Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Food Writer & Editor Amanda Hesser

In books, cookbooks, cooking, editors, food, nonfiction, recipes, writing on November 15, 2010 at 10:12 pm

 

Amanda Hesser

Amanda Hesser. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2010).

An introduction to the editor of The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century (WW Norton & Company, 2010), and author of the award-winning Cooking for Mr. Latte. Amanda Hesser is a food columnist and editor for the New York Times. She is also the co-founder of food52.com, an online community and recipe database for food lovers and cooks.

 

Quick Facts on Amanda Hesser

  • Amanda Hesser’s food52.com
  • Home: Brooklyn Heights, New York
  • Comfort food: eggs
  • Top reads/authors: The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, John Berger’s Pig, Earth, Cooking in Ten Minutes by Edouard de Pomiane, The Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher
  • Top restaurants/chefs: Fergus Henderson and his St John Restaurant in London, Boulettes Larder in San Francisco, and Quimet & Quimet in Barcelona
  • Current reads: Spoon Fed by Kim Severson

What are you working on at the moment?

Finishing up the first food52 cookbook with my co-founder for the project, Merrill Stubbs. It will be out in June 2011. The main thing I’m working on really is building food52 into a business.

Where did the idea for The Essential New York Times Cookbook come from?

The idea originated over lunch with an editor from the New York Times. She asked me if I had any ideas for food books, and I really didn’t. We kept talking and the original New York Times Cookbook from 1961, written by Craig Claiborne, came up. It occurred to us that, well, that was a long time ago. It was a big hit when it came out but so much has changed since. There’s been a food renaissance; our food culture has evolved enormously since then: We’ve learned about seasonal cooking, we’ve become proponents of local food—cooking and shopping locally, we’ve gotten into Spanish cooking, we’ve become obsessed with sea salt, and smoked paprika. All sorts of big changes and micro-trends have happened in regards to food since 1961. The New York Times had been covering it extensively and it seemed to make sense to do a book about all of this. It wasn’t meant to redo the Craig Claiborne cookbook. The New York Times has been writing about food for 150 plus years. I felt like I had to dig through the archives of recipes and try to cover that whole period.

How long did it take you to complete this book?

Six years, with my food52 partner Merrill Stubbs working as my assistant. We did all the cooking together; it took about four or five years to cook and test all the recipes. It took me about two years after that to write the book.

Was there ever a point where you doubted finishing this project?

After the first year, where we’d just cooked some 400 recipes, and I could see that I still had so much more to do—that was a little bit of a low moment. The other low came when the book was due and I wasn’t finished.

Do you have any particular favorite recipes from this collection?

Because there was such a huge amount of material to deal with, I wanted to honor and distill into this book the recipes that were the very best. So there’s over a thousand recipes that I think are fantastic, but, I’ll give you a few examples:

David Eyre’s Pancake. It’s a huge winner—you can serve it for dessert or breakfast.

Pamela Sherrid’s Summer Pasta

Heavenly Hots [Who wouldn’t want to try a recipe with a name like that? I challenge you to check it out.]

Shrimp in Green Sauce, a Mark Bittman recipe

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope this becomes a book people turn to for classic dishes. My wish for this book is that it’s the book somebody will buy for their kids, or for someone who is learning to cook. It covers all sorts of classic dishes and includes good basic recipes—all of the things that I’d wished I’d had when I was learning to cook. It also includes recipes from noteworthy chefs like Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, and food writers like Marcella Hazan, who were discovered in the food pages of the New York Times.

Because the book covers such a long period of time, there are many recipes for dishes we have forgotten about or that may be new to people. So, I hope it will also be an adventure, that people will see it as an opportunity to have a little fun and experiment, but know that they’ll be safe. It’s kind of a chance for time travel cooking. I saw my job as unearthing the good stuff and then being a good tour guide. I tried to include notes on where the recipes come from and why they are interesting, as well as notes about what kind of pan to use and if you don’t have that specific pan, what you can use instead. I like cookbooks that make you feel like you aren’t alone in the kitchen.

How did your relationship to food and cooking when you were growing up influence the place of those things in your life now?

