Cooking with Sass

Julia Moskin and Kim Severson.
Julia Moskin and Kim Severson.

“The office can be a cold and lonely place.” So say the authors of CookFight: 2 Cooks, 12 Challenges, 125 Recipes, an Epic Battle for Kitchen Dominance (Ecco, $30). That they happen to be Julia Moskin and Kim Severson, food writers for the New York Times (Severson is now the paper’s bureau chief in Atlanta, but she manages to squeeze in plenty of pieces about southern cuisine while reporting on other equally critical regional issues), makes this declaration perhaps more noteworthy than it might otherwise be. If you’re anything like me, you imagine the life of a full-time food writer at one of our nation’s great papers to be one long stream of conversations with colleagues about where you ate or what you cooked last night, punctuated by express-mail deliveries of delicious gourmet items from people hoping you might mention or review or even just notice them. After all—food, as we know, is the great unifier.

Instead, it turns out that navigating the interoffice byways of the culinary world can be contentious. “Basically, we fought about what to eat all the time,” Moskin and Severson announce. The more you learn about them over the course of CookFight, the more sense this makes. Just for starters: “Kim is gregarious, athletic, and ambitious; Julia, a hater of exercise, meetings, and competition. Julia was raised Jewish, Kim, Catholic (both with reservations). Julia is straight; Kim is gay. Julia loves her martinis and manhattans; Kim doesn’t drink.” Caught in his colleagues’ cross fire was the estimable food writer Frank Bruni, who not only listened to “the clang and clash of two people enjoying and lamenting and working through their different approaches to, and perspectives about, both cooking and life,” but also sat between his coworkers in a row of cubicles, Moskin on one side, Severson on the other.

Thus one winter day in 2009—when the economy was at an especially low point—the idea for the article that eventually spawned CookFight was born. Moskin and Severson decided to face off in a competition to see who could make the best dinner for six on a budget of fifty dollars. Bruni volunteered to judge. Severson cooked full-on Mexican, with homemade chicharrones, while Moskin made a vaguely French-Italian menu with quasi Creamsicles for dessert. Bruni sensibly declared a tie—as any person with half a brain and no desire to change cubicles would. They wrote about it for the Times’ Dining section, and readers—forgive me—ate it up, enamored of both its nod to the reality of the average person’s food budget (a subject not often mentioned in the Times) and its Top Chef–like dimension. For whatever reason—surely a subject for a different column—bearing witness to competitive cooking serves as a kind of therapy for a huge segment of the population.

These people will be thrilled by CookFight, in which Moskin and Severson duke it out through an entire year of cooking challenges, one per month. The January chapter reprints their original articles about the fifty-dollar bonanza. (Severson: “Bring it, Moskin!” Moskin: “Severson accused me of lying down and refusing to fight. She comes from a family of hardworking dairy farmers and Olympic skiers. In mine, a game of Scrabble and an errand is considered a full day.”) November’s contest reprises another previously published pair of pieces concerning the age-old question of whether or not anyone really cares about Thanksgiving turkey (I leave it to you to figure out which cook took which side of that particular argument). The rest of the book is new material—menus for children and for open houses, meals based on their mothers’ favorites, and more. Along with this bounty of recipes are alternating narratives that provide an unusually revealing look into the lives of the authors. Moskin presents herself (and is presented by Severson) as a certain kind of classic New Yorker raised on the Upper West Side—elegant, slightly flighty, and in a long-term relationship with takeout. Severson (who goes over much of the life story she told in her 2010 book, Spoon Fed, including her struggles with alcohol) comes off as Moskin’s scrappy, less polished, midwestern counterpart. The women take frequent, somewhat tongue-in-cheek jabs at each other, and the result is an endearing, quirky (and occasionally odd) combination of memoir and menus, all wrapped in an abiding faith in the power of friendship and food.

