Updated: Sep 25, 2021
We always have to eat.
By Lyla Trilling
A piece of toasted bread, a slab of butter, a plump orange tomato, and a few delicate fillets of anchovy—this is the “snack” Melissa Clark prepared for the video crew shooting her kitchen for the New York Times YouTube channel. As the crew moans in delight, Clark shrugs: “My hubby makes good bread!”
To the layperson, a snack does not exceed the culinary level of a pretzel, or, if you’re lucky, a gummy fruit shaped like a cartoon character. But Clark chooses to live an elevated life—never doing what is expected, always challenging the taste buds to a richer, fuller experience. Mayonnaise in chocolate cake? A wonderful moistening agent. Green peas in guacamole? Undeniably locks in the color, regardless of how you may feel about the taste.
As a third-generation Brooklynite and a student of iconic female food writers like Betty Fussell, Clark’s upbringing was ripe with culinary experiences—her father’s walnut cookies, bagels and cream cheese on Sunday mornings. It is no surprise, then, that Clark refuses to take sole ownership of her recipes: “It’s just how I cook,” she told me. “They are everyone’s recipes.” Her unique culinary sensibility would be impossible without the people and places that informed it.
I reached out to Clark regarding a serious crisis in my apartment—a 10-month gas shutdown, an unusable oven, and a stovetop devoid of practicality. A masterful food writer and recipe developer with 45 cookbooks in her back pocket would surely have an answer. Help me, I practically begged via polite-if-fangirly email. And help me she most certainly did. What follows is a food log of Melissa Clark–approved recipes that can be made with nothing but a toaster oven and double burner.
Anything resembling shakshuka? Count me in. Made this in my cast iron skillet while my friend forced me to listen to a true-crime podcast about a murder at Lululemon. Bloody leggings and garam masala are a beautiful combination.
Day 2: Vegetarian Skillet Chili
A shockingly easy and delicious dish. Made this on the floor of my living room while watching Survivor: Cagayan (double burners are very portable). Added a bouillon cube and some carrots. I even pickled my own goddamn onions.
What a beauty she was—fresh, herby, and umami all at once. You really get two dishes from this recipe: a flavorful, browned chicken and a warm, farro-leek stew perfect for a cloudy day. Packed this up and brought it to my babysitting job; enjoyed it while watching The Princess Diaries.
Day 4: Adobo-rubbed Veal with Sage
I literally made veal in a toaster oven. This is the phrase I repeated to myself many times after the deed was done. I cannot believe how incredible it tasted—fatty, juicy, tender, sweet, spicy—the toaster oven might be the best method for the job (sorry, sous vide!) I got this recipe from an article that Clark published in 2005 about cooking in toasters (the baked peach and zucchini feta salad are also winners). As a result, the veal was infused with an undeniable Y2K vibe—making me more and more nostalgic for Dick Cheney with each bite. Take a look at the piece—it is fascinating to see how the NYT cooking section has transformed from a solo Clark battling it out with a toaster, to the glamorous recipe haven that it is today.
When my week of cooking was done, I sat down with Clark to chat about the food-writing boom, fried twinkies, and her love of the culinary arts. The meeting was cut short by an olive oil challah that desperately needed her attention. It was Rosh Hashanah, after all.
The Blue and White: From your English track at Barnard, and then your MFA at Columbia, how did you go from literature into cooking? How did that transformation occur?
Melissa Clark: I always say that food was my lens—it was just the way I saw the world. I love the way that you can understand culture through food. I think that, luckily, it’s become more of a thing. When I was interested in food writing back when I was at Barnard and Columbia, there was a fringe element to it. Now it's very mainstream. It spoke to me because of my childhood—food was always how I sorted out the world. Looking back through history and literature, to me, was also a way to connect the dots. Human beings are constantly evolving, but we always have to eat. Eating is a glue. It’s the glue of civilization, and no matter where you are, there’s something about eating that binds you to other people.
B&W: Something I like about your recipes is that, in your written instructions, you allow for a lot of intuitive cooking, like a “pinch” of this and something “to taste.” How important do you think customization is? How important is it to be able to intuit what you’re doing rather than follow the recipe exactly?
