Recipes you won't find in Molly O'Neill's One Big Table and Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 13 2010 7:10 AM

Guess What's Coming for Dinner?

Community cookbooks reveal the uniqueness of American cuisine.

The Essential New York Times Cook Book.

Two of the most enormous and ambitious community cookbooks ever published have arrived in time for holiday menu-making: Molly O'Neill's One Big Table and Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook. To be sure, they're much glossier and more professional than the spiral-bound, typo-laden community cookbooks that have been a mainstay of civic fundraising since the Civil War. They've been edited by astute culinary journalists rather than a committee of harassed volunteers; and together they amount to some 2000 pages, dwarfing their humble counterparts in the cardboard covers.

But like traditional community cookbooks, the newcomers are packed with recipes rounded up from other people's kitchens. O'Neill traveled the country in search of great home cooking, and Hesser queried readers of the New York Times for their favorites, as well as culling her own picks from more than a century of the paper's food pages. Most important, every recipe in these two books carries the name of the person behind it, and the sight of any given page will trigger affectionate memories among friends and fans of the honored cook.

I'm not sure, however, whether these handsome volumes are as successful as their homey predecessors at doing what community cookbooks do best: offering a rare window onto what Americans actually mean when they say they're making dinner. When O'Neill went cross-country looking for the best dishes in town, she found shoyu chicken, jellied guava, tajine bil khodar, and mascarpone plum tart. And Hesser's correspondents told her they loved making coquilles St. Jacques, spaghetti with fried eggs and roasted peppers, shredded Brussels sprouts with bacon and pine nuts, and butternut squash and cider soup. All perfectly credible, but dishes like these—delicious because the ingredients are excellent and the cooks don't mind taking a little trouble—hardly do justice to the unique landscape of American cuisine.

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It's not just that for every homemaker cutting up squash for soup, thousands more are opening cans. The same is true in lots of countries. But in Paris, London, and Tokyo, if you open a can of soup, it's probably because you're about to have soup. Only in America could you be making a salad—for instance, chicken-soup salad (chicken-rice soup, Jell-O, mayonnaise, whipped cream). Boxes and jars have become the building blocks for a kind of alternate cuisine, a parallel universe where you defrost a container of lemonade to make a pie, open a bag of pretzels to start assembling a salad, and hunt down a can of fruit cocktail if you're stuffing a salmon. For the cinéma vérité version of the way America eats, you need to go back to traditional community cookbooks, typos and all.

Which I've just done, because O'Neill's and Hesser's sophisticated take on a cozy genre made me curious about what they might be leaving out. Schools, churches, and clubs are still compiling cookbooks to raise money, despite decades of confident assurances from the food industry that nobody's cooking anymore. I found dozens published since 2000 in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. (The Library, part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, has a renowned culinary collection and is open to the public.) A few, like some of those issued by the Junior League, are hardbound and beautifully produced, with no sense of a home kitchen at all. The recipes are unsigned and the cuisine is impersonal. But most community cookbooks are published practically by hand. The editors run the recipes pretty much as they're sent in, and if two or three people deliver identical recipes, that's fine—better to include all of them than to risk hurting someone's feelings.

Exploring these comfortable collections, in which each page looks as though it's just waiting for a splatter of melted chocolate, what's striking is the sense of wide-open frontier evoked by recipe after recipe. It's as if Turner's thesis had been dreamed up at his mother's kitchen table. Apart from cost, most of the factors that typically affect the challenge of coming up with a meal—geography, ethnicity, class—simply don't bother American cooks. Thanks to packaged foods, fusion became a birthright in this country long before it was a trend.

Oriental salad, for instance—cabbage, scallions, slivered almonds, dried cranberries and a packet of ramen noodles with a dressing made from oil and vinegar, plenty of sugar, and the seasoning mix from the noodles—has hopped and skipped across the land from Maine to Oregon. Along the way, it's picked up and discarded ingredients while trying on various names (crunchy coleslaw, oriental cabbage salad, oriental coleslaw, Chinese coleslaw, crunchy cabbage salad) until it's now a fetish without borders. Mexican fruitcake? A can of crushed pineapple is apparently all it takes to evoke Guadalajara. Or you could use that same can of crushed pineapple to conjure China for a chop suey cake, or the entire USA for a Fourth of July salad, though here you need Cool Whip and cherry pie filling to complete the theme.

These dazzling emblems of our alternate cuisine appear constantly in hometown cookbooks. So do impeccable treatments of such contemporary icons as grilled radicchio, yeast bread with kalamata olives, pork with prunes, bahn mi,and cioppino. On one page of a typical book, you'll find a recipe for individual bread puddings—dark chocolate, homemade vanilla custard, pieces of fresh croissant—and on the next there's a chocolate dessert made with cake mix, pudding mix, and a bag of chocolate chips. The parallel universe exists right next to the real one; cooks seem to bustle back and forth as they please.

Americans in the same town, possibly the same neighborhood, maybe even in the same family are making lobster ravioli from scratch; Jell-O salad with canned peaches, maraschino cherries, and Dream Whip; and homemade elderberry pie. We'll buy fresh shrimp and crab, then combine them with canned cream of celery soup. We make an intensely traditional clam pie with fresh clams, fried salt pork, and drippings; and we make our grandmother's vegetable casserole, which calls for frozen vegetables and Cheez Whiz.

Grandma and mom are elusive figures in these books. They're the ones who discovered and deployed shortcut ingredients long ago, some of them with reluctance and considerable finesse, others with the joyful abandon of a prisoner released from a lifetime sentence. Either way, it's not clear how much influence they still wield in our kitchens. So many other experts have bombarded us in recent decades, especially via television and the Internet, that the once-indomitable power of home cooking as a lifelong standard appears to be much diminished. Mom turns up in community cookbooks with a pan of noodle pudding now and then. Once, memorably, she offers a batch of head cheese made from the head and tongue of a hog. Her beef stroganoff with ketchup gets a fond mention, too. As for Grandma, she's just as likely to be remembered warmly for her corned-beef salad (chopped corned beef in lemon Jell-O) as for her perfect molasses cookies. My analysis is that you can, in fact, go home again, but most people don't want to. At least not every day.

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