You know where to find Grains of Paradise (or even what they are) and smoked paprika. You love beets, fatty fish, and biscotti. You use the word “tangle” to describe salads, judge people for their restaurant choices, and hate doing dishes in the morning. You are Amanda Hesser–or, at least, share some of her endearing, neurotic traits.
A food writer for The New York Times, Hesser’s writing is luminous, visual, and snappy. Good food writing literally picks you up and draws you into a tactile world in which you’re literally sitting at a country table alone at dusk, at a busy wedding banquet, or on the floor of a bare apartment listening to an ambulance drive by. In short, you’re not at home holding a book thinking about laundry or work deadlines. With Hesser, I was transported to a summer afternoon in Maine or her back balcony in Brooklyn Heights. I read “Cooking For Mr. Latte” in a day and a half; I lay in bed drinking it all in, mentally cataloging all of the recipes I’d try and becoming immersed in the back story of dating Mr. Latte (later we learn, Tad), eventually getting married, moving to Brooklyn, and coming to terms with family/friends/changing relationships. Essentially: the pedestrian elements of daily life that we all experience. Yet most of us don’t draw it out in such a sensuous, affable way.
When talking about old friends, Hesser writes: “When dining out, she does not order salad. She will begin with foie gras or sardines and move on to things like braised rabbit, lamb, and pheasant. When she shops for groceries, she buys her cheeses, olives, and wine from the Wine and Cheese Cask on the corner of Washington and Kirkland, bread from Hi-Rise, and her meats from a butcher. Nan understands that it is all right to buy a good pate for an appetizer, and that one perfect croissant is better than five good muffins. She is a dedicated minimalist who knows how to be generous” (182). I now know Nan. Hesser excels at small details that illuminate character fully in a matter of seconds–what any good writer strives for.
When talking about food in her chapter “Single Cuisine,” Hesser writes: “I might toss a poached egg with pasta, steamed spinach and good olive oil, and shower it with freshly grated nutmeg and cheese. Or, I might press a hard boiled egg through a sieve and sprinkle the fluffy egg curds over asparagus. It’s not traditional comfort food, but it works for me. I like rich, full flavors paired with clean bitter ones–a gentle lull and a bracing finish” (288). The way in which Hesser describes her simple meals alone is the same exact way I felt while relishing her sweet food memoir: a gentle lull as I lay squandering away the afternoon, and a bracing finish when I turned the last page. I was sad to leave Brooklyn, intimate dinner parties and trips to the market, and genuine vignettes about navigating through the food world–one day at a time.
Stand-out recipes in the collection include: Beet and Ginger Soup, Chicken Salad w/ Basil Mayonnaise, Chocolate “dump-it” cake (her mother’s go-to birthday cake recipe), and Mountain Honey Gingersnaps with Candied Ginger.
For more of Amanda Hesser, catch her upcoming project Food52.com, a recipe sharing/contest/archive that will culminate in a cookbook compilation. With Amanda at the helm, it promises to be a gracious and tantalizing endeavor. I want to be her when I grow up.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.