Amanda Hesser Talks Her Big Fat Recipe Book....and Turtles

Categories: Chatting With

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Sarah Shatz
Amanda Hesser time-travels for you.

For six years, Amanda Hesser would come home from her day job as a food writer to another job -- testing 150 years worth of recipes for her 932-page magnum opus The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, just released by W.W. Norton & Company ($40). Hesser, who now runs food52(.com) with Merrill Stubbs, talked to Fork in the Road about what it's like to undertake such a big project. Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of the interview.

How did you get the idea for this cookbook?

I worked at The New York Times for a long time, and I still write for them. The New York Times did a fantastic cookbook in 1961, it was by Craig Claiborne, and it was a big hit and it's still in print. But they really haven't done another since then, and there's been a food revolution, so I thought that it was time to revisit the Times recipe archives, and do an expansive collection of recipes from them.

Some of the archives are electronic, but were there still technical challenges in developing the recipes?

Any recipes that were in the archives before 1982, there was no cutting and pasting, I had to actually rewrite them. It was definitely a labor-intensive process. I had to actually write them in a form that you would recognize, like an ingredient list with clear and recognizable instructions. Old recipes would give you a sketch of a recipe, they wouldn't necessarily give you a list of ingredients -- they would give you them in a paragraph, but they assumed you knew how to cook. A lot of the old recipes were really great, and I wanted to preserve them. I didn't want them to be buried forever.

So why has the format changed?

Essentially, it kind of got codified over time. The recipes happened to come from home cooks, mostly. So these are things readers sent in in paragraph form. It was very cool, because these are things home cooks were actually making, not what a food editor was saying you should be making. Even in the 1960s, the recipes are written in the classic form that you and I know, with numbered instructions, but they often didn't give enough details on what to look for, like when meat is done, because they assumed you would know when the meat is done. Now, there are lots of different levels of cooks. Some of them know a lot about cooking, and others are new to the kitchen, but want to cook and need a little more detail. So, current recipes reflect this. The biggest shift is in what people want to cook.

Explain ...

We cook a great variety of kinds of foods now, because a lot of people have traveled, so you find Asian recipes, you find Spanish recipes, you find diet-specific recipes -- like gluten-free recipes. There was a period when there were low-salt recipes. I think that's the thing that has changed: We eat such a wide variety of cuisine. Also, there's always an interest in the new. We're always looking for a new trend. Because, we have become more educated diners, a lot of Americans are eating out more often, and eating quite sophisticated foods, we're kind of expecting a little bit more of that, at home. So we're expecting a lot of different textures and a lot of different flavors, and yet lot of the recipes are sort of pared down.

How so?

Fifty years ago, we would cook a stew, and we would probably put everything in the pan at once and cook it, and wind up with a more uniform texture, and it might be more one-dimensional in flavor. But today, we would brown the meat, which would give the meat a nice crust, which would give it more than one texture, and it would caramelize, giving another layer of flavor, then we would add the recipe ingredients sequentially, as to give a wider variety of textures ...

What were some foods that used to be en vogue, but aren't so popular now?

Turtle -- it was kind of a specialty in the 19th century. You find a fair amount of sweetbreads recipes in the 19th century, and it's not that we don't eat them, but it tends to be more of a specialty at restaurants. Salsify -- it's not a common vegetable. But it was something that you definitely saw in earlier decades in the recipe pages.


Read the second half of the interview.


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