Your Kitchen is a Time Machine: An Interview with Amanda Hesser
As part of the extensive research for her latest book—“The Essential New York Times Cookbook,” out this week—Amanda Hesser spent six years cooking and testing more than 1,400 recipes, all of them from the Times’s sprawling recipe archive, which stretches all the way back to the 1850’s. The resulting book of a mere 1,104 of them includes “lost gems” that were published alongside dubious housekeeping tips more than a hundred years ago, recipes that wowed readers in the 50′s, and familiar favorites from the past decade. It’s a chronicle of how Americans (or at least New York Times readers) have cooked over the past century-and-a-half, a trove of the alternately simple, elaborate and surprising dishes that have shaped our tastes and experiences and formed the basis for countless memories.
From 2004’s “Cooking for Mr. Latte,” which recounted Hesser’s fledgling relationship with New Yorker writer Tad Friend (now her husband and father of their twins) to “Eat, Memory,” the column she started as editor of the New York Times Magazine’s food section—and to which writers including Colson Whitehead, Yiyun Li and Gary Shteyngart contributed essays (and which became a 2009 book of the same name)—to “Recipe Redux,” the column she’s written for the Magazine since 2006 (in which she challenges a chef to reinvent a classic recipe), Hesser’s work has long revealed her deep interest in the relationship of food to human memory. With her massive new cookbook making its way into kitchens this week, I was eager to talk to her about how cooking puts us in touch with the past while connecting us, deliciously, to the present.
Much of your food writing has been explicitly concerned with memory, I think to a greater extent than many other food writers. Was there a moment when you realized that this approach made sense to you as a part of covering the culinary world?
I’ve always liked documenting things, whether it’s by taking photographs or keeping a diary. Maybe it’s the inner pack rat in me that wants to preserve every moment, and has been born out in my writing. My first book [‘The Cook and the Gardener”] came about when I was living in France, working in this old hotel, and a gardener lived on the property. When you’re new to a culture you’re kind of fascinated by everything in it, and he was living in this way that, as an outsider, I could see really clearly was on its way out in France. He had a lot of traditions in his daily life that his kids were not carrying on. And I felt an urge to preserve that in some way. Once I’d written that book, I headed towards that as a kind of essential part of the writing that I do.
When you became an editor of the food section at the Times Magazine, you certainly brought that sensibility with you. When you conceived of the “Eat, Memory” column, what kind of response did you get from the writers you approached about it?
I was expecting to have to coax them, because I wanted to ask people who didn’t normally write about food—but who were well-known, great writers—to do it. But it turns out that nearly everyone has a great food story, and it wasn’t hard at all to get them excited to go back and revisit an experience, and write an essay about it. Food is just so integral to everyone’s lives, whether they realize it or not, and once they start thinking about it, it flows pretty easily.
From there, I feel like your “Recipe Redux” column was a really natural evolution. When you asked chefs to revamp these classic old recipes, did you get any feedback from them about what role the past usually played in their cooking?
I was definitely trying to make them conscious of this continuum, that new dishes aren’t just created out of thin air, that there are all sorts of influences. Some of them could be from childhood, and some could be from more recently, but that their creative process is about bringing together all these memories and impressions. The column was maybe a little high concept, but when it worked, it worked very well, and someone was able to take an old recipe and use it as a jumping off point. They weren’t necessarily revamping it, they were using the details of the recipe that stood out to them to create something new, and combining it with other techniques and observations and interests they’ve had to come up with an entirely new dish. Sometimes it was very closely related to the old dish, and sometimes it was completely different. And often the ones that were completely different were really great, because there were stories to tell about how they got from the old to the new.
It’s like word association, but ingredient association.
Yeah, exactly. And I wanted them to feel completely free. Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco took this old bread and cheese and tomato soup and turned it into a rice pudding. You would never put the two dishes together or think they had any relationship whatsoever, but they clearly drew a relationship between those two dishes. And that’s what I was trying to do. The evolution of cooking is all about people threading together memories, and reinterpreting them.
The new cookbook is really built on the idea that food can be a time machine, that if I bake a cake from my great-grandmother’s recipe, we’re connected because we’re sharing an experience, even if we’re living generations apart. Is there something essential about the act of cooking that makes that experience possible?
The thing with cooking is that you’re engaging so many of your senses, it’s much more powerful than if an experience is merely visual, or merely aural. You literally consume food, so it has a deeper impression than anything else.
There’s so much to laugh at in the 19th-century recipe archive, so much that seems strange and misguided to us now. What were your initial impressions of those old recipes, and did they change at all as you worked with them?
I was really fascinated by the depth of the archive, and the sophistication of some of the recipes. These were home cooks who were writing recipes and sending them to the Times, and there were sweet breads and artichokes—all these things that might be considered sophisticated now, and even maybe a little esoteric, were completely normal back then. Cooking at home was just much more common, and an important part of people’s lives. It was really kind of cool to see the documentation of it.
