Kamis, 07 Oktober 2010

Recipe Redux: The Community Cookbook

Posted on 22.37 by Yan LimaBenua


The following morning, coffee in hand in my gray cubicle on 43rd Street, I was greeted by a tidal wave of e-mail. People told meabout classics like paella (a recipe that took the former Times food editor Craig Claiborne five tries to perfect),

Le Cirque’s spaghetti primavera(a recipe so renowned that three people claim to have invented it) andforget-it meringue torte (which billows like a cloud in the oven). And for the next four years, Times readers continued to send tattered clippings, multipart e-mails and handwritten note cards detailing their favorite barbecue sauce, a treasured apple tart and showstopping Malaysian fish stew.In a memorable letter that I feature in the book, Neal O’Donnell of Corning, N.Y., recalled when The Times published Jacques P├ępin’s cold curried zucchini soup in 1975. O’Donnell wrote: “. . . during the week after the article appeared, I made that soup for a small dinner party to great acclaim. On the weekend, I was invited to another dinner, and the hostess served the very same soup. On Sunday the hosts of the Saturday party and I were invited to a large bash up on Keuka — one of our Finger Lakes and not far from the Dr. Frank winery. As our lakeside hosts ladled their chilled soup into bowls and sprinkled the top with the julienned zucchini strips, the three of us guests broke out in . . . boisterous laughter that I’m sure could have been heard across thelake and over the hill. You guessed it! ”The letters also contained readers’ passionate accounts of relationships with dishes they had been cooking for decades.

They wrote me about recipes that held together their marriages, reminded them of lost youth, gave them the cooking bug and symbolized their annual family gatherings. I began to see the Times community not as an amorphous, anonymous mass but as bands of rabid partisans. There were the seasonal-cooking fanatics, the chocoholics, the Claiborne devotees. And there were simply readers who, for decades, waited each weekend for thethwumpof The Times on their doorsteps so they could tear out the recipes and dash to the store.

These letters, and this project — which neither my publisher nor I thought would take so long to finish (it was originally due in 2006) — first led to this series of columns, which looks back at some of the most notable recipes. And then they changed the shape of my career.

My talented assistant(and now business partner), Merrill Stubbs, collated all these reader suggestions into a document 145 single-spaced pages long, comprising more than 6,000 recipes. That file sums up what, exactly, Times readers really love to eat — gazpacho, chicken, shrimp, salmon, crab cakes,meatloaf, chocolate cakes, cheesecakes, apple desserts, lemon desserts and coffeecakes — and which writers’ recipes seemed most inventive and easiest to make. I often joked that I should call the book either “Chicken and Dessert” or “Forever Bittman: The Best Recipes From the Recipe Writer We Love.” (W. W. Norton opted, alas, for the more sensible “Essential New York Times Cookbook.”)

Four of the top five most-recommended recipes were desserts; more surprisingly, four of the five were more than 20 years old:

  • 1983: Purple plum torte(265 votes).
  • 1966: David Eyre’s pancake(80 votes).
  • 1973: Teddie’s apple cake(37 votes).
  • 2002: Chocolate dump-it cake(24 votes — my mother’s recipe and a terrific one but surely a biased result as I asked for the suggestions).
  • 1973: Ed Giobbi’s lasagna (23 votes).

    For five years, Merrill and I cooked our way through that stack. It was a survey course in the food of the last two generations in America. As became clear, desserts experienced a major renaissance during the 1970s, when Times writers served ambitious cakes, extraordinarily sweet American pies and a novel concept called the French tart. We ate a lot of duck in the 1990s and none atall in recent years. We discovered faki, bobotie and baumkuchentorte, then promptly forgot about them. We learned to cookpastaand to sauce it properly, as well as how to roast vegetables, but we left a lot of great Germanic foods like goulash and spaetzle by the curb. We tried and largely failed to adopt Chinese cooking at home.

    Next, I began to investigate the century of recipes that predated living cooks. The Times’s vast 19th-century recipe archive waslargely user-generated and was published under the rubric “The Household.” Readers submitted housekeeping tips, health remediesand loads of recipes — much like an online forum. None of this material seems to have been vetted by editors, so readers were free to propagate a conviction that noses should be wiped by alternating left and right sides to prevent “deformity,” or that anxious people should eat fatty foods because fat around the nerves “smoothes them out.” “The Household” also inspired an inordinate number of antidotes for asthmatic canaries. These early recipes were dominated by a remarkably vigorous community — the equivalent of today’s “power users” — with frequent contributions from such readers as Aunt Addie, Mollie and Bob the Sea Cook. No one could outcook Aunt Addie: if you sent in a recipe for tomato soup, she’d raise you three tomato soups the following week. Mollie was hard-working and determined, if not the best recipe writer. (Measurements and techniques eluded her.) And Bob the Sea Cook was an amusing storyteller, if occasionally sexist and racist. In a recipe forlobster-and-chicken curry, for which garlic must be peeled, he wrote, “If there are any ladies on board, make them do it.

    ”Along the way, I created this column, Recipe Redux, to showcase both lost gems and reader favorites likeraspberry vinegarorcorncakes with caviar. Julia Moskin, a writer for the Dining section, gave me the idea to ask a chef to use the old recipe as a jumping-off point to create something new, as a way of capturing the evolution of recipes and recontextualizing the past. A1907 onion soup, for instance, was reimagined as a sweet and savory ricepuddingby a chef in San Francisco. Maida Heatter’ssavory popoversfrom the 1960s were tweaked to become sweet, cinnamon-scented puffs.

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