Round one of CookFight, the new cookbook from Julia Moskin and Kim Severson that comes out today, took place in 2009 when then New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni gave the two writers, and best friends, a challenge: make a dinner for six people for under $50. Kim went ethnic and Julia went elegant. (Bruni declared it a tie.)
Round two was cooking a Thanksgiving dinner. "It's all about the turkey," said Kim. "No, it's all about the sides," insisted Julia.
And thus began the conceit for CookFight, a book that is ostensibly a series of kitchen battles. The perfect picnic; the best comfort food; a fantastic children's party.
It's not about who has the best recipe, it's, as Frank Bruni says in his introduction, "between personalities, sensibilities. It's the clang and clash of two people enjoying and lamenting and working through their different approaches to, and perspectives about, both cooking and life."
While you will be drooling over Moskin and Severson's recipes—Ham Biscuits, Jam Biscuits; Bacon-Fat Gingersnaps; Macaroni and Cheese Pancakes; Lamb Rack with Cilantro-Mint Crust—you will be completely smitten with their insightful, engaging, often very funny ongoing conversations.
Before a dinner party, Severson "turns into Betty Draper in chinos, sweating over each spring of cilantro," snorts Moskin. About picnic planning, Severson cracks, "Leave it to Moskin to try to French it up with a pan bagnat. Most people planning a picnic don't even know how to pronounce it." But what they've come up with, together, is a glorious cookbook with 12 challenges and 125 recipes.
We chatted with Julia and Kim about the book:
How do you see the notion of a food competition?
Julia Moskin: In book form, you can't compete like Iron Chef or Chopped. The food is not going to be real on the page. So it's about conceptualizing. It's more about words. It's not like I think her recipes are terrible and she thinks mine are terrible. Essentially it is about thinking about food, talking about food, writing about food - more than actually cooking.
Kim Severson: But we do have very different approaches. Like the challenge in the book of taking care of a sad friend.
JM: Melted cheese on everything...
KS: No, something cleansing; a tonic, something that can restore...
Your essays and dialogue are so luminous, so heartfelt, so connected. Did you ever think you could have a terrific book and just skip the recipes?
JM: My mom said that!
KS: The book is really just our relationship. And community. While we were writing we were very much reminded of when cookbook writers would call each other and talk about food. And then all that talk became electronic.
JM: Of course we both had friends to talk to. But to have someone in the next cubicle ask you, "Have you ever cooked a whole pork belly?" Or suddenly announce "I am so craving coconut cream pie today."
What was it like writing the book?
JM: Well, we did get on each other's nerves a bit...but it was fun. When we were asked by Frank Bruni to write about making dinner for six on a budget, it was the first time I got to use my own voice at The Times and the first time I got to write in the first person.
KS: I didn't have to call and check a single fact. I loved being my own source material.
Who do you see as the audience for your book?
KS: A whole bunch of people. A kind of lost generation who are missing something, longing for something. They grew up watching the Food Network. They're part of this crazy food/eater "who's got the best empanada" competition thing. They go to restaurants all the time.
JM: They can make kimchee, but not dinner.
KS: They are all getting food culture from the media. They don't understand the community-ness of cooking it. The way life intersects with your dinner and with your cooking.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
JM: I hope that people will want to cook with their friends.
KS: Don't waste your time cooking crap.
What - in the kitchen - do you always agree on?
KS and JM: We're both violently anti-potluck.