There were some great surprises that were also reminders: We think that Italian granita was popularized for the first time in the 1980s, but in fact it had been a part of Italian culture for a really long time, and there had been a fantastic granita recipe that appeared in the New York Times in 1898. There were recipes that called for olive oil, and it was a little bit of a shock to my system because I was expecting everything to be made with lard and butter. And then there were recipes for things like shaved artichoke salad, which is something you’d expect to get at an ambitious New York restaurant now. It was more amusing than anything else, because we have a very obsessive and enthusiastic food culture, and when we become interested in something it’s like it has never existed before. We want to explore every iteration possible, and we sort of feel like everything was created during the era that we became obsessed with it.
You mention in the book’s introduction that as you went through the archives and tested recipes, there were a few once-popular things “that felt too dated to include.” How did you develop a sense of what made something too dated?
It was more about accessibility. I did include tripe a la mode de Caen, which was a very common recipe, because I feel like you can still get tripe. I wasn’t going to put in five tripe recipes, but I thought it was important to include one. I sort of drew the line at terrapin, which is turtle—none of the recipes actually seemed that appealing. I love pretty much everything, and I just thought, “It’s okay to leave that out.” It’s not that the New York Times archive is inaccessible to people; you can go and find recipes. I wanted this to be curated, so it really felt like the great early dishes from that 150-year period.
Was it a challenge to balance (in your words) “the ancient with the prescient,” or did one keep speaking louder than the other?
I wanted there to be a mix of a lot of different things: the ancient, the prescient, the pivotal dishes. I’m thinking of Alice Waters’s mesclun salad with baked goat cheese. It was an interesting story that appeared in, because it was written by Craig Claiborne, who was at the end of the arc of his really great career at the Times. Food writers had really changed the food landscape, certainly for Times readers, and he was metaphorically passing the baton to Alice Waters by writing this profile about how she was this really important chef who we should all be paying attention to, and how she was thinking about food differently. Later it became kind of a cliché, but it really got people thinking differently about salad! And so many great, important chefs and food writers and cookbook authors had their work published in the Times, and I wanted to pay homage to the various people who have had a great influence on what we’re eating.
There’s Paul Prudhomme’s gumbo, and there’s cassoulet, and turducken—these are total weekend projects, and they’re totally fantastic, but I also wanted this book to be the thing you turn to everyday when you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to make for dinner, or if you have to bring a cake to a potluck. I wanted it to be an indispensable book that had all these different things in it, because that’s how we all think about food now—it’s not a straightforward matter, it’s a very complicated patchwork quilt. I totally want to embrace the complexity, because I think that’s sort of the fun.
Speaking of complexity, what are your feelings about tradition versus convenience? If you’re trying to connect with an old recipe, does it change it to prepare it in less painstaking ways than it was originally?
We can go to the butcher and ask for a certain cut of meat; we don’t have to cut it ourselves. Rather than putting something through a sieve, we have food processors. So there are a lot of things that are a natural part of our kitchens now that make those recipes easier. It’s not that they were especially labor-intensive, it’s just that people didn’t have the means or the tools that we have now. I really didn’t change anything, I felt my job was to unearth the best recipes and translate them—break them down into a recipe form that you and I can understand.
What’s your own “most stained” recipe?
I have two: two cakes. One is called Chocolate Dump-It Cake; it’s a recipe from my mother. It’s a really simple cake, and I make it every year for my husband for his birthday. The other is actually a recipe from his mother, and it’s an almond cake. This is the recipe I’ve probably made more than any other in my life. It’s just a real crowd-pleaser—it’s simple, its delicious, and you can make it ahead. It’s what I call my thank-you cake, because I’ve shipped it everywhere as a thank-you to various people for helping me out with things.
Your newest project, Food52, is also premised on the idea of home-cooked food as a memory-maker. On the website, one of the reasons you [and business partner Merrill Stubbs] give for why people should cook is, “If you cook, people will remember you.” I was really struck by that, because it’s at once so pragmatic and so esoteric. Have your feelings about that deepened since you’ve had kids?
I am just much more aware now that childhood is full of taste memories, and that they’re often not so much about the food, but you have very strong feelings about food because of it. I just feel excited to introduce my kids to as many things as possible. I know it will stay with them forever.
Does time change your feelings about your own work? When you look back at “Cooking for Mr. Latte” now, considering how things turned out, what do you think of it?
I always kept diaries and then never actually wanted to read them again because I was too embarrassed. I had a fear of deep embarrassment at what I thought, or how I wrote it. Honestly, I feel totally glad to have all of these things documented. Because we ended up getting married, there’s something sweet about having this documentation of our courtship. Even if it’s sometimes painful for me to read, it’s a source of happiness for me to have that book on my shelf.
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