'I Was a Directionless Acid Freak Until I Found Cooking'

Four of Hazlitt's favourite cookbook authors talk shop. Peter Meehan, Jennifer McLagan, Naomi Duguid, and Meredith Erickson on annoying food trends, what makes a great cookbook, and how they really feel about following recipes.

Meredith Erickson is the author of The Art of Living According to Joe Beef and project editor of The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria. She...

||Still Life with Turkey Pie, Pieter Claesz (1627)

With 2013 shaping up to be an epic year for chef and restaurant cookbooks, thanks to a cosmic number of releases, Hazlitt decided to ring up some of the best in the game for an hour-long chat on recipe testing, anal retentiveness, the art of collaboration, and the general state of their shared métier. Though all acquainted (we’ll even risk to say friends) this was harder than it seemed, as the four were spread across Paris, London, New York, and Toronto. What follows is a transcript of the magic, a gossip session among cookbook writers. The players include:

Jennifer McLagan is the author of three critically acclaimed books, Bones, Fat and Odd Bits. Taking a break from meatiness, she is working on a new book about the taste of Bitter. She splits her time between Toronto and Paris.

Naomi Duguid has co-authored six award-winning books that have taken her far and wide, such that she is often referred to as a “culinary anthropologist”. Her latest book Burma: Rivers of Flavor has been critically kicking ass and taking names.

Peter Meehan is a loveable New York based writer who has authored everyone’s favorite Momofuku and the Frankies Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual. He also edits a little magazine called Lucky Peach.

The moderator, Meredith Erickson, has co-authored The Art of Living According to Joe Beef and the upcoming Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird. She also edited Ferran Adria’s The Family Meal. She splits her time between Montreal and London.

Meredith Erickson: Did anyone have a particular cookbook or two from 2012 that you really loved?

Peter: Present company excluded, I would say Fuschia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice, which was maybe published in the UK in 2012. I got the British edition when it came out, and it’s one of those books that has wormed its way into my weeknight routine. As a dad, this year I was less looking to be blown away by the trend, and more by a book that could give me an idea, three ingredient things that I can feed my kid. So that was the book that I cooked out of most last year.

Jennifer: I don’t know, I can’t really say which book, because sometimes I just stay away from cookbooks. I try to stay out of that world, especially when I am writing one. I want to stay out of the noise of what’s going on, what is trendy. But I was judging some and I was stunned by how meat had become so popular, like there seems to be so much meat out there. Not that any of the cookbooks particularly interested me.

Going further back in time, what are some of your all-time favourites, models of the genre that you keep coming back to?

Jennifer: Well, there’s always a book you go back to, right? I tend to go to books that give me ideas, so I love Stephanie Alexander’s Cook’s Companion. Naomi and I were talking the other day about Patience Gray. Books that are not just recipe books, they’re full of culture and history and tons of other ideas as well.

Honey from a Weed is one of my all-time favourites.

Naomi: I’d add to that Elizabeth Luard and her European Peasant Cookery. But I agree with what Jennifer said about staying away from cookbooks. I don’t look at them much.

The only time I follow a recipe is when I’m testing a recipe that I am developing. I don’t otherwise, it just doesn’t interest me. I think I’m just really bad at doing what I’m told, you know?

Jennifer: I feel the same way. I think I use cookbooks more as an idea point. I go, “Oh, look at that combination of foods, that’s kind of interesting.” Then I read the recipe and go and do whatever I want basically.

Peter: I do cook from recipes, and if a recipe from a book doesn’t work I just throw it out, or give it away, donate it. There are a lot of books, like Honey From a Weed, that are inspirational, the way we can write about and portray food. But the books that helped me learn how to cook and gave me an idea of how a cookbook should function were Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, and The Cooking of Southwest France,and Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I’ve cooked every recipe in those three books and I think that’s how I learned to cook in my early 20s. Those books took me from barely having ever eaten duck to understanding how to butcher and process and use every part of it.

Those were my education. I dropped out of college and cooked my way through those books and now I’ve ended up here. I think those three are the most important books for me historically, even if I don’t cook out of them as much anymore. When I was finished cooking something out of Paula’s books I had learned it in my bones and I could make it without a recipe from that day forward. I think that’s a more difficult thing to do than people give it credit for.

