Dried corn

I was delighted to read Mark Bittman's column in The Times dining pages today because dried corn is such an underused but fantastic ingredient. Bittman's columns are one of the few recipe columns I read regularly—they have no frills, just practical information cleanly and straightforwardly written.

I started buying dried corn from Rancho Gordo, Steve Sando's Napa business that also sells extraordinary dried beans and a few other choice goods (like the dried Mexican oregano).

Bittman fries his corn. Dried corn, soaked then cooked like a dried legume, is the backbone of pesole, but it's also good just boiled and tossed with butter, lime and salt. If you have some sort of mill, you could turn it into grits. A great product I wish more people used.

<a href="http://www.starchefs.com/secretingredients.html" title="secret ingredients”>A fairly…

<a href="http://www.starchefs.com/secretingredients.html&quot; title="secret
ingredients”>A fairly comprehensive list of where to get lots of hard to find ingredients. Includes listings for ethnic ingredients that can be tricky to locate. In case, you know, you're looking for canned tomatillos, artisinal certified organic miso, truffles, or white poppy seeds.

More than the food

Molly O'Neill came to Cleveland for dinner. She and a friend showed up at my house looking like refugees from a Dead tour—furniture and overflowing clothes stuffed into the back of the car. She was slightly giddy it seemed, manic from the starbucks and too much time on the road. We'd never met; I'd only known her as a byline in the NYTimes where she worked for many years before leaving to work on books.

Last winter an editor at Scribner I'd recently met sent me O'Neill's book called Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food and Baseball asking for a blurb. (See more on blurbs below.) I loved it. She's a cornfed Ohio girl, so I've always felt a sympathy with her, and the memoir, which mainly focuses on her family (she's the oldest of six kids, her youngest brother being Paul, who played for the Yankees) and her work, but food is in the background, appropriately so, given the nature of this memoir.

This was a week and a half ago, she was in downstate Ohio flogging her book, and had wanted to see Farmer Jones—she'd been meaning to write about it, this unique grower, for ages, a great story in her home state, and then, lo, a story by Amanda H appeared in the daily Times, which pissed her off—and the amazing produce at the Jones family's Chefs Garden near the lake coast. (My first time there had been a few months earlier, joining a group led by Charlie Trotter who wanted Ferran Adria to see it—I tasted, among other things, garlic roots, and they were fantastic.) Flattered by my blurb, no doubt, and aware of my work, O'Neill had called wanting to meet and suggested we somehow get together since she'd be less than an hour away.

So that's how Molly O'Neill came to be standing in my kitchen.

And I'm writing about it here because it was an amazing thing for me, personally. I had begun to write about food, in an amateurish way (as food writers almost invariably begin) at exactly the time she'd begun writing her column in The NYTimes magazine, early 1990s. I loved her style, her interests, her generosity. I was at the time, an anonymous schmo in Cleveland Heights who only wanted to write books (food was one of numerous subjects I wrote about then). Molly somehow seemed beyond the august Times, seemed to write ultimately out of a personal love of her subject; this quality describes the overarching spirit of her work; for her, food was a way to get at the bigger things, and that ultimately was why writing about food mattered to me too.

It was exactly at that time that I began writing about food and cooking, cooking with chefs, who on a national level were just beginning to get famous in larger numbers (Emeril Live was still a few years off, Thomas Keller was out of work and broke), and reading Molly O'Neill's columns—even doing some of the recipes: I still remember rolling chicken breasts around prosciutto and poaching them in tomato water (excellent), and artichoke gnocchi (an epic disaster in my cooking-from-recipes experience, a waste of artichokes a waste of time, an abomination of my own making…I forgot to ask her about this). At any rate, I was imprinted, if thats how you say it, in the early 1990s on Molly ONeill. And now, fifteen years later, I was like a chick following around a completely different species in my own kitchen absolutely convinced we were related.

Molly turned out to be funny and smart, and she struck me also as mischievous. She was quick on her feet and I could see that she could be an operator in nyc (in a positive networking shrewd and savvy way), but there was also this huge sweetness and generosity about her, which no doubt comes from the same place that informs her best writing.

