Q&A with Amanda Hesser of The New York Times
Imagine you had the key to a vast subterranean vault of some of the best recipes throughout history — well, that key is now available for purchase on Amazon in the form of The Essential New York Times Cookbook. Instead of having to sit in a dark, musty basement, flipping through reel after reel of microfiche, author Amanda Hesser has done that work for all of us: It took her over 6 years to test more than 1,400 recipes in order to complete this extensive collection of the most popular Times recipes since 1850.
It's remarkable to see the changes over the years, and even more so to see the similarities. A quick and easy recipe for Baked Mushrooms looks like something published today, but is actually from 1877. Salade À La Romaine, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, seems like a dish I made for dinner the other night, yet is also from 1877.
With the humor and compassion that she used to write this insightful cookbook, Hesser shares her experience in creating it below.
This is such an incredible project and a huge undertaking; did you have a favorite part of the process?
I loved the whole experience to be honest because at least two-thirds of the process was spent recipe testing and going through The New York Times’ archives in a very hands-on way, to get an idea of how to shape the book. I actually asked the readers to let me know what their favorite recipes were, and they really guided me while I was looking through the archives. I also asked the food writers and chefs who contributed what their favorite recipes were, and they were really helpful as well.
What was one of the hardest things about putting this cookbook together?
Deciding what would go in it. I felt responsible to include a well-rounded collection that represented The New York Times through the years.
How do you think readers will use this book?
It’s an indispensable book, not just a museum of recipes. It is a reflection of how our cooking has evolved over the past 150 years. It’s filled with many classics that we know and love and all of the trends that we went through. There’s the tiramisu era when it was on every restaurant menu and the Times published several recipes, and also the panini craze, etc. Since the paper has been covering the industry and trends over the past 150 years, it has captured so many of the writers and chefs that we know and love like Marcella Hazan, Craig Claiborne, Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver and really looking at these people that we looked up to through the years. The New York Times has always published recipes that we are cooking at home but also the great project recipes like cassoulet or turducken, and the book is a great mix of it all.
Which time period, if any, would you say saw the most change in eating style and habits? Has it been cyclical at all, or have there been any patterns that you noticed?
I’d say that in the 19th century there was a lot of emphasis on seasonality that disappeared and really came back with Alice Waters. The biggest change in home cooking today is that we are adding in a lot of textures, flavors and different dimensions into our dishes; we have higher expectations but we also want things to be simple. I know it seems like a contradiction, but we’ve found a way to cook simply with dishes that are quite complex. Also older recipes seem to be more monochromatic and one dimensional, which isn’t a bad thing; it’s just different.
Is there a time when recipes became more chef-focused? Is that also when chefs gained more of an elevated status as a profession?
It happened in the mid-80s in the pages of the Times, then it picked up in the 90s and 2000s; the chef culture really came to fascinate people.
Did you ever notice an imbalance or change in contributions by gender? Were early contributors more often female or male?
In the 19th century it was hard to tell because people wrote in their initials and not their full names. Today though, I don’t see any imbalance in gender contributions.
In terms of health-consciousness, did you see it pick up or decline during any time period?
I think there has always been an underlying interest in health, whether directly related to the pages or not. I think it was in the 80s that Marian Burros started an Eating Well column that she did for a long time; that was kind of the Times’ acknowledgement of healthy eating and cooking. They’ve always taken the approach of covering all different kinds of recipes and trends.
What were the recipes like during World War I and II?
The food coverage during World War I depleted a lot, I’m not sure why. But it picked up during World War II, and there was a lot recipes and articles about rationing and using portions well.
Were there any ingredients that were popular in the early 1900’s that we no longer use today?
Not really, but there were things like salsify that seems to be making a slow comeback on restaurant menus and maybe even in home kitchen. There was a fair amount of tripe and offal that is becoming more popular now but still not an everyday thing. There was also a lot of cooking with lard in the 19th century, but there was also the use of oils and olive oil too.
What are two of your favorite cookbooks?
Edouard de Pomaine’s French Cooking in Ten Minutes, it’s an old book. But he had a great writing voice, kind of an early take on efficient cooking. Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking is another one because I felt like she took the world of French bistro cooking, and if you hadn’t spent time there, she made it really accessible.
What is one of your favorite meals to make? Like your go-to dish when you’re tired, or come home late.
It’s actually a dish my husband makes a lot, spaghetti all’Amatriciana, that would be my favorite. I also love making a five-cheese pasta where I cook the pasta for 6 minutes then mix with different cheeses and bake at 500 degrees so it gets nice and crispy on top. I don’t know why these are all pasta dishes, but I also love Pamela Sherrid’s Summer Pasta that’s actually in the cookbook. You chop up a bunch of garlic, basil and let it marinate for a day with olive oil and chopped tomatoes. Then you mix it with hot pasta and mozzarella cubes so the cheese softens, and all of the flavors meld together and the aromas infuse the whole dish. So it’s not actually hot when you eat it, but it’s something that I like to make a lot in the summer.
Yes they are definitely celebrating home cooks, but I wouldn’t say that they have ever gone away. The proliferation of cooking blogs showed that home cooks really knew a lot and had a lot of original recipes and ideas to share as well as beautiful photographs.