Amanda Hesser: Representing NYT To The Fullest

Somewhere on the western outskirts of Philadelphia, in the living room of the well-appointed home of a stranger, I find myself sitting on a couch with renowned New York Times food columnist Amanda Hesser.  Nursing a pleasant buzz from a hearty quaff of Victory Brewing Company’s Festbier, we’re discussing the benefits and disadvantages of no less than three different Twitter clients that I have installed on my iPhone.  Nearby, a dining table creaks under the weight of pimento cheese, venison stew, stuffed mushrooms, cold sesame noodles, and a myriad of other delectable, homemade dishes.

How did I get here?

The story begins six years ago, with Hesser putting out a call for readers to submit their most beloved recipes from the pages of The New York Times.  Six thousand responses later, and after years of culling, testing, and refining, Amanda Hesser has debuted The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, a collection of nearly 1,000 dishes spanning a culinary epoch that began in the 1850s and ends with me standing over a food processor last Tuesday night, making pimento cheese.

To celebrate the release of the book, a call to arms was heard throughout the City of Brotherly Love, beckoning food bloggers to a potluck, hosted by the author herself, Audra Wolf of Doris and Jilly Cook, and Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars, with libations to be provided by Victory Brewing Company.  “Food bloggers!”, I said to myself as I read the invitation, “I are one!”  And so a plan was hatched to attend the fete.  But first, I had to decide what to bring.  And before that, I needed to get my hands on a copy of the book.

Thanks to living in the future, Amazon was able to drop a copy of The Essential New York Times Cookbook on my porch the very next day.  I hefted the 4.6 pound work onto my coffee table and started flipping, making mental notes, poring over interesting recipes, and flipping some more until I reached the index.  The first impression that one gets from the book is how strikingly organized it is, for such an extensive collection of recipes.  Yes, we have grown accustomed to expecting chapter headings leading us to soups, salads, poultry and game, fish and shellfish – but what surprises and delights the harried cook is the breakdown, for example, of the soup chapter into listings for cold soups, vegetable soups, soups for each season, even soups for 8 and soups for 2.

I decided to make two easy dishes that would survive the trek in below-freezing temperatures to University City.  Pimento cheese was a natural choice, seeing that I had used other recipes to make it many times before, and could easily adapt to a different preparation.  The other dish, Take-Out Style Sesame Noodles, was selected partly due to its ease of preparation and partly due to my ongoing quest to find the perfect cold sesame noodle recipe (hint – the search is over).

On Wednesday evening, our GPS guided us to a row of darkened homes on a short street that was made to appear even narrower by the fact that the houses sat above us, with imposing brick and concrete stairs arching upwards at a sharp angle.  We made our way to the house number that was designated on the invitation, rang the doorbell, and basked in the warm glow of incandescent lighting as Audra Wolfe answered the door and invited us into her home.

Once inside, I set the dishes on the table and made a point of making nametags – not for myself and my wife, but for the dishes – “Hi, my name is Pimento Cheese.”  With that duty discharged, I scribbled my name and site name in sharpie and proceeded to mess up my “look” with an inartfully placed adhesive rectangle over my heart.  I made small talk with the other invitees and started grazing, taking small samples of everything.  Over the course of the next few minutes, more folks arrived and the table started filling up, with the statistically improbable outcome of my pimento cheese meeting up with two of its twins.  At least my sesame noodles stood alone in their spicy, peanut-y goodness.

Amanda Hesser, as it turns out, is far more approachable than I had ever anticipated, which is not to say that I expected her to be mean or anything like that – she’s just an incredibly friendly and open person.  Someone who, despite her extensive list of accomplishments, still retains the humility to write her name out on a name tag at a party featuring her own book.  We found each other hovering over the three bowls of pimento cheese, and started chatting amiably like soccer moms in the produce department of a grocery store.

At one point, I asked her if she had ever had the opportunity to try any of the offerings from Victory Brewing Company (a local favorite which, coincidentally, is ten minutes away from my house) and, when she said no, I took that opportunity to introduce her to one of my favorite beers, Festbier, a lovely Oktoberfest-style lager that uses all German malts and whole flower European hops.  With the bottles of Festbier being in the shortest supply out of all of the varieties, we were lucky enough to snag two of the last bottles.  While we were at it, she also had the good fortune to try a sample of the Bee Sting Ale, the homebrewed creation of our friends Melissa and Ray of Bathtub Brewery.  And there we all were, my wife and I, Melissa and Ray, Dave Speers from Victory Brewing Company, and Amanda Hesser – drinking beers, crammed into the narrow hallway next to the staircase.  It felt like college again, but with more flavors of awesome than the human mind can even begin to imagine.  And without classes to attend the next day.

As the party wound down, I was glad to see that all of the sesame noodles were consumed, saving me the trouble of hauling the leftovers back home.  We rendered the last of the pimento cheese onto a paper plate, and my wife was kind enough to give the bowls a quick wash.  We bid goodbye to Amanda, Audrey, Marisa, and all of our friends both new and old, and scurried off into the dark of night, just a bit warmer than when we had arrived.