We went out to dinner and talked shop, mainly, about our books, about how we make our living, about our annoyance with Bill Buford's book Heat (not the book itself, I hear it's terrific; Molly's gripes were political/feminist, mine were and are simply focused on how well it seems to be selling relative to mine, in other words the abject jealousy attending another writer's fame and money ((I cant bring myself to read the book just yet—a writer impersonating a line cook, that's my territory! (((honestly, I froth at the mouth when I see it ((((how the hell is he getting all that press, the bastard!)))))))))), and about the difference between professional cheffing and amateur cooking and how vastly more important amateur cooking is. She was adamant about this point and I know she's right.

Molly is involved in a colossal project called One Big Table, a gigantic cookbook of American pot luck cooking that is also an event. "I've been collecting recipes and food stories for nearly a decade," she wrote this morning from home when I asked for a clarification on a few points of this unusual deal, "and in addition to culling them from my foodie pals, I have for the past couple years been giving potlucks across America to collect recipes for my project—and raise money for America's Second Harvest, the nation's food bank network. I'm currently gearing up to take to the road in an Airstream that, in my mind, resembles a covered dish. So I can drive it to any potluck anywhere." This book to be published next year will have 750 recipes (a huge number, btw, for a cookbook), but will be more than just food and recipes; I imagine it will be a kind of American self-portrait.

She and her friend had to head back immediately after dinner to Columbus because her dog was on death's doorstep down there. But I felt really happy and really lucky that night, and I began hatching a plan to visit her at her home in upstate new york. Often you meet someone who was hero to you at an important time and they turn out to be an asshole. But Molly exceeded even what I'd hoped for, what I'd thought in my best-case scenario. But her columns always had that effect, too.

On Blurbing

People not in publishing wonder about the quotes on the back books (especially recently when a couple retracted their blurbs). No one in publishing really knows how effective they are, but they evidently can’t come up with better idea of what to put on the back of a book before it’s reviewed, so there it is. I’m not a fan of them, mainly because they’re boring. Though check out frank mccourt’s almost tipsy-sounding rhapsody to Molly O’Neill, we need more like that; actually all those blurbs are unusually candid and interesting; reading most blurbs you’d think writers who penned them were high school math teachers (that's not a judgment on the later, the best of whom I have more respect for than I do for most of the former). The best chefs are generous with their food and likewise with their words; they gladly blurb their colleagues' books through an assistant, and I don’t criticize them for this. I have met only one chef who I know actually reads the galleys and comments in her own words; she is a great writer herself: Judy Rodgers, about whom I have much to say, but later. My personal blurb rules are basic and seem pretty obvious: only blurb a book you’ve read and only blurb a book you would recommend without reservation. That these obvious rules are not always followed is why, as far as I’m concerned, blurbs don’t mean what they might.

Using the good stuff

David Lebovitz has a good post about food that's too good to use. I have a similar philosophy that I call "use the good stuff." I swear I even wrote about it ages ago but I can't seem to locate the post now. Anyway, I'd keep bottles of wine and treasure jars of jam for so long they'd be no good once I got around to using them. I decided life was too short and that it was important to use the good stuff. And now I do, mostly. I saved a beautiful birthday gift of 1989 Laurent-Perrier Champagne too long (no situation ever seemed good enough to justify its drinking) and when I opened it, it was passed and I was so sad. It was just the kick in the pants I needed to remember to use the good stuff.

Serendipitous emails

An electronic encounter with a woman named Tana who professed to be a fan began this guest blog; Tana was quirky and engaging with a really genuine e-voice. After a while she told me I should be blogging (she has a blog I admire on a subject that I care a lot about). I’ve got enough to write as it is, I said, it’s my family’s main source of income, I don’t need extra writing. Tana didn’t actually call me a loser, I think she was just quiet. Simultaneously, Meg Hourihan emailed asking if she could get a press copy of my new book The Reach of a Chef. I mentioned Tana’s suggestion and Meg laid out the pros and cons and gave me the names of a couple emblematic blogs by non-fiction writers (stevenberlinjohnson, for example). Then she suggested I guest blog right here to see how I liked it. I’ve long known about her blog, liked it, liked that she’d gone over to food absolutely, and I respected the fact that she’d actually done time in kitchens. That’s not a vanity shot she put on her about page. I also like her straightforward and clearheaded writing. So here I am, and happy to be so.