Because, of course—and you probably knew this already—Moskin and Severson are fast friends in spite of their many differences. Sure, there was that time Julia bailed on Kim when she was on deadline and needed help, but for the most part their quarrels are the kind that arise between two people who, after initially eyeing each other with suspicion, have come to hold each other in high esteem. As Moskin says of her colleague: “She was living hard when I was still going around in pink leg warmers. She moved and changed schools often as a child. She had to come out as a lesbian to a Catholic mother and Norwegian father. She had to find the strength to stop drinking, forever, an act of self-control that I admire her for every day.” There’s a lot more here than good recipes for mac and cheese and gingerbread.

It’s perhaps unsurprising to find that a book which deals in the realities of coming out, alcoholism, and many of the other ups and downs of life also doesn’t shy away from the fact that cooking isn’t always a joy undertaken with artisanal flair and plenty of time to get the puff pastry just so. Indeed, part of what makes CookFight wonderful, I’m delighted to say, is a real grumpiness about the necessity of cooking—not a typical ingredient in a book designed for, well, cooking. As Severson puts it in the intro to her Weekday Challenge menu, which includes her young daughter’s favorite pasta and a roast chicken in a pot: “The real test of any cook comes on Tuesday night. Work was hard and there’s still more to do after dinner. Homework needs to be checked and laundry needs to be folded. . . . A spouse is likely behaving in a manner that is not at all helpful. And, of course, people are hungry.” Both authors are married and have kids, but Severson really tells it like it is, going on from her bold admission about the way all marriages sometimes are to breach a tacit parenting taboo—she carps about Moskin having more help with her children than she does, including a nanny. Whoa! This is, to a certain extent, an author playing her entertaining role, but for anyone who’s ever faced the endless grind of making yet another weeknight dinner, the envy has a sting of truth to it. Moskin, not to be outdone, complains, “Cooking, it turns out, is not the hard part. Cooking is easy—thinking about cooking is hard. Cooking is easy—shopping and chopping are hard.” I couldn’t agree more, and certainly never more so than when my own brood is clamoring for dinner and I haven’t a clue what to throw down on the cutting board.

This, in the end, is the true challenge that CookFight takes on. More than the Vegetarian Challenge, the Fancy Challenge, or any of the other contests, it addresses the necessity of working food and all the things we want and need it to be—the special birthday cake for our children that they’ll always remember, but also the fast, entirely unmemorable dinner that will fuel the family—into our daily lives. Moskin and Severson are as stressed and neurotic as anyone else facing this Sisyphean task, and all the more lovable for it. Their authenticity in these pages, played up as it is for an odd-couple charm, has a core of truth to it that makes their manufactured challenges fall away, leaving behind a book that is as useful psychologically as it is in the kitchen. They subvert the very idea that the glossy photography and rich typeface of CookFight presents, refuting the claim that so many high-end cookbooks implicitly make: that cooking and feeding friends and family is always one of life’s great pleasures. It reminds me of Jenny Rosenstrach’s recent book Dinner: A Love Story, which follows in much the same vein. After reading it in one sitting last summer, I decided that any cookbook that doesn’t remind you that sometimes all you really want is a recipe for a very stiff drink may not belong on my shelf.

And though I know that come winter I’ll be testing out Severson’s time-honored date-nut bread baked in an old coffee can (her mother’s recipe), ultimately, the greatest lesson of this unvarnished—and I mean that in the best sense of the word—book has less to do with chopping and sautéing than it does with simply living. Long after the last cake crumbs are swept away, the guests departed, the children grown up and gone, I’ll remember this line: “By now, we have both learned the same truth: there isn’t much you can do for people mired in trouble or tragedy except show up, preferably with food. Showing up is never the wrong thing to do.” We can’t be reminded of this too often. That it comes with recipes here is a happy bonus, but I suspect that both Moskin and Severson would give full credit in any challenge to anyone who does the hard work of showing up, even empty-handed. And they’d be more than happy to bring the food.