Last week The Spy received a query about our St. Patrick’s Day piece, asking why we published recipes from easy-to-find websites, and why we weren’t featuring local restaurant reviews. Food Friday has always been about home cooking and never about food criticism – unless we are disparaging my inability to make a pie crust. The foods we talk about are seasonal, sometimes home grown, or found at our farmers’ markets. Sometimes it’s when when we have to get creative with a load of turnips from the CSA. It is economic food cooked hastily; or the tedious and oft toiled over: the boring and repetitious lunch box challenge. We have modest expectations. Sometimes we are served an unexpected and wonderful dish in a restaurant we’d like to recreate, or we remember a childhood dish, and find out it that isn’t a secret family recipe after all – but one from the back of the box of Baker’s Chocolate.
I have never been a professional cook. I worked as a server in a few restaurants during college, but never in an establishment with aspirations of greatness: my best job was waitressing at L.S. Grunt’s Chicago Pizza Pie Factory in London: sightseer by day, waitress at night. After six months I thought I’d never want to see another pizza in my life. And now, my longest cooking experiment has been 30 odd years perfecting pizza dough. In the 90s, I started making a weekly Friday night pizza with our children. The fever was re-ignited during COVID, while everyone else had a named pet sour dough starter, I was weighing and measuring King Arthur’s “00” flour and comparing it to Cento Anna Napoletana Tipo “00” Extra Fine Flour Italian pizza flour, seeking the magical ratio of water to flour, stretching, rolling and manipulating the resulting doughs. (I can’t toss the dough – low ceilings and decided lack of coordination.) We even bought a pricey Ooni pizza oven for flash cooking pizzas at 900°F. This is very serious, though highly unprofessional cooking.
But it is home cooking. COVID brought us all home. There aren’t too many restaurants in our little town, so for three years we very studiously tried to stay safe at home, reading other people’s food stories for inspiration, because otherwise we would be mired in the cavernous rut of cooking the same foods every week. Monday is pasta night. Tuesday is Taco Tuesday. You know the drill.
When I post links to “easily accessible websites” it’s because help is out there, and I spend a fair amount of time every week thinking about the other home cooks, who don’t have the leisure time to poke around the back waters of food writing like I do. Since we started the Spy back in 2009 we have always admired the Food52 website. What a wildly successful juggernaut of food thought: recipes, helpful hints, videos, virtual classes, podcasts, merchandise. Wow. It is daunting just to tap onto their site sometimes – all their positive energy and myriad inspirations! They are full time geniuses. While the rest of us limp along.
Kenji Lopez-Alt, who used to be with Cook’s Illustrated and now is with the New York Times, will take huge amounts of time exploring cooking processes. He spent an entire month perfecting cooking a hard boiled egg. He keeps exacting records, with photographs and annotations. I don’t have that kind of skill, or stamina. But I do have subscriptions to both publications, and can read about it, and let me tell you, the paywalls there are swift and unyielding. I try to digest some of Lopez-Alt’s research. ( He also has a charming Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/kenjilopezalt/ Lots of great ideas there.)
I also keep shelves of cookbooks, most of which are not digitized. They came in handy this weekend, when I couldn’t find our most delicious and reliable chocolate chip cookie recipe. It had vanished out of the 3-ring binder where I keep printouts of our faves. I couldn’t find it on the Food52 website – which has a great little file for saving recipes. I couldn’t find it in the New York Times food section. It wasn’t in Julia Child’s, or Alice Waters’books. Finally Mr. Sanders dug it out of a Dorie Greenspan cookbook. Phew. The cookie attack was successfully resolved.
Origin stories of recipes almost never make it to websites. You have to thumb through your own batter-flecked and stained cookbooks to remember a successful birthday dinner, or a firefly enchanted summer cookout. (Unless you document everything on IG. Good luck to you there.) That’s why I read Vivian Howard, M.F.K. Fisher, Mark Bittman, Laurie Colwin, and Nigel Slater. I listen to food podcasts while walking Luke the wonder dog. This morning on Table Manners a guest remembered Iraqi-influenced chicken dishes from his childhood – the orange chicken was sweet and citrusy, and the lemon chicken was tart and peppery. Listening to the stories of those meals made me think a little more creatively about our dinner tonight. Maybe I’ll thaw some chicken. Because we will be cooking at home.
COVID and the restrictions that we have learned to live with have influenced how we eat and cook. The economy makes it challenging, too. I like setting the table and lighting candles every night; to rehash the day, talk about the news, share some gossip, while eating a modest, home cooked meal. I will never cook a real New Haven pizza, but I enjoy making the effort every week. There is always room for improvement, and the time spent in the kitchen, at home, is rewarding. We enjoy the feeling of satisfaction when the bubbling pizza slides off the peel, when the freshly baked cake springs to the touch, when the steak sizzles in the cast iron pan. There are stories to tell.
“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”
― Laurie Colwin