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 café 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 crème, and crème brûlée, 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.” (All this despite the fact that one of the three chefs who claimed to have invented the dish hated it so much he insisted his cooks make it in the hall outside the kitchen.)
The recipes in the paper provided inspiration but also induced anxiety to conform. (In the 1990s, Hesser writes, “If you aren’t deep-frying turkey in a pot of boiling peanut oil for Thanksgiving, you are brining the bird.”) As the popularity and decline of the recipes and techniques in the book prove, whether we eat something has little to do with taste if we imagine others like it—think of the raspberry-vinegar craze of the ’80s, followed by the passion for drowning grilled vegetables in heavy, acidic balsamic vinaigrettes. And does turkey really taste better brined or deep-fried? Not anymore. The latest thinking at the Times is that a simple butter massage is all that’s necessary for juicy, crispy turkey—you know, the way Grandma did it. Though of course it’s possible Grandma did it that way only because the newspaper convinced her that’s how everyone else was doing it.
The cookbook represents our desire to be simultaneously like everyone else and better than everyone else. Nowhere is this more evident than in the profusion of French recipes dating from the middle of the 20th century. Writers such as Child and M.F.K. Fisher were telling us that the French ate better than we did, so we started eating like the French, because that’s what everyone was doing. In the 1960s The New York Times promoted boeuf bourguignon, coquilles St-Jacques, and meunière and Grenobloise sauces. (Butter purveyors rejoiced.) The only way any of those dishes would appear on a dinner-party menu today would be as a kitschy, retro homage.
The decline in the past few decades of recipes containing “à la” in the name is one of the most marked, and perhaps permanent, changes documented by the book. In London this month a food festival featured a debate on whether classic French cuisine’s reign is finished; one panelist delivered the crushing pronouncement that French food is “no longer sexy.” Now, somewhat schizophrenically, we want food that is either from our backyard (locally sourced produce) or from across the globe (soup dumplings); that either has undergone mad-scientist manipulations (foams and airs made from beef or vegetables) or is stolen from the children’s menu (mac and cheese, burgers, cupcakes).
But, as Hesser’s book proves, what’s sexy today may be cringeworthy tomorrow, only to be resurrected a decade from now with a different name and a twist on ingredients or technique. Consider that romantic-restaurant standby tiramisu, memorialized in the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail. (Tom Hanks’s character thinks it’s a sexual technique.) “We were just realizing Italy had this amazing cuisine,” says Hesser. “Tiramisu was everywhere, and it kind of jumped the shark. I hadn’t made it in a decade, but I made it again, and it’s actually a wonderful, complex, sophisticated dessert.”
Some changes are probably permanent—the American palate, adapted to richer, more complex flavors, is unlikely to go back to one-note dishes such as the watery, parsley- and flour-flavored chicken-and-dumplings recipe that didn’t make the cut. (Even Kraft now makes a haute, four-cheese variety of mac and cheese.) Despite the proliferation of food shows, blogs, and tweets, many home chefs still take their cues from the Times’s dining section, which vacillates from year to year between traditional and innovative techniques when apprising readers of the new new thing everyone else will be eating next week. You heard it here first: cold curried zucchini soup, followed by shrimp-artichoke casserole, and tiramisu for dessert.