Yabroff, Jennie, Newsweek
Byline: Jennie Yabroff
Grass-fed beef, biodynamic wine, molecular gastronomy, siphoned coffee--it's amazing how much our tastes have changed in just the last few years. Or have they?
A writer declares in The New York Times that Americans eat far too many animal products; he advises that if we do as the French do and limit our intake of meat, we will be healthier and spend less money on food. Michael Pollan, in this month's food issue of the Times Magazine? No, a reader with the initials A.B.C., writing to the paper--in 1856. Instead of bacon and eggs, A.B.C. suggests Americans begin their mornings with cafe au lait, defined as a "decoction" of coffee with boiled milk--still a popular breakfast choice, as the lines at any Starbucks will attest.
Food writing is almost always infused with nostalgia. But when it comes to food trends, we have a recurring case of cultural amnesia. The Food Network, molecular gastronomy, vegans, locavores, heritage chickens, the obesity tax: it's easy to assume that our current obsession with food is unprecedented. Surely our palates are more sophisticated, our recipes more complex, and our ideas about health and nutrition more enlightened than ever. In fact, most of our current obsessions are as old as Spanish cream. Never tasted it? It was all the rage in 1878, and, after reinterpretations as Bavarian cream, pot de creme, and creme brulee, was featured on the Food Network's Everyday Italian in its current faddish, egg-free incarnation, panna cotta, last May.
The Essential New York Times Cookbook, a nearly 1,000-page, bright-red doorstop (ideal for pressing terrines, says the book's editor, Amanda Hesser), proves that when it comes to what we eat, there's no such thing as invention, merely reinterpretation. In compiling the book, the first compendium of Times recipes since Craig Claiborne's 1961 version, Hesser solicited suggestions from readers, ransacked the Times's archives, and tested recipes spanning 150 years, throwing out any she wouldn't make again. She found that not only have our tastes changed less than we think they have, but food has always been a key indicator of who we think we are--and who we aspire to be.
What makes New York Times cookbooks different from a Julia Child or Alice Waters manual is the public nature of the recipes. In the paper's early days, recipes were entirely user-generated, a way for readers to share (and brag about) what they'd made for dinner. The private, domestic act of cooking became public property, letting readers peek inside kitchens across the country. After Times writers took over responsibility for the recipes in the 20th century, they often looked to current events for material. When Adlai Stevenson's housekeeper served President Kennedy and U.N. Secretary-General U Thant a rather pedestrian- (and gloppy-) sounding shrimp-and-artichoke casserole, readers clamored for the recipe. The newspaper reported food fads, but it also created them, so that, as one reader recalled, a cold curried zucchini soup featured one week would be served at countless dinner parties over the following month.
"Food is like fashion. There's an aspirational element that's vital to our food culture," Hesser says from her Brooklyn home, where she tested 1,400 recipes, cooking every evening after work with her assistant, then feeding the results to her family, Julie & Julia style. (Hesser helped turned Julie Powell into a star before signing on for her own daunting kitchen project.) When the 1980s power restaurant Le Cirque popularized spaghetti primavera, it was, according to Claiborne, "the most talked-about dish in Manhattan," and soon turned into, as Hesser writes, a staple of "every mediocre Italian restaurant in North America. …