Naomi: Absolutely.

Peter: Writing a cookbook you can cook through and learn from is more difficult than it seems on the page. I was talking to a guy the other day who is writing his first book, and his publisher was telling him he shouldn’t test the recipes, he should write them and hire someone else to test them.

Naomi: Oh, stop.

Peter: And I said to him, if you don’t cook that, if you don’t experience it, then you can’t give the sort of sensory clues that are knowing how to cook. If you don’t do that, your recipes will not work and no one will learn from your book.

All of us, I think, write books that are a combination of prose narrative and recipe writing. Is there one you prefer over the other, or is it for the full package why you do what you do.

Naomi: It’s a bit of everything, that’s one of the great things about writing a cookbook—you have the choice of things to do. So if the narrative isn’t going very well you can just put yourself back in the kitchen and work on the recipe and then come back to it. I was going to point out that those books that Peter was referring to, I think I’m correct in saying that they are free of photographs. I wish there were more books that had pages and not so much photography, but I don’t think that’s going to happen again. A lot of the books I love have no photographs in them at all.

Jennifer: Now they’ve created this kind of cookbook that is picture, recipe, picture, recipe, picture. It’s like what we were saying before, if you try to write a recipe that runs across a double page spread or makes the reader turn the page over—the editors and the publishers get extremely nervous about that, like no one can turn a page in a cookbook.

Naomi: Peter, in Lucky Peach you guys don’t necessarily have typical photographs when you publish recipes, and there’s all those wonderful flow charts.

Peter: We find rules and break them for no reason other than they’re there to be broken. One of the things we try to do is find new ways to reformat recipes, and we’ve already done that twice in the magazine. The exciting thing for [Lucky Peach co-editor] Chris Ying and I is when we talk about how we’re writing and presenting recipes, and how people read them, relate to them, and cook from them. Being experimental with it. It helps we’re not a recipe-driven publication, no one should buy Lucky Peach for the recipes.

Naomi and Jennifer, for the most part you two work on your own, whereas Pete and I do more collaborative projects. Which do you prefer and why?

Naomi: I co-authored six books with my now-ex [Jeffrey Alford], and each of us did all the elements in the book. In other words, everything: recipe writing, some photography, and so on. And then with my last book, Burma, I did it all. But I didn’t do the studio work—studio work is always somebody else, because that’s a whole other technical question. So I can speak to collaboration and working alone. Although when I worked with Jeffrey, we operated kind of separately and then brought our stuff together. We allocated, “Oh, I want to do this,” or “I’ve done a trip to here, I’ll do these recipes from this region.” And then we gradually pieced it together. But this last book—and this is not a comment on the state of our ex-marriage—I’ve really loved working on my own.

I can imagine.

Naomi: It’s so great to not have any expectation of anyone else or be waiting for anything else. It’s up to me. There’s a little anxiety in the sense of, “Am I way off the wall, who’s going to tell me?” Because I wouldn’t dream of submitting anything to an editor until the whole manuscript goes in at once. I don’t want any comments along the way. Because it doesn’t exist as a book until it exists as a book. A piece of it is not a piece of what the final is going to be. The final thing has to exist and be a breathing whole. Then I could show you a chapter.

Jennifer: I’ve always worked by myself pretty much. I have an idea how to do a collaboration with someone, but I don’t know that I can do it because I like the control. I’m a control freak. As Naomi said, you only have yourself to depend on so you know what’s what. I also put my fingers in at the other end of the book, because I did work as a food stylist in magazines for a long time. So I think with my three books I have repaginated them and sent them back to the publisher, stuff like that. Because the layout is not always right. It’s little things you can do and they don’t have the time, so you can make recipes flow better. As for working on the book itself, the only other person I bounce it off is my husband, because he has to eat all of the recipes anyway.

Peter, you’ve done it all, right? You’ve worked one-on-one with David Chang of Momofuku, together with a group to make Frankies Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual, and now it’s more of a recurring team effort with the magazine Lucky Peach. Maybe for the few people who don’t know Lucky Peach, you can first explain how that works and then talk about how you feel about collaboration.

