe published between 1852 and 1960 so we could see which dishes were part of the vernacular and which were outliers. She created folders of all the variations on recipes like deviled crabs or orange ice, and then, as I extracted the prevailing techniques, I’d figure out which recipes to cook by looking for voice, interesting details, and ingredients and techniques that promised a successful outcome.” Two years and another 400 recipes later, Hesser and Stubbs turned to the post-1960 archive where their goal was to represent the trends that have defined the past 40 years of cooking, as well as to include those “esoteric finds” that met Hesser’s final test: “Would I make this again?” The result is a doorstop of a book, 1,100 recipes both historic and contemporary, each put into context with informative headnotes, and followed by menu suggestions for including the recipe in a meal.

There are two ways I use a cookbook like this. The first is, as I’ve already mentioned, when I’m stuck and want something interesting for dinner. The other, which I believe is just as crucial to learning to be intuitive and flexible in the kitchen, is to just flip through the thing. There are so many interesting recipes here -- my copy is thick with yellow post-its for recipes I want to try, have tried, that I think my dearest Picky Eater with whom I live might like, and even party dishes. There are recipes for everything in here -- drinks, appetizers, breakfasts, sweets (including candy), soups (including a pho recipe that momentarily assuaged my longing for Thai restaurants, of which we have none). There are a lot of chicken recipes (in the introduction, Hesser confesses that so many came in that she thought the book should just be titled Chicken and Dessert). There are old favorites in all categories, ranging from that dinner party classic of my childhood, Chicken Marengo, to the much beloved David Eyre’s Pancake (see this very touching letter from his daughter on Hesser’s blog), to my sentimental favorite, Pasta with Vodka, a recipe that seemed like a revelation when I was a starving cookbook editorial assistant in Manhattan in the mid-'80s. The other thing I loved about this collection is the wealth of “ethnic” dishes -- Middle Eastern, Asian, Latin American flavors abound.

I do have a few quibbles -- the recipes are arranged chronologically in each chapter, which I found annoying as a user. It’s terrific for historians, but even with the indexes of recipes by category that open each chapter, I found it distracting to have to flip across a chapter to compare similar recipes. I am also not convinced that attempting both a historical overview, and a compilation of the newspaper’s most popular recipes in one volume, was entirely successful. I found most of the historical recipes to be a little cluttered, but I’m entirely willing to concede that that’s a result of my lack of interest in project cooking. If you’re the sort of person who loves to throw a dinner party, and wants to take on a project while doing so, then the historical recipes could be a terrific jumping-off place. After cooking around in this book for a while, I must say that recipes are beautifully researched and written, and that they all work, which is the highest compliment of them all.

As much as I liked and admired The Essential New York Times Cookbook, I have to admit right off the bat that it was The Sunset Cookbook that stole my heart. I’m sure this has less to do with the cookbooks themselves than it does for my own West Coast bias. While it’s true that I spent two years right out of college in Manhattan, working in cookbooks even, it’s also true that in that process I discovered that New York was not for me. I’m one of those people who fled to the West, where I was so smitten by the sunshine, the flowers and vegetables and fruit, and the utter lack of social pretension, that in the twenty intervening years I’ve never even considered moving back east of Denver. Sunset magazine has been chronicling this experience of wonderment since its inception in 1898 as a publicity organ for the Southern Pacific Railway (as well as being the first to accurately describe the many climates of the west for us gardeners). Even their offices, which I used to gaze at longingly as I drove through Menlo Park, are archetypically western -- housed in a Cliff May ranch compound complete with pergolas and terra cotta tile and that casual elegance that defines the best of California and Western living.

Unlike Hesser and Stubbs, the editor of this book, Margo True, was less concerned with historicity than with selecting those recipes from the magazine archives that “reflect how we eat now.” Secondarily they sorted through their most-requested recipes, winnowing out those that were too weird or old-fashioned, and then sorted and re-sorted their lists. In the introduction, True describes the process: “Did we have the key Western recipes? Did we have enough great weeknight choices? What about vegetarian options -- were they covered?” Here, to me, is the difference between East and West Coast eating -- the mainstreaming of vegetarianism, the normalization of weeknight cooking, the concern for balance and ease among all other things. While The Sunset Cookbook covers all the standard chapters like appetizers, soups, salads and desserts, it also contains additional chapters on topics like “Sandwiches, Burritos and Pizza,” “Vegetarian Mains,” ninety pages of recipes for cooking over “The Fire Outside,” a chapter of pickles and preserves and a final chapter covering the wines of the west (as well as a useful appendix on high-altitude baking). The flavors in this book are bright and bold, and cover the many cultures of the west from Mexican to Vietnamese, Japanese to Italian. For instance, one spread in the Soups chapter contains Coconut-Lime Chicken and Rice Soup, Tortilla Soup, and an Italian Herb Ravioli Soup (with a variation using Japanese Potstickers instead).

The chapter on salads makes me long for my ordinary farmer’s market in my working-class Bay Area suburb, a place where fresh greens, fresh citrus and once summer arrived, gorgeously ripe stone fruits were in abundance, and contains flavor combinations I’d never experienced until I came out west: grapefruit and avocado, roasted artichoke with mint, and of course, Alice Waters famous baked goat cheese with spring greens salad. There are taco truck flavors in the burritos chapter, and the pasta chapter represents both the Mediterranean and Asian noodle traditions. If, however, you live in one of the many parts of the country where we cook outdoors for many months of the year, this book is worth it alone for “The Fire Outside” chapter. There’s a terrific overview of grilling basics, and this extensive chapter contains recipes for grilling everything from oysters to skewers to chicken to fish to veggies. There are grilled sandwiches and grilled pizza recipes, burgers made from every meat and ethnic flavor profile, and instructions for grilling your way from chops all the way up to roasting an entire pig or lamb over an open fire. My kitchen is unbearably hot for much of the summer, and I can see that this is going to be the book I cook my way through during those months when turning the stove on seems like the worst idea ever. (There’s even the obligatory spread on cooking with a Dutch oven, much beloved of campers and “mountain men” across the region.) This book makes terrific use of sidebars, insetting useful tips about ingredients and techniques into page layouts without unduly cluttering up the page.

This isn’t an either-or sort of review. I’m not going to advocate one of these books over the other because I don’t think that makes any sense. They’re both fabulous, encyclopedic cookbooks of the type that can and will make you a better cook if you work from them. The two coasts and the two publications have really different cooking styles, styles which are reflected in these two books. Personally, I’m thrilled to have them both. The Essential New York Times Cookbook means I can get rid of a lot of those torn-out spattered pages from the New York Times Magazine, while The Sunset Cookbook reminds me of the unfettered joy I experienced those first few years living in California, years when the food and the climate and the people combined to convince me that life need not be as grey and pinched as it sometimes seemed in those great industrial cities of the Midwest and the East Coast.