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A cookbook of the lost, found

Times columnist culls the newpaper’s extensive archives for long-lost recipes

(Sarah Shatz)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / November 17, 2010

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In 2004, New York Times food columnist Amanda Hesser had lunch with editor Susan Chira, who was cultivating book projects. The two began discussing Craig Claiborne’s classic “New York Times Cookbook.’’ Published in 1961, it’s still in print. “So much has changed in the five decades since,’’ Hesser says. “It just dawned on us: Isn’t it time to take stock again?’’

Little did Hesser know that taking stock would be a six-year project, involving her culling through 150 years of archived material and testing more than 1,400 recipes. The result is “The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century,’’ a hefty red volume that contains more than 1,000 recipes. We spoke with Hesser by phone.

Q. This is not an update of Claiborne’s book, but a survey of the New York Times food archives. How did you approach the material?

A. My job was to distill it all into a collection of the most noteworthy — the seminal recipes. I covered all the important chefs, from Thomas Keller to Jamie Oliver to Alice Waters, to great food writers and cookbook writers like Julia Child and Marcella Hazan and Paula Wolfert, and also the Times writers themselves. Then there are the amazing recipes that are really old, from the 19th century. It was my job to unearth the recipes and act as a tour guide through these many eras.

Q. Did you realize what you were getting into?

A. I was thinking the Times started covering food when Claiborne was hired in the late ’50s. I discovered they’d been writing about it 100 years before Claiborne. There was a researcher at the Times who said, “You don’t want to go there.’’ Those old archives are really hard to access. It’s an amazing treasure trove. New York food markets were really bountiful in the 19th century, and people really cooked. The way the Times collected recipes was to ask readers, so they’re all actual recipes from home cooks.

Q. You solicited the advice of readers for this project, too.

A. I put a notice in the newspaper calling for readers’ favorite Times recipes. I got this tidal wave of e-mails and letters from people all over the world telling me their favorites. Some were four decades old. There were a lot of touching stories. The soul of the book comes from the readers themselves.

Q. The wisdom of the crowd informs another of your projects: the website food52, a collaboration with Merrill Stubbs, with whom you tested the recipes for the cookbook. On food52, users contribute recipes, test them, and choose the best ones, ultimately resulting in a crowd-sourced cookbook. How did the two of you get from a print volume of historical recipes to an online compendium of user-generated dishes?

A. The recipes that most resonated with Times readers tended to be ones that originated with home cooks, like Teddie’s apple cake, Pamela Sherrid’s summer pasta, and chicken Canzanese from Ed Giobbi. The most successful ones have the powerful combination of inventiveness while also being practical. Then there was also the massive proliferation of food blogs, which suggested a larger cultural shift. Americans have gone from being interested in food to knowing a lot about food and wanting to express themselves and be credited and recognized for their knowledge. We realized that there was no place that brought together these smart voices and creative cooks.

Q. Were you able to discern any patterns?

A. You can see that New York Times readers really love cheesecake, gazpacho, meat loaf, and any kind of apple dessert! Also, ingredients have really shifted. We saw the introduction of heat. In the mid-20th century, you start seeing cayenne and Tabasco. In the ’80s and ’90s, you’ve got chilies and jalapenos, dried and fresh, all different varieties.

Q. Do you have favorite dishes in the book?

A. I love David Eyre’s pancake. There’s a meat and spinach loaf that’s delicious, though it doesn’t seem like much. Chicken Canzanese, Amazing Overnight Waffles from Mollie Katzen, frozen meringue velvet. There are recipes I feel I will make forever because they use an interesting technique, like Ann Seranne’s rib roast. You’ve spent all this money on expensive meat and want it to be perfectly cooked. She came up with a technique where you bring it to room temperature, pat it with flour, salt, and pepper, put it in a 500-degree oven, cook it for something like 30 minutes depending on the weight, then turn the heat off and let it sit for two hours. It’s perfect every time.

Q. Do you have any key pieces of advice for cooks?

A. Don’t be afraid of salt. This is such a boring bit of advice, but read a recipe all the way through before you make it so there are no surprises. Prep all the ingredients on the list [before you start cooking] — it makes your life so much easier. And lastly, I think the thing cooks stress out about most is getting more than one dish finished at the same time. Often you can finish a dish and let it sit for a bit while finishing something else. Most food benefits from sitting a little bit.

Interview edited and condensed.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

AMANDA HESSER (pictured) will be at the Boston Athenaeum, 10 1/2 Beacon St., Boston, on Nov. 18 at 6 p.m. Members $10, nonmembers $15. For reservations, call 617-720-7600. The new Formaggio Kitchen Annex, 67 Smith Place, Cambridge, will host a pot luck supper on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m., featuring your favorite New York Times recipe. Admission only to guests who bring a dish. RSVP www.formaggiokitchen.com.