Have you heard the story about the two Jewish women who are comparing chicken soup recipes? The first insists that the best soup is made with cut-up chicken, which is how her mother does it. The other thinks this is ridiculous and, anyway, too much trouble.
That insults the first woman, so she calls her mother and asks her why she cuts up the chicken instead of putting it into the pot whole. “I watched my mother,” she says. “Your grandmother did it that way because her pot wasn’t big enough.”
You cannot imagine how many times over the years I have heard stories like that, real stories. I have been stopped at the supermarket, at parties, in the hallway at work, and at the gym by cooks who want to discuss substitutions, ingredients they couldn’t find, techniques they didn’t understand, topsy-turvy cooking methods that somehow succeeded, and more. I’m convinced that half the people who cook are cutting up a chicken because the pot is too small.
I’ve been thinking about this lately as I get ready to leave the Globe after 30 years. Next week, I’m handing the Food section over to the restaurant critic, and my dear friend, Devra First. In January, I’ll be a civilian, contributing to the section as a correspondent. I will sit down on Wednesday mornings and read the pages the way you do. And I will have more time to cook, and especially more time to bake.
I set out to become a baker. I took over a bakery in Cambridge for two weeks, worked by myself, slept only a few hours a night, and couldn’t keep the case filled. Every time I made a big cake, someone bought it. It never occurred to me to cut it into pieces and sell them individually. When the bakery supply man came to the back door and offered me cake mixes, I shooed him away. I wanted to do it all from scratch. But I couldn’t and gave it up. I like to say that I became a journalist because I couldn’t bake fast enough.
One day, I got a call from Bill Miller, the amusing British editor of the Boston Phoenix, who asked me to apply for the food editor’s job. I had to write three articles and I labored over them. He read them and immediately offered me the position. “I was going to hire you if there were verbs in all your sentences,” he said. He had called Julia Child to ask for names and she had given him mine. He was expecting several names, he told her. She replied, “I vetted them for you,” drawing out the word vetted, in the same delightful and unpredictable way she had of emphasizing certain syllables.
I wondered for years why she was so generous. Later she called the Globe to tell them to hire me! (The woman who took the message didn’t pass it on, I learned.) It turned out there was an old-girl network. Her British friend Anne Willan opened the bilingual Paris cooking school, La Varenne, which Julia supported wholeheartedly. I had worked for Anne for many years, and she had sent me where she had trained, to the Cordon Bleu schools in London and Paris (Julia also trained at the Paris school). So Julia, a big sister to Anne, was helping her protegee.
What it all meant was that I had to uphold their standards, no matter where I went.
The two women traveled in high culinary circles, but both had an unrestrained curiosity for very common things, something I learned from them. I came to call this Journalism of the Obvious: How do aqua-cultured mussels stay on their lines as the tides come in and out? What is a day like for a rural grower driving into a Boston farmers’ market? Can a New England farm survive for many generations? How do you teach kids that tomatoes don’t grow in cellophane? Can you make cakes 10 at a time and still maintain a beautiful texture? (My baker’s envy rearing its head.)
Those were the kinds of stories I decided to write and then when I went to the Globe magazine as the food columnist and stylist (a food stylist cooks and arranges dishes for the photograph), I was mindful that even as specialty grocers sprang up and the global market meant access to all kinds of intriguing foods, many cooks went once a week to their local supermarkets to spend only what was allocated on the grocery budget. I didn’t forget this when I became the reporter in the Food section, a first for the Globe, and finally in the editor’s role.
Everyone is wildly curious about our industry. You’ve heard all the stories about anthropologists who become chefs, professors who turn to farming, corporate VPs who start food businesses after deciding they would rather follow their passion than a paycheck. We’ve written about all of them, and also introduced readers to trends we noticed on menus, all kinds of restaurants, inexpensive and not, new foods, cookware we love, and quirky people who run delis, markets, and cafes. All those years ago I couldn’t keep the bakery case filled, but I did manage to fill the sections week after week.
And, of course, there are the recipes. They are the backbone of any food section and the place many readers tell me they turn to first. Some may remind you of dishes from childhood, or something you had at a favorite bistro or on a recent trip. We try to offer a mix of classic and creative, bearing in mind what things cost and how little time everyone has.
While recipes are the backbone of the Food pages, readers are the heart. I know you’re looking closely because I receive so many e-mails about very detailed things. A recent one was a query from a reader who wanted to know the brand name of a particular glass in a photo I set up of a dozen wine glasses. My first caller was Bea Shneider, 91, a proofreader at The Carlisle Mosquito (she still goes into the paper several hours a week), who called to tell me I didn’t know the difference between “lay” and “lie” and if I expected to run a successful Food section, I should learn it. From Bea I have learned more than grammar and when I hear her voice, I’m delighted.
Years ago I put a traditional Italian-peasant pasta recipe into the paper and the next day, my page designer told me she had made it that night. It consisted of spaghetti tossed with a few sauteed garden tomatoes and parsley, sprinkled with browned breadcrumbs. She didn’t have spaghetti, she said, so she used penne. She had no fresh tomatoes so she used canned. She substituted basil for the parsley, cheese for the breadcrumbs. “I loved it!” she said.
Nothing in her dish was exactly like the recipe in the paper. In fact, she had none of the ingredients except the most important one: inspiration.
If I have inspired you to go into the kitchen, or buy a package of fresh marjoram for the first time, or head to a farmers’ market, stop by a cookware shop, try a new cafe, pass up the cod and buy the hake, order an unusual flavor of ice cream, bake cookies from scratch, invite guests for a menu you never made or make all the time, cook more confidently, or feel more comfortable at your own table, then I’ve done my job. And I’m grateful.