AMANDA HESSER had her doubts.
Six years ago, when the sprightly New York Times food columnist, author and cofounder of food52.com signed on to distill 150 years of Times recipes into one cookbook, she wasn't sure she was up to the task.
The breadth of the project intimidated even this seasoned writer. "I worried about doing a good job," she said. "The time period was so vast. I felt I needed some guidance." Hesser, who was food editor of the Sunday magazine when she left the Times for digital ventures in 2008, put out a call to readers to send her their crumpled, stained, most-loved recipes. The more than 6,000 responses she received clinched the deal, revealing what the Times community was really cooking - from meatloaves and fresh tomato sauce to cheesecakes and desserts made with chocolate, apples, or lemon. "That told me where the genuine points of interest were. With those recipes in hand, I had a guidebook to move forward."
Spend some time with The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century (Norton & Co. $40), and it's clear that she needn't have worried. Hesser, in town for a chat at the Free Library tonight, has birthed a cookbook that deserves a place of honor in every kitchen. Working in tandem with her business partner, Merrill Stubbs, Hesser managed to distill the best of the best to more than 1,000 recipes that do much more than just put food on the table. This is a book that not only offers insight into how we eat now, but also explores fascinating mileposts along the way, from Huey Long's favorite gin fizz recipe to a post war Green Goddess Salad to the culinary riffing of notable chefs like Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and Alice Waters.
If you're a person who reads cookbooks for fun, this hefty tome provides plenty of interesting bedtime reading. A chronicler of both the social history of food and notable food trends, Hesser acts as an insightful tour guide, delivering crackling commentary in the 18 chapter introductions and recipe head notes. The avid home cook also will appreciate practical assists like prep timelines, cross-referenced menus and suggested recipe pairings. And so many of the recipes - the cloud-like David Eyre's Pancake, the wonderfully rustic Teddie's Apple Cake, Craig Claiborne's Southern Eggnog - are as familiar as old friends.
Now that this Herculean undertaking is in her rearview mirror, Hesser can ruminate on what exactly is so essential about the recipes in this collection - what they say about the evolution of food writing, for example.
"With the caveat that all of these recipes bear the perspective of the New York Times, food writing changed considerably over the years," said Hesser, who wrote more than 800 stories in the 11 years she was at the paper, and published several books, including Cooking for Mr. Latte, based on her courtship with writer Tad Friend. The couple, now married, lives with their twin son and daughter in Brooklyn. "In the early days, the latter part of the 19th century, the food page was a community cookbook of sorts, with recipes sent in from home cooks. By the 1900s and beyond, it went from reader driven to editorial driven, directed to the housewife - what she should cook, how she should keep house, that kind of thing," said Hesser.
By the time Craig Claiborne was hired as food editor in 1957 - the first man to supervise the food section at a major American newspaper - style, dining trends and culinary exploration took over the weekly food pages. "Craig made new and foreign foods seem stylish and desirable," said Hesser. "He took the section away from the home-ec approach, and made it more about food as lifestyle." In the 1980s, Claiborne wrote a profile of Alice Waters, whom he ordained as the chef, not just of the moment, but also of the future. "It was significant - he was telling us to pay attention to her, not just because of her use of seasonal ingredients, but also as a woman running an important kitchen and making waves in the food world."
The recipes themselves have changed to keep up with the emerging food zeitgeist. "Cooking became more sophisticated and layered," said Hesser. "Our expectations of flavor are higher. We want a lot of different flavors - heat, acidity, sweetness, texture and crunch - packed into one dish. At the same time, we want our cooking to be simpler." "Local" and "sustainable" are the current buzzwords, a trend that won't be winding down anytime soon.
While Times readers and home cooks have clearly placed more emphasis on healthful eating in recent years, replacing buttery sauces with lighter preparations and ingredients like whole grains and locally grown vegetables, foodies aren't ready to give up their indulgences altogether. "The bacon craze says it all," she said. In terms of ingredients, Hesser points to the introduction of chilies into regular cooking, something that's happened only in the past 20 years or so, as the single most significant change reflected in the book's anthology. Sparked in part by Craig Claiborne's devotion to the Louisiana-based Tabasco sauce, this fascination with spice was adopted by other cooks and food writers, who took this flavor element and ran with it. "We're used to having that element of heat, even in sweet dishes," she said.
Hesser, the guiding voice throughout the book's 932 pages, relished the chance to revisit each recipe, even ones she'd made many times before. "I wanted to be able to tell the reader what to watch out for, add details, and what to pay attention to."
It's helpful to know that the chapters are ordered chronologically, so that lamb chops, for example, might show up in several different places within the same chapter, rather than being grouped together. Hesser did this to give each chapter a historic and narrative arc, so that in, say, the dessert chapter the reader is introduced to blanc mange, a pudding craze from the late 1800s, and then winds up with pana cotta, the cream-based Italian pudding so popular 100 years later. And there were more than a few surprises along the way. Taro chips, a potato chip substitute sold at mainstream markets like Trader Joe's, were written about more than 50 years ago. And "air shopping" was introduced as a chic means of ordering exotic food to be delivered by that revolutionary new means of transport, the airplane.
Through it all, there's Hesser's voice, friendly, chatty, approachable. Very clearly, this cookbook was deeply personal for her, a labor of love. "I wanted this book to be a celebration of great cooking, to feel like the best of your mother's recipe box mixed with the iconic dishes we grew up with," she said. "I want cooking these recipes to feel like an adventure." And, most of all, she wanted a book that people will really use. "What's really great about cooking is that you never master it, you're always learning," Hesser said. "My hope is that this book can be part of that journey."