Peter: Lucky Peach is a food magazine, kind of like all the other food magazines…

Naomi: Not at all. Come on, stop it…

Peter: …with longer articles about eating snakes and camels. Collaboration is something I fell into because the economics of it made sense, with the people I knew in New York and the relationships I had, being broke and young. It’s something I’ve done for the past few years because it’s worked out that way, and I’m really proud of the books that I’ve done. But I’ve never done a book on my own, and I feel like that’s something I really, really want to do and need to do, to go through that process.

It’s not like the people I worked with were co-writing these books with me. They are essentially personalities and I am doing some manner of ghostwriting, as much as I hate to call it that. It’s easier when you’re working from an established framework of recipes and personalities, but I hope I’ve done interesting things with the people I’ve worked with.

The magazine is a completely different animal than doing a book, because it’s a lot of different voices, different relationships, different possibilities. The thing that surprised me most about the magazine was when I finished the first issue, I had the horrifying realization that I had to start on another one. It was something where you could hang out and be artistic and bum and complain about not having any money, it’s just running constantly.

Naomi: What about you Meredith, how do you find the collaboration stuff?

Similar to Pete, each collaboration has been completely different. When Fred and David (from Joe Beef) and I were doing the book there was an inherent ESP because of so many years together. We were all on the same wavelength about pretty much everything—the voice, the photos, the style, the layout, the humour. And so the spirit of the thing resounds. But I was working with friends here, so it was the most emotional book to date for sure..

When I did The Family Meal for Phaidon, that was much more one of a one-off, gun-for-hire professional experience. And then this next book that will be coming out in September, Le Pigeon, is again with two guys. I’m always saying I just can’t wait to do a vegan book with women, like ten women. I just want more estrogen because I’m always with these crazy animal-like lumberjack men getting into dark situations… But I guess this is my destiny. Anyway, with these Le Pigeon guys, I didn’t know them very well and I had to travel between London and Portland a lot. A nice friendship blossomed, as it does when you’re spending 12 hours up in someone’s kitchen.

I wrote most of Le Pigeon in Gabriel’s voice, which as Peter says, that’s what you do—what he said about the ghostwriting, that’s what you do most of the time.

Naomi: You’re surrogate parents. That’s what you’re doing. You’re surrogate parenting.

What we do is pretty niche. One thing I’d like to ask is how you got into writing cookbooks.

Jennifer: I got into it kind of backwards. I was doing a lot of food styling, styling a lot of people’s cookbooks, and some of them were good and some of them I didn’t think were that good at all. So I thought, if these people can do a cookbook, so can I, basically. Then I thought about it, and I decided to do a book that had more that just recipes in it. That talked about the links to history and culture and different parts of life, because food is not out there by itself. It is a part of history, a part of culture, part of a time, it’s a part of different people’s lives. I wanted to put that into my books and I guess then I put myself into that niche, doing books like Bones and Fat and Odd Bits. It was important to put things in a historical context as well as in everyday context.

Naomi: I guess I’d say I got into cookbooks as a way of making a living while being able to be out in the world, being curious. I really like understanding how things work in people’s lives. For me, food as a product is not nearly as interesting as our relationship with it and the context in which things happen.

So the first book that Jeffrey and I did was about traditional flatbreads, and that arose when we were bicycling from Western China into Pakistan, and people were living on mostly flatbreads. And you know they were eating over a kilo, two pounds of bread per person per day, the adults. Flatbreads stacked, lovely naan cooked in tandoor ovens. So we came up with this idea for a flatbread book and had to figure out how to actually get from the original idea to somebody wanting us to do the book, and somebody thinking the idea was good. That took us to writing articles for food magazines to get credibility. We also self-assigned ourselves trips to various places until we felt that we had enough credibility and knew enough that we could say, “Yes, this is an interesting topic and you should want to do this book.” It was viewed as a very odd subject when we did it, and it came out in ’95.

Really for me, it’s about explaining meaning, context, and technique. And the goal is also to always to make the other, the foreign, the person in another culture or the food you haven’t seen before, less other. To give people a relationship to something that they didn’t know before. I think from there you get respect and it’s a way of creating a table that everyone can sit around and communicate across.

