Melanie Rehak

  • A Reminder of Possibilities

    Twenty years ago, Nigella Lawson, at the time a freelance op-ed columnist and sometime book reviewer, sat down for a revelatory working lunch. Her husband had suggested that Lawson, a former London restaurant critic, write a food book, but even as she discussed her enthusiasm for the subject with her agent, she expressed vehement opposition to putting it between covers. She felt she would be “looked down on” and seen as “the little woman,” as she recently put it in an interview. Whereupon her agent, as great agents have been known to do, pronounced his certainty about this marriage of author

  • Higher Grounds

    “Of all the modern stimulants, coffee had the greatest hold over Balzac,” Kassy Hayden writes in the afterword to her new translation of Honoré de Balzac’s Treatise on Modern Stimulants (Wakefield Press, $13), which situates this small, wild book firmly in the social, political, and medical scenes of nineteenth-century France. “Coffee helped him sustain his rigorous writing schedule, and he maintained that it gave him inspiration and fired up his intellect. . . . At times euphoric about his drink of choice, he was more often tormented by the knowledge that, although it contributed to his ill

  • Safety Last

    “The devil has got hold of the food supply in this country.” This was the conclusion of Nebraska Senator Algernon Paddock, chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, in 1891. That year, he sponsored a bill that would become just one more failed legislative attempt to require food producers to label their products truthfully. Among the transgressions he was trying to stop were common practices like whitening milk with chalk, “embalming” corned beef with formaldehyde, lacing fake whiskey with soap (it made the liquid bead on the glass), and creating ground “pepper” made of “common

  • Child of the ’60s

    In the autumn of 2007, I moderated a panel at the New York Public Library called “Julia Child in America.” Its subject was Child’s ongoing and outsize effect on American cooking and food culture. It had been convened on the occasion of a new biography of Child written by one of the panelists, the estimable food historian Laura Shapiro. The other participants were no less expert and engaging: chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, food writer David Kamp, and cookbook author, editor, and FOJ (friend of Julia) Molly O’Neill. Over the course of the conversation, we discussed

  • Consider the Possum

    It felt inevitable that in Rick Bragg’s new food memoir I would come across a recipe instruction like this one: “If you want crispier possum, bake uncovered for about 30 minutes.” Before I started reading, I’d checked in with a Southern friend, who immediately proclaimed, unprompted, that if there wasn’t a chapter on possum in The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table (Knopf, $29), it basically didn’t qualify as a book about Southern food. There was no way that Bragg, lyrical chronicler of twentieth-century life in the foothills of Alabama, where he grew up, was going to offer

  • Practical Magic

    “If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” So goes the famous William Morris quotation. A great many domestic possessions, of course, are either one or the other. But the world seems short on things that are both. Among my own small trove, I count a wristwatch that belonged to my late father, a silver-dipped porcelain serving bowl I received as a gift, and the original bronze doorknobs in my apartment. We all succumb to the need to purchase many ugly things we find useful (as the

  • Dos and Donuts

    “This is the Seinfeld cookbook,” Mike Solomonov explained to me earlyish one morning not too long ago. “It’s about nothing.” We were standing in the original Federal Donuts shop, which he and four partners opened in the low-slung, residential, and decidedly uncool Pennsport neighborhood of South Philadelphia in 2011. Sunlight streamed in through a plate-glass window emblazoned with the company’s red rooster logo, and the smells of sugar and coffee and hot fat were in the air. Steven Cook, one of Solomonov’s partners and a cofounder of CookNSolo Restaurant Partners, the pair’s mini empire of

  • Alice’s Restaurant

    In 1979, Werner Herzog made good on a promise to eat his shoe. A few years earlier, Errol Morris, a protégé of Herzog’s in Berkeley, California, had been struggling to finish his first film. Herzog promised that if Morris got it done, he’d consume some footwear. Morris ultimately delivered Gates of Heaven, the documentary about the pet-cemetery business that launched his career; Herzog, true to his word, entered the kitchen with a pair of leather boots. He stuffed whole heads of garlic into the toes, added liberal doses of hot sauce, and tossed the concoction into a pot along with heaps of

  • Cooking with Sass

    Protein powder stirred into diet orange soda. Milk pudding with a touch of voodoo mixed in. Thick hunks of gingerbread, boiled bacon with broad beans, “Shrimp Wiggle,” and oceans of champagne. These are just some examples of the food and drink that pop up in Laura Shapiro’s new book, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories (Viking, $27). As you might guess, the collection of women responsible for this cornucopia is, to put it mildly, eclectic. This volume is bookended by Dorothy Wordsworth (William’s sister—he was the gingerbread fan) and Helen Gurley Brown, of

  • All That Heaven Allows

    "Existence is grounds for dismissal," Jim Harrison wrote in an essay called "Food and Mood" originally published in Brick magazine in 2006. "It has only recently occurred to me that I might not be allowed to eat after I die." If anyone could pull off eating in the afterlife, it would probably be Harrison, well known for all kinds of appetites here on Earth. Adventurous of both palate and mind, he was also a world traveler who loved Montana and Paris equally, he seemingly never said no to a road trip. One of the most memorable has to have been his ultimately unfulfilled quest through France to

