It all began with Billi Bi. The creamy, mussel-studded concoction "may well be the most elegant and delicious soup ever created," according to 1950s food guru Craig Claiborne, and one taste of it in a friend's kitchen is what sent me to a bookstore some fifteen years ago in search of a copy of The New York Times Cookbook. By then, Claiborne's venerable tome was more than thirty years old—when I was growing up, its simple navy-blue cover with the gilded spine, long stripped of the dust jacket, was a regular sight in my mother's kitchen. Never mind that unlike the works of Julia Child, that other towering figure of midcentury cookery whose books were known more readily by their author's name than by their cumbersome titles, The New York Times Cookbook (1961) was a compilation of other people's recipes, culled from the Times between 1950 and 1960, rather than the author's (the editor's, really) own. Heavily tilted toward French cuisine, as all cutting-edge American dining was in those years, it was referred to in my family's home, and later in the homes of friends, as it is now and will be forevermore in mine, simply as "Craig Claiborne."
My circle of intimates and I are not alone in our easy familiarity. As Amanda Hesser writes in The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century (Norton, $40)—which I can't help but refer to, as I'm sure many others will, as The "New" New York Times Cookbook—readers "developed an intimate relationship" with Claiborne from the moment he started working for the Times's food pages in 1957. "He was part reporter, part prophet, and part therapist," Hesser writes. "His number was listed in the phone book, and panicked readers didn't hesitate to call him from the stove. A friend of Florence Fabricant's once dialed him up when a scallop sauce wasn't reducing properly. 'Boil the bejeezus out of it,' Claiborne advised, and hung up." These days, Claiborne would have a Twitter account and a Facebook page, as Hesser does.
Which, of course, is emblematic of the ways in which cooking, cookbooks, and celebrity have changed in the years since Claiborne put together what was touted in the flap copy as "the first quality cook book for daily use in the home kitchen." We're swimming not only in a steady flow of cookbooks big and small but also in Web, print, and television coverage of cooking, eating, drinking, and the politics and pleasures of shopping for groceries. So it's up to us to sort out whom to listen to—whose voices we like—and why.
Hesser, whose book Cooking for Mr. Latte (2003) was based on her column for the Times Magazine, now writes the occasional recipe column there, which she used as a testing ground for this cookbook. She has done her best to help us sort out the personalities that appear in the Times—no easy feat. Of her prolific and high-profile colleague Mark Bittman (a food writer for the newspaper since 1990) she says that while making her way through the paper's archives dating back to 1850, she "often joked that I should call the book . . . Forever Bittman: The Best Recipes from the Recipe Writer We Love (needless to say, there is plenty of Bittman in Hesser's compilation). His columns and best-selling cookbooks, which extend to international cuisine, fish, the recipes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and easy weeknight meals (not to mention the grandiosely though rightfully named How to Cook Everything), alone provide more choices than a home chef could have dreamed of in Claiborne's day. The same could be said for last year's giant Gourmet Today cookbook, which contains a wealth of recipes so scrumptious and varied that I took it to bed for late-night reading when I got my copy and then spent weeks cooking ecstatically and randomly from its pages.
Hesser's NYT Cookbook seeks to be similarly engrossing—both practical and encyclopedic. She's perfectly right when she says in her introduction that it's not an update of Claiborne's chef d'oeuvre. His was a snapshot of a moment in American cuisine, when dishes like calf's liver, Chicken Paprikash, and aspic were all the rage (as Hesser puts it, "nothing says 1959 like a canapé"). Hesser, on the other hand, has compiled a comprehensive history, with time lines and recipes for nineteenth-century cocktails like Delicious Milk Punch (a heady brew of hot milk with citrus, rum, brandy, nutmeg, and sugar) alongside up-to-the-moment offerings from the likes of Thomas Keller (Butternut Squash Soup with Brown Butter, among others), Fergus Henderson (Roasted Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad), and even the husband of "Maria Cornejo, a fashion designer whose clothing is worn by Michelle Obama." As far as recipes go, her choices are inspiring throughout; they send you straight to the stove to test everything from 1909's Eggs Suffragette (hard-boiled, with anchovies, sweet paprika, and Dijon mustard) to a Jerk Chicken cooked on the grill from 2008. That she offers serving suggestions with each recipe is another welcome improvement on Claiborne, who clearly thought he'd done his duty just by telling readers that paprika is Hungarian—which, considering he was writing in the America of the early '60s, he had.
Copious commentary of various other kinds is also included, in what the promotional copy refers to as Hesser's "signature voice," a voice at once expert and also a bit judgmental in a way that Claiborne never had to be, simply because it was understood that he was the authority. Hesser has a lot of opinions about what makes good food, and she's not afraid to serve them forth. But in spite of this, her book is surprisingly democratic. She went through thousands of recipes to make her selections, a process she details painstakingly and, for the reader, sometimes painfully, as when she drags in autobiographical minutiae: "Another 400 recipes and another two years later—with my toddlers developing their palates" and "My sister Rhonda began re-testing recipes that needed minor tweaks" are typical tidbits. There are also awkward stabs at wit, such as "A great coffee cake should have an interior that's sweet and dewy, and a sugary top that's as crusty as Robert Frost." To her credit, Hesser is ever willing to be surprised by something she expects not to like. "I had long thought of our love of dip as a bad habit we needed to break," she confesses endearingly in her notes on a Caramelized Onion and Quark Dip recipe she's fallen for—but then she almost erases this goodwill by calling it "an überdip."
Finally, what makes Hesser's book distinctly of its moment is all the talk, the endless, unceasing talk that is so much a sign of our food-obsessed times and threatens on occasion to overwhelm the conversation entirely. Do we really need to know, for example, that Hesser's "three-year-olds devoured the whole batch" of Edamame with Nori Salt? And that she further believes it "could become the go-to snack at kids' birthday parties: down with Veggie Bootie!" Or that her husband likes to make James Beard's Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic when they have friends over for dinner? To be fair, Hesser seems aware of the distracting buzz, ruminating wistfully in the intro to a 1947 recipe for Fresh Succotash, "Remember how we used to cook? . . . We would put the ingredients in a pan and cook them. . . . At the table, we wouldn't talk about the texture of the corn or the salinity of the butter. We'd just eat it."
But I'm happy to overlook the authorial intrusions and instead to focus on Hesser's often very good advice, purely for the pleasure of cooking my way through her pages—though I have doubts as to whether, in our noisy, foodie era, this book will ever become known simply as "Amanda Hesser." As for the Billi Bi, it appears here, slightly altered from the original by the addition of saffron and the removal of an egg yolk. I confess, though, that I'll probably be sticking with Claiborne's version. It may be less fashionable, but it's familiar, not to mention delicious. Sometimes, that's all you need to say about dinner.
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