What’s in it for you, reader, remains to be seen. What’s in it for me, though, I've thought a lot about.

First, I get to write about whatever I want in the way that I want to, immediately. When I write for magazines such as gourmet or most recently the NYTimes, the copy gets heavily worked over. It feels kind of like getting beaten up, and you have to stand there and take it. When it’s over I sometimes feel it’s not a better story, it’s just a different story. I’m sure it’s a better story when the mauling is over, and the editors I’ve worked with have been without exception excellent—I would even go so far as to say they’re necessary! I’m speaking only of my bruised viscera. (My editor at Gourmet just last week emailed a comment from another of her writers, a gentler version and just as true: “My copy is the cat toy of the masthead.”) While we need the many-chefs-stirring-the-soup, heavily worked over, highly compressed newspaper and magazine story, I also have liked the unfinished, untucked nature of the blog. I like people unadorned and in their natural state, too. There’s a credibility to an encounter when the person you’re talking with has bed head and a mug of coffee that simply isn’t there in the more formal circumstance of a job interview, say, or cocktail party.

Blogs also have a thrilling immediacy. I write books. I spend months gathering material and organizing it and structuring a narrative on which to hang all the stuff I’ve gathered, and then more months to do the writing work, which is the work I love best. But to write something and publish it instantly is still a novelty to me. There are dangers inherent in this ability, but also great energy and possibility.

Third, I get to see if blogging suits my writing life. I was a copyboy at The New York Times from 1985-87. Of the many important things I learned there was a reporter’s absolute obedience to balance, to giving all parties their own voice, the fairness essential to anything as powerful as The Times. This checks-and-balance ethic of journalistic integrity has arguably never been stronger there since the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller catastrophes. The other thing I learned there was that I was not a newspaperman, I was physically unsuited to writing daily on deadline for tomorrow’s paper. People who don’t write daily for a living rarely realize how physical the work of writing every day is. Blogging in this respect is an unknown to me.

Fourth, as Meg argued to me, it could be a way of amplifying my other writing, perhaps developing new readers and engaging more immediately with those already out there. Am I doing it to promote my new book? Not really, the timing is coincidental. I don’t expect to sell a bundle of books by blogging (no matter how much I’d LIKE to, but that’s another topic). If I could just let others who didn’t know about my work know about it through this very high-persona form of writing, blogging, that would make it worthwhile. Also, engaging with readers about my books is important to me.

Fifth, there’s so much fun stuff I encounter that could just never fit in an article or a book (a surprise dinner with the writer Molly O’Neill or some really disgusting information about agribusiness sausages). Maybe there’s a reason for that, maybe this stuff shouldn’t be written at all–but you don’t have to read it and you don’t have to pay for it.

In this blog I imagine I will want to discuss food, food writing, books, issues in my new book about the world of restaurants and chefs and about writing about them, not to mention general issues of a writing life. And anything else readers out there might be curious about. I’ll leave the comments on.

With thanks to Meg,

Michael Ruhlman

Introducing guest blogger Michael Ruhlman

When I converted this site to a food blog, one of my hopes was to have famous food writers visit for guest blogging stints. I extended just such an invitation to Michael Ruhlman a few weeks ago, and to my surprise and delight, he said yes. I've been a big fan of Michael's writing since I read his book, The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection. Long time readers may recall that book sent me into a Thomas Keller frenzy from which I've yet to recover.

It's a real honor for me to have Michael posting here. I look forward to hearing what he has to say and seeing how he adjusts to the world of blogging. A picture will accompany all of Michael's posts so they will be easily distinguishable from my foodish ramblings. Look for his first post later today and please join me in welcoming Michael to Megnut. Yay!