A Quick Bite With Amanda Hesser

A Quick Bite With Amanda Hesser

It’s easy to love Amanda Hesser’s writing, it’s both precise and expressive, her commitment to research is impressive and her knowledge of food and cooking is more than a little intimidating. While creating The Essential New York Times Cookbook, Hesser, along with Merrill Stubbs, tested over 1,400 recipes from the paper’s archive. Many of the best were originally created by home cooks. This Herculean task inspired food52, a crowd-source site where home cooks submit their recipes to compete in weekly contests. The Food52 Cookbook will come later this year.

But it’s Amanda’s enthusiasm that won me over when I read Cooking for Mr. Latte several years ago. Her curiosity about how ingredients come together and the thrill when they do are both infectious. As the best food writers do, she makes you feel like you could give it a go. We were so happy to chat with her about cooking with her four-year old twins and her own early food memories. Well, actually, we were a bit shocked by one…. But hey, you know, we’ve all done it. Once. O.K., twice. – C.M.

photo by Sarah Shatz

Q: What is your earliest food memory?
A: I can’t remember which came first but two of my earliest food memories were eating pork fat — crisp, fatty top layer of a pork roast — and dog food, snagged from our poodle’s food bowl. Gaines burgers I believe.

Q: What was your favourite food as a child?
A: Ripe plums. My mother’s peach pie.

Q: How did you learn to cook?
A: I learned a lot by just being around the kitchen while my mother cooked. But I didn’t really roll up my sleeves and dig in until I was in college. I worked as a kitchen runner at a top restaurant in Cambridge — Michela’s — and as a bread baker at Panini. I continued working in restaurants and bakeries for another 3 years. The thing about learning to cook in restaurants is that your education is one long series of mistakes, and from each one, you observe, catalog the information, adjust your perspective, and slowly, slowly, you find confidence in your cooking skills.

Q: Was there a food you hated as a child but have learned to love? Or maybe you still can’t stand it?
A: Mushrooms. When I was young, I could sense a mushroom from a mile away. It was my durian. I would cry if I found out it was in my food. Now I love mushrooms.

Q: Do you still make any of your family’s recipes?
A: My mother’s chocolate “dump-it” cake. My grandmother’s napa cabbage with hot bacon dressing. My mother’s monkey bread, which is the sweet cinnamon and raisin kind.

Q: Do you like to cook with other people or do you prefer to be alone in the kitchen?
A: I used to hate cooking with people because I’m a perfectionist, but then I realized that cooking could actually be fun and got over that. Now I find it incredibly comforting to have people in the kitchen with me

Q: Do you cook with your children?
A: Yes, and recently I started a new regimen where I teach them a new recipe each week. They’re 4 1/2, so they may not remember the specifics, but they’ll hopefully feel at home among pots and pans.

Q: How to do you handle pickiness in your kids (if it ever exists)?
A: Tough love.

Q: Being a food writer, do you feel any pressure to have “foodie” kids?
A: I don’t feel pressure to have foodie kids at all. I think I’d be worried if they were “foodies” already. But I do feel pressure to protect them from all the negative messages children face with food. They’re constantly being told, in one form or another, that they should be eating “kid” food. What is kid food? It was invented by marketers. Or adults are striking fear in them about spices and strong flavors. Or they’re being bombarded with snacks. Or they’re being told that dessert is a prize for good behavior. There’s almost no emphasis on pleasure, or how interesting food is.

Q: What’s your go-to meal for a busy, getting home late kind of evening?
A: From the land of take-out, I like a banh-mi. From the land of our fridge, penne all amatriciana.

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