After nearly a decade at the now-shuttered Gourmet magazine, Knauer spent a year on the Pennsylvania estate his family has tended since the 18th century, and penned “The Farm: Rustic Recipes for a Year of Incredible Food” about his experience. The cookbook, out this week, gives a “modern take on classic farm food,” he says.
Q. You started out as a stockbroker. How did you wind up at Gourmet?
A. When I was a little kid I used to take cookbooks out of the elementary school library and try and cook dinner for my folks, which was usually a
disaster. But then I grew up and somehow got it in my head that I needed a real career. This is back when being a cook was not a good thing. So I became a stockbroker. I hated it, I felt like I was selling my soul. I somehow weaseled my way into a job at Gourmet. I met Ruth Reichl, who had just started as editor in chief, and I convinced her that what she really needed in the test kitchen was someone who didn’t know what they were doing, who had not been to culinary school, who would make the same mistakes in recipes that readers would make. I did that for three years. Then the problem with cooking every day is you become a professional cook, so I stopped making those mistakes that the readers make. They promoted me to food editor and hired someone else to do that job.
Q. How did you decide to use the farm as inspiration?
A. After Gourmet closed, I was looking for something to do. I was sitting on the porch of the farm trying to figure out my next move and I started to get hungry and the light bulb went off. I was like, wouldn’t it be fun to take a summer and grow the garden and invite everyone to come down, and cook with them, and just see what happens as far as the food goes, and then write it down? So this book is sort of a journal of how we ate that year.
Q. Who is your audience?
A. It’s not necessarily people who grow their own food. I feel like there are so many great opportunities now for people to get really great fresh food — there are farmers’ markets everywhere, CSAs, even grocery stores are so much better than they used to be. We have access to really incredible stuff. So it’s for people who are walking through the farmers’ market and see a mountain of beautiful Swiss chard and want to take some home and cook it and need some ideas.
Q. Which recipe did you have the most fun with?
A. The potato nachos, because they use the flavors of nachos but in a very American way, not in a Mexican way at all. And they take something that’s essentially a potato salad — my family is German and Irish-Scottish heritage and so we eat a lot of potato salad — and it’s a fun, whimsical take on that. It’s potatoes and some fresh tomato. It’s a salsa but it’s not really a salsa, it’s just chopped up fresh tomatoes, and cheese, some sour cream, and a little bit of cilantro.
Q. In the foreword, Reichl briefly mentions you hauling a goat carcass into an elevator with Vogue editor Anna Wintour. What’s the back story?
A. If you saw it in a movie, you wouldn’t believe it actually happened. My co-worker and I had written this story about a halal slaughterhouse. You pick out your own goat and they kill it right in front of you, and that takes a little while because they [butcher] it by hand. So we’re standing there for like an hour-and-a-half getting our goat. We drive back to the Conde Nast building. It’s mid-morning and we smell like a slaughterhouse. We get in the elevator, no one else is around, and we have this goat in pieces in garbage bags. An editorial assistant comes in and Anna Wintour walks in after her and the doors close. All of a sudden the smell of dead goat fills the elevator. And Anna looks in our direction with this look like, “What the hell is that smell?” She makes herself as small as possible, corners herself into the back of the elevator, puts her hand over her mouth, and she was just trembling. It was one of those moments.