I was lucky because I grew up with very good food. My mother is a good cook and so is my grandmother, and now all my siblings are as well. It wasn’t that our food was fancy in any way, but it was really important to my mom to cook food from scratch and to cook seasonally, before that was even in fashion. A lot of our big family meals were about some special treat. When we’d go to my grandmother’s house, she lived on the Chesapeake Bay, we would often go out and catch crab and then have a crab feast—and that would be what we did for that day. On vacation, the big decision was always where to eat dinner. I think I absorbed all of this over time and it helped me when I was an adult. I had a sense of what good food was, even if I didn’t necessarily know how to make it myself. Actually, I think that’s been happening in general in our culture. We’ve become so interested in food that even if we don’t know how to cook we do know what is good food, and that has made a difference in what we eat.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of this cookbook?

I wanted to write a book that would appeal to a beginner as well as to an expert cook. It has recipes that I thought fit the “everyone ought to know how to make this” category with lots of variations and some more challenging dishes.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I tend to be a night owl, so late at night, at home in the kitchen. I also did a ton of writing on the subway because I was there, stuck on the train, and it was a very concentrated amount of time where I could just focus on a couple of recipes.

What defines a well-written recipe?

I think a well-written recipe has voice. You can hear the voice of the writer and feel that they are speaking from experience and looking out for you. It should be fun to read.

What do you listen to when you work?

I don’t listen to anything when I cook; I like the sound of cooking. If I’m writing a recipe, I listen to an embarrassing range of oldies and new-ish music.

How did you become a food writer?

I was intrigued by food writing in college, but I wasn’t really sure how to get from point A to point B. I knew what good food was, and I loved going out to eat, but I didn’t know very much about cooking. So, I started cooking, thinking that if I’m ever going to write about food I better get into the kitchen. I started working in restaurants and bakeries, and I went to Europe to work for a couple of years. Eventually, I reached a point where I felt like I had something to write about. There was this man, a gardener in France, and I wanted to tell his story. I started writing and that became my first book, The Cook and the Gardener. At that point I felt like, I guess I’m a writer, but I had to figure out a way to make a living.

What advice would you give to aspiring food writers?

It’s important to cook and shop. Eat out as much as you can. It’s all about the experiences you have. That will help you feel more confident with what you’re writing about and it will enrich your writing.

What was your biggest food flop?

I remember having an Italian friend and a well-known food editor (who I won’t name) come over for dinner and I decided to cook polenta. It was just terrible—floppy, without any of that lovely creaminess polenta can have. The polenta itself was nice but I seemed to do everything possible to ruin it. Polenta is one of those things where you just need to have experience to be able to get the texture right. You need to know it, and I didn’t know polenta. Really, what was I thinking serving an Italian dish to my friend from Rome? I should have made burgers on the grill. That was such a rookie mistake.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a chef?

Well, it’s not so much advice as a revelation. A chef told me once that “you don’t want to serve food hot, because then you can’t taste it.” It was an Aha! moment for me. You want it to cool off a bit otherwise you can’t taste all of the details. That took a lot of stress out of the cooking experience for me. A lot of times, the most stressful thing when you’re making more than one dish is having them all ready to serve together, and this meant that it was okay for some things to rest or be served at room temperature. It’s okay to let food rest so the flavors soak in and settle.

What question do you find surprising that people ask you about your work?

Well, people will ask me what it’s like to be a restaurant reviewer. When I tell them that I’m not a restaurant reviewer, they totally lose interest. People seem to think that would be the ultimate job, but I think that would be the hardest food job.

People often assume I’m writing just about food, but when I write about food it’s really a way into talking about people, experiences, or memories. The food was an accoutrement. This is my first straightforward cookbook.

Is there a question that you wish people would ask you more often about your work?

I write a lot about memory in relation to food, and I like to think about the relationship between people and food. I think many people see that I’m writing about food and they think, “oh, yum,” and it stops there—they don’t think about their own relationship with food.

When you’re not writing or cooking, what do you like to do?

I like going to movies. I spend time with my kids. I like to travel.

About Amanda Hesser

Amanda Hesser has been a food columnist and editor at the New York Times for more than a decade. She is the author of The Essential New York Times Cookbook, Cooking for Mr. Latte, The Cook and the Gardener, and editor of the essay collection Eat, Memory. Hesser is also the co-founder of food52.com. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Tad Friend, and their two children.

Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Food Writer & Editor Amanda Hesser.” Words With Writers (November 15, 2010), https://wordswithwriters.com/2010/11/15/amanda-hesser/.%5D

The Essential New York Times Cookbook

The Essential New York Times Cookbook edited by Amanda Hesser (WW Norton & Company, 2010).

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