Amanda Hesser is hungry.
It’s five p.m. on Saturday and she’s been signing her latest book, The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, since nine in the morning. Just lifting the 932-page, tomato-soup-colored tome would be a workout, packed as it is with hundreds recipes spanning the Times’ entire 150-year history of food writing.
She’s scheduled to have a potluck dinner later with contributors to food52, her online community of enthusiastic home cooks, but at this moment, she’s wilting, the music in the hotel bar too loud and the crowd already raucous. Thinking of Negronis, maybe a little pizza, I offer up Bruce Hill’s new Zero Zero, but on our way over there, Hesser suggests a detour to Benu, Corey Lee’s Asian-inspired revamp of the old Two/Hawthorne Lane space, which she’s been curious to see.
The restaurant’s not open yet, nor do they have a bar, but then again, Lee earned his chops at the French Laundry. This is not a place that’s in the business of saying no.
It also helps that the server who answers our knock instantly recognizes Hesser. Not that they open early for us, but an elegantly suited gentleman brings us out a wine list, followed by two glasses of Roederer Estate sparkler to pass the time while we wait on a bench outside the door. Looking over the serenely feng-shui’ed courtyard lined with vine-draped pergolas, Hesser notes the expansiveness and welcome that sets some San Francisco restaurants apart from their equally high-end NYC brethren. “I haven’t even been inside, and I already like this place,” she says.
Once inside, we discover that while Benu may not have a bar menu, they have invested in an extremely nice line of amuse-gueles, especially, I imagine, when the guele to be amused is Hesser’s.
First up: two cubes of mountain-yam souffle, each sitting on its own little slatted wooden bench as if ready for a sauna. I tell Amanda that the first thing I looked for in the book was the Banana Tea Bread recipe immortalized in The New York Times Cookbook, circa 1961, the only banana bread recipe that anyone in the world should ever need.
The Claiborne book was an instant classic, elegantly laid out, spare on chat but thorough on instructions and technique. It was a cookbook for ambitious homemakers and sophisticated urbanites alike, and still, if I go into the kitchen of any woman of my mother’s generation, I know without looking that the distinctive blue-green-gold spine will be there in the kitchen, right between the Silver Palate Cookbook and Julia Child.
Claiborne made no attempt to ingratiate himself with readers. He didn’t tell you about himself; instead, he told you, in a voice of authority that brooked no dissent, how to make profiteroles, set a tea table, or stuff a breast of veal.
Wisely, Hesser made no attempt to update Claiborne’s version. Particularly beloved recipes from his book, like that banana bread, do turn up in hers, precisely because they’re now part of our collective cooking history. Claiborne chose his recipes from among those popular with readers, back when responding to a newspaper with praise or condemnation required setting pen (or typewriter) to paper and finding a stamp.
Six years in the making, the book began in 2004, when Hesser, then the food editor of the New York Times Magazine, put out a call to readers asking them to send her their crumpled, their stained, their most-loved, most-used Times recipes.
Over 6,000 readers replied, with picks that Hesser and her business partner Merrill Stubbs eventually winnowed (and ruthlessly tested) down to some 400 greatest hits, mostly culled from the last 40 years. Then, Hesser dived into the Times’ extensive archives, reaching back all the way through the second half of the 19th century.
(Although, as she writes, “Sharp-eyed readers may suspect that I slacked off during the 1940s and 50s, but if you could taste some of the recipes I made from this era, you would see that I am saving you from a world of hurt,” i.e., broiled peanut-butter-and-bacon canapes.)
The result, comprehensive and lively, is a scrapbook of how we eat now, showing the stops along the way that led us from Le Cirque’s Pasta Primavera (1977) to Bulgar Salad with Pomegranate Dressing (2006), from Green Goddess Salad (invented at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel in 1923, but not mentioned in the Times until 1948) to Alice Water’s Baked Goat Cheese with Salad (1983). There are snappy timelines, cross-indexed menus for every occasion, and useful lists of go-with dishes at the end of every recipe.
If you’re fascinated by the social history of food, and food trends, the chapter introductions and headnotes will provide plenty of interesting bedtime reading. And if you just want a good recipe for meatloaf, cheesecake, or apple pie, well, you’ll find that too, in many iterations. In collating all the reader responses, Hesser and Stubbs discovered, over and over, what the Times community was really cooking. A lot of meatloaves. Many cheesecakes. Any dessert featuring chocolate, apples, or lemon. Butternut squash soup and gazpacho, no-knead bread and no-cook fresh tomato sauce.
Not everything caught on; even with all those woks in the cabinets, few people were cooking Chinese at home. Covering food news for the Times, Hesser realized, “You broadcast out, saying this is a trend happening, but it doesn’t stop there. The real curation happens with the readers.”
It’s helpful to know that the chapters are ordered chronologically, so that scallops, for example, might show up in several different places within the same chapter, rather than being clustered together. This was a deliberate decision on Hesser’s part, to give each chapter a historic and narrative arc, so that in, say, the dessert chapter, you can see how the 1870s fad for blancmange, a quivery, milk-based pudding with medieval roots, was followed, some hundred years later, by an equally intense 1990s craze for quivery, cream-based panna cotta.
For a book of newspaper recipes from such an august arbiter of taste as the Times, the tone–friendly, breezy, chatty–is surprisingly personal. In every headnote, the guiding voice is Hesser’s, telling you, for example, how she loves the accolades she earns serving writer Kay Rentschler’s Chilled Corn Soup with Honeydew Polka Dots, even as Rentschler’s nit-picky, madly complicated directions lead her to swear at Rentschler’s recipes like other people shout at Glenn Beck.
As she writes of the soup, “It looks pretty and people praise me. And I quietly feel great respect for Rentschler, while disliking her just the same.”
Testing recipes from her predecessors in the 1970s and 80s, Hesser was prepared to cook the equivalent of those bad-haircut high school photos. Tuna au poivre: how much more Bonfire of the Vanities could you get? “But you know what?” Hesser laughs. “Done right, it was great! There’s a reason why it was so popular.”
As we talk, a quiet parade of doll-size snacks has been appearing on our low cube of a table. Half a preserved quail egg, bright with ginger and nestled in a tiny spoon. What looks like a cigarette rolled by elves and perched on a miniature ashtray turns out to be a succulent sliver of eel wrapped in crunchy brik pastry next to a dab of creme fraiche topped with salt and lime zest. We shatter through a couple of strips of nori-speckled flatbread, then make our way out, back onto the busy SoMa streets.
The Art of Food Writing: An Adult Writers’ Seminar, a benefit for 826 Valencia, will be held at the Women’s Building in San Francisco on Sunday, Nov. 7th, from 7-9pm. Amanda Hesser will be in conversation with Celia Sack, owner of Omnivore Books and Daniel Patterson, executive chef and owner of Coi. $100/person.
Follow Amanda Hesser on Twitter @amandahesser.