Peter: And you have definitely succeeded in that. One of the big reasons I got into writing cookbooks—I mean, I was a fan. I really learned how to cook from cookbooks, I was a directionless acid freak until I found cooking as something to do. It was the first thing in my life I had ever figured out, that if I learned the system, by putting all these pieces together, I could actually do something with it. If you learn the technique, then you can apply the technique to food and make dinner. That was so simple and stupid but really important to me when I was twenty years old.

I remember we bought a book called Seductions of Rice, and there was a picture of this couple on the back of the book, and they were out in a rice paddy somewhere and my girlfriend, now wife, was looking at it, and she was like, “That’s what I want to do. Can we have that life? Why can’t we have a life like those people?” I said, “We can do that, it’s just going to take ten years.” Then about eight years later I met Naomi at the Beard Awards and she told me I should travel with my then-unborn child, and this winter, Hazel and Hannah and I were standing in a snow-swept intersection in Hokkaido, Japan.

Naomi: Isn’t that great? Isn’t that a lovely story?

Peter: I was a fan of the genre, and that’s how I got into doing it. And I think my interests have expanded and changed. I’ve had the chance to work in journalism. And I think beyond just being a fan of cookbooks, I like telling stories. I find that is the most rewarding part of the job now.

Right, me too. And figuring out how to explain that in the context of the cookbook is an interesting challenge.

Jennifer, you’ve done Bones, Fat and Odd Bits, what’s the next fascination?

Jennifer: I’m moving out of the carnivorous realm for a little bit. Actually, I’m tackling some vegetables. I’m working on a book that’ll be out in September 2014, I hope. It’s on the topic of bitter, and by that I mean the taste of bitter. Because I am so sick of sugar and salt and umami and everything else. Bitter doesn’t get the respect it deserves. I think that people don’t understand bitter, and I think we need more bitterness in our lives. Maybe it’s the fact of my age that I like this topic, but it’s a fascinating topic and there’s a lot of ways to introduce bitter into cooking without making the food that you are eating bitter.

There’ve been a few books about this, and it’s also interesting to uncover the way we actually taste things and how we taste and different senses. Its not just our nose and our tongue, there’s a lot more going on. It’s our eyes of course, it’s our sensory system, it’s how the food sounds, it’s the background where we’re eating it. All these I hope to weave into the book as well, so people will think when they’re cooking about the tastes, the flavours and the combinations they are putting together—so it will give people a window into this world of bitter. They can start with something like dandelion greens or turnips and then move on. And just think about adding bitter even to a dessert, as simple as taking caramel to the perfect point where it’s beyond sweet, but it’s not horribly burnt or bitter—that makes a perfect caramel if you take it to the right point. So that’s what I’m working on at the moment.

Naomi, am I wrong to think that Burma is the book you’ve had the most success with to date?

Naomi: No, yes you are…well no, I don’t know! It’s too early to say. It certainly had a nice splash because of the timing, and that was a lovely treat. It was great timing that things had turned better for the people of Burma just when the book was coming together. The people of Burma could’ve had this good luck forty years ago and I would not have complained.

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, with Jeffrey, our first four-colour book, is the biggest seller. But who knows where Burma will go, people are liking it and I am happy with that. The next thing I’m taking on is in a slightly different part of the world. A little drier, a little cooler, and my working title is Persian World—I want to look at the legacy of Persian culinary tradition. Of course, it’s very old, in a region that spans the Caucasus and Western Central Asia. I’ve just come back from Georgia, Tbilisi, ex-Soviet Georgia, and I’m trying to get to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraqi-Kurdistan, Kurdish Iraq, and hopefully to Iran, and just make those cross-linkages. It’s a very rich heritage and people don’t realize how many of the things, these flavourings especially, travel all the way into Mughal food and Moroccan food—the combination of a tart fruit with meat, for example, which is very Medieval. That starts in a Persian aesthetic 2,000 years ago, then moves out. It’s not that I’m planning on always talking about ancient times, I just want to put forward these smaller, somewhat hidden, quite incredible—Georgia is a great example—culinary cultures that have amazing things to teach us.

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Meredith Erickson is the author of The Art of Living According to Joe Beef and project editor of The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria. She has contributed to Lucky Peach, the New York Times and Elle, among others. Meredith splits her time between Montreal and London.