Review: The Essential New York Times Cookbook

What can you say about a book that contains more than 1000 recipes?  That it is comprehensive and exciting and a bit overwhelming?  That the passion of the editor/author is apparent in every page?  That it could use some pictures? 

You’ve probably heard by now that The Essential New York Times Cookbook won the 2011 James Beard Foundation Award for General Cooking (then again, “Ace of Cakes” was a Television Program finalist, which says something about either the dearth of quality food programming or the judgment of the James Beard Foundation.  You decide).

I love the very concept of this book.  That Amanda Hesser would take it upon herself to sort through an intimidating number of back issues of the New York Times and test — yes, test! — thousands of recipes in order to save us the trouble.  It was a great idea and a bold undertaking.  And better her than me. 

I also greatly appreciate that Hesser suggests accompaniments (from the book) for every recipe.  That is awfully darn nice of her.  And there were times when I made my entire meal out of exactly what she suggested.  Every cookbook should do this.

Also helpful in a book of 1000 recipes under the extremely general theme of “they’ve appeared in the New York Times,” are the menus and indices in the back.  You will find menu suggestions grouped chronologically, then by holiday and, If that’s not enough, then come thematic suggestions: Cocktail Party for 10, Fancy French, Make-Ahead Dinner Party (who doesn’t need that?), Food That Travels Well and Ambitious Dinner Party.  There are a few that are whimsical and yet undeniably practical, like Sweltering Hot, and Movie Snacks.  Recipes are also listed by country or region of origin.

Most importantly though, the recipes work.  I had very few flops and even those I’m willing to try again because the book has earned so much credibility with me. 

Lacking in this book are photos.  I assume this was cost prohibitive but having no pictures made me realize how much I depend on them to help me pick something to make.  And faced with 1000 new recipes, it’s even more important.  In addition, there were some dishes it would have helped to have a visual clue about.  Frico comes to mind. 

Another thing I enjoyed in reading this book was Hesser’s interest in the many men and women who have edited and contributed to the Times food sections over the years.  There are names most of us know like Craig Claiborne, Pierre Franey, and Mark Bittman.  Some are brilliant at their jobs and seem to know just what their readers want two days before they know themselves.  Some are opinionated and bossy, some are irreverent and fun.  They all have their prejudices and preferences.  As you might imagine, every chef, cookbook author, restaurant-owner, or food-movement instigator has been in the Times.  Which makes me wish one of the indices was by contributor.  After reading a couple of Julia Reed’s recipes, I wanted more.

Then there were things I just couldn’t figure out.  The recipe for Pizza with Caramelized Onions, Figs, Bacon and Blue Cheese features a long and fascinating back story about a woman who first heard of this crazy new thing called “pizza” as a newly-wed in the mid 1940s and, lo and behold, right after she hears about it a recipe appears in the Times.  A comprehensive and prescient recipe (predicting that pizza could become as popular as hamburgers in America), the woman uses it for years until the original newspaper clipping and then a re-typed copy both disintegrate.  Hesser does her detective work and finds the original article and the author but, mystifyingly, does not give us that recipe and doesn’t explain why.  Instead we get a Sam Sifton recipe from 2009.  I’m sure it’s a great recipe but it’s as if someone tracked down your long-lost and beloved sibling and instead of introducing you brings out someone else’s sister.

Should you buy this book?  Yes, based on the quality and quantity of the recipes.  You may never find yourself saying “I feel like making something that’s appeared in the New York Times today” but you may find yourself hosting a 1970s-themed party and want to know what was popular then (Crepe Suzettes, Rillettes de Canard).  Also yes if you are a huge fan of the New York Times food section.  All of your favorite chefs and cooks are represented and you might have to wait another 150 years for another comprehensive collection of the recipes.   Another yes if you are the type of person who reads cookbooks or collects them or if you have a historical interest in recipes or American cooking. 

As Hesser says herself it is a “compendium of the most well-known and influential recipes printed in the New York Times” and that’s saying a lot. 

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