  • Lunchtime for Hitler

    It is bracing, in a way I could never have anticipated six months ago, to read a book that chronicles the exploits of dictators who rose to power in the twentieth century alongside descriptions of the food they liked to eat. Dictators' Dinners: A Bad Taste Guide to Entertaining Tyrants (Gilgamesh Publishing, $23) is filled with photos and food-related anecdotes from this most exclusive club—all male, of course, though a few infamous wives, like Imelda Marcos and Elena Ceauşescu, make cameos—as well as a recipe for each despot. These days, it feels a little less like a lighthearted romp through

  • Surreal Meals

    Agnostics and atheists rejoice! If the holiday season brings out in you, as it occasionally does in me, a nagging undercurrent of regret that there is no higher order giving weight to your festivities, Taschen books understands. Its reissue of Salvador Dalí's 1973 cookbook, Les Dîners de Gala ($60), filled with lavish recipes and images that frequently verge on the disturbing, is not, as the introduction teases rhetorically, "just another cook book presented to an already saturated market." Oh, no. It presents nothing less than a new way to live now: Dalínian Gastro Esthetics. Or should I say,

  • Fight Grub

    Spoiler alert: I made the Big Fucking Steak. Of course I did. Because of all the recipes in Anthony Bourdain’s new cookbook, Appetites (Ecco, $38), it has the most Bourdainian recipe title, stamped in huge letters at the top of the page and preceded by a photo spread of an enormous dog in profile, jaws wide open and teeth glistening, about to pounce on a piece of raw meat. “Big Fucking Steak” is more like a mini-lecture than a recipe. It doesn’t tell you what cut of meat to buy (“look for marbling”). It doesn’t tell you what cooking method to use (Bourdain is agnostic when it comes to grilling

  • Reality Hunger

    Lately, there have been signs that despite the hand-wringing and predictions to the contrary (my own included), the digital revolution has stalled. No matter how cool the latest app is, the human body wants what it wants. The Internet of Things will soon be upon us for real, but the purely tactile world, filled with pleasing idiosyncrasies and bound together by individual rituals rather than data, is still the one we live in. You can buy a “smart” frying pan with real-time temperature feedback to help you cook, but no one’s actually clamoring for a Jetsons-style setup that will make cooking

  • War and Feasts

    Scene: the kitchen table in Diana Abu-Jaber’s grad-school apartment. It’s 1986 and she’s making pad thai as she and her friend Liza discuss a) the militant women’s-studies reading group that recently invited Abu-Jaber to a meeting only to disparage both the story she just published in a literary magazine and the food she brought along; and b) Abu-Jaber’s newfound and financially expedient side gig as an author of “adult” novels.

    “What’re you going to do when women’s studies finds out about Wee Willie and his adventures?” Liza asks. And then, offering the kind of unsolicited advice that so

  • Our K-Town

    Deuki Hong is throwing chunks of butter into a giant wok. It’s a late afternoon in December, and we’re in the kitchen of the restaurant Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, on Thirty-second Street in Manhattan, making kimchi fried rice. Already in the wok are pork belly, onion, kimchi, and cooked rice. The hissing noise the mixture makes as Hong flattens it down with the back of a huge ladle is epic, louder than the music blaring in the narrow alley of cooking space lined with burners, woks, prep stations, and refrigerators. Louder, even, than the vacuums being used to clean several of the barbecue grills

  • Soul Foods

    At the end of my sister’s street in Cambridge, England, there’s a coffee shop called Hot Numbers. I go there every time I visit her, not just because the coffee is excellent, but also because of the treats they offer. Many of them are unavailable here in New York: flapjacks (not a pancake but a buttery, crumbly oat bar), Jaffa Cakes, and Bakewell tarts. Eating these delights is like traveling back in time for me. I spent a year of college studying in England, and when I wasn’t focused on W. B. Yeats or Philip Larkin, I was usually trying to order lunch in words that made no sense to me (I’ll

  • The Power of Chow

    It was still summer when I sat down to read Ruth Reichl’s new cookbook, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life (Random House, $35). I knew this partly because when I checked my Twitter feed that morning, Reichl herself reminded me: “So lush. So green. Plants seem to leap into welcoming air. First sour cherries, slumped onto warm buttered biscuits. Summer’s here.” Reichl, who joined Twitter in January 2009, has become famous—if not infamous—for her ongoing stream of Zen-like gustatory dispatches, described by the New York Times as follows: “Start with an encapsulation of the weather

  • County Fare

    Hearing the name Eva Thorvald, you might expect to find the central character of J. Ryan Stradal’s first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Pamela Dorman Books, $28), smack in the middle of a multigenerational family saga as styled by Ingmar Bergman in full Fanny and Alexander mode: Scandinavian abundance with a dark existential underbelly, the kaleidoscopic shifting apart and coming back together of lovers, spouses, and siblings—and especially of parents and children—and plenty of feasts to mark the passage of time. Actually, though, Eva’s a product of that other Scandinavia in miniature—familiar

  • Mystery Eats

    It was a dark and stormy night when I broke out crime novelist Sara Paretsky’s recipe for Chicken Gabriella. Replete with fresh figs and several kinds of booze, it is one of the many tantalizing and entertaining choices in the new Mystery Writers of America Cookbook: Wickedly Good Meals and Desserts to Die for (Quirk Books, $25), a collection of recipes from many of America’s top crime writers, including the relatively newly annointed Gillian Flynn as well as old hands like James Patterson, Laura Lippman, and a host of other authors who may not be as well-known but are no less talented. Actually,