MC: It’s essential. It’s what makes cooking into an art, into a creative process, and I think that people are afraid to do that. I know there is comfort in a recipe, but there’s no possible way for you and I to follow the same recipe and make the dish come out tasting the same. I really feel like if I can get people to be more comfortable in that driver’s seat—taking control, doing it the way they want it, tasting this and adding that—that’s my goal. I really try to encourage that in the way that I write recipes. You have to do it your own way because you’re feeding yourself. I’m not going to taste it! I don’t care! Do it your own way! With my recipes, I will always say it’s a guide. It’s just a way to give you ideas to make something delicious for dinner.
B&W: I read about the guacamole-green-pea-gate that you were tangentially involved in. What’s your stance on guacamole with green peas?
MC: I mean, do what you want. It’s your guacamole. I thought it was a brilliant idea—it locks the color in! Look, I truly believe that food has a cultural importance—you don’t want to offend anybody. But I actually don’t believe that putting peas in guacamole is offensive, depending on how it’s done. Right now, there’s a lot of discussion about what it means when you adapt another culture’s recipe into your culture, and I think these are important discussions to have. I also think it’s important to be able to put peas in guacamole. I think what’s important is to acknowledge the greater tradition, and if you are a big chef like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who did the recipe, I think it’s your responsibility to make sure the original doesn’t get obscured by your adaptation. Now, with guacamole, that’s not going to happen because, at this point, guacamole goes across many cultures. If you’re going to publish a recipe from a different culture, it’s your responsibility to learn about the original and put that out there, as well. Before recently, nobody paid attention to cultural appropriation of food. It’s an important thing to discuss.
B&W: Getting back to your own culture, I want to know more about cooking in New York as a kid. What are some recipes that your parents taught you that you still use today, or some of your childhood favorites that continue to inspire you today?
MC: My dad’s walnut cookies. Simple little Viennese walnut crescents. My mom’s lemon bars, which she got straight out of the Charlie Brown Cookbook. I think they were called “Lucy's Lemon Squares.” Matzo Brei was a big one. And bagels and lox. On Sundays, we’d go and get bagels and lox for brunch, and those flavors really speak to me, and they will continue to speak to me. You know, it’s funny, because when you grow up and you get married and have a kid, you create a new culture within your household—bagels and lox is just not my current family’s thing. It’s my old family’s thing, and that makes me a little sad.
B&W: Have you developed any new family traditions? Any new family staples?
MC: We have the things that my family loves, like my daughter loves this crumby pasta that I make. It’s like this garlicky bread crumb pasta. You take day-old bread, you make it into crumbs, you toast it with olive oil and garlic, sometimes you can put in red chili flakes, anchovies, or parmesan and then you make these delicious, crispy crumbs. It’s just crispy, savory bread crumbs, and you just put them on your pasta. It’s really simple. You can add a little bit of butter or olive oil or pasta water. And both my husband and my daughter love chili, which, frankly, I could take or leave, if you’d like to know.
B&W: Really? I feel like your skillet chili recipe is like the recipe. This is very shocking news to me and I think the whole world as well.
MC: What, that I'm “meh” on chili? It’s fine. It’s just—talking about the recipes that speak to you, chili speaks to my husband and daughter. They feel about bagels and lox the way I feel about chili. You negotiate with your family and you create your new traditions, you know? I mean, we all love waffles. We’re all big popcorn people. We make delicious popcorn.
B&W: Tell me about the popcorn.
MC: Tons of nutritional yeast, seaweed flakes—and just so much butter, like an obscene amount of butter and salt. It’s just great.
B&W: Okay, so, you were in college and then you went to grad school. I feel like there’s no clear trajectory for food writers. Could you walk me through what happened after you graduated? How did you progress to where you are today?
MC: I did an MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, which was great. Food writing wasn't a thing. Now, I’ll go back to Columbia sometimes and teach a food writing class—we didn’t have that when I was there. When I was interested in writing about food in the MFA program, people kept asking me if I was going to be a critic because that was the only kind of food writing people imagined. They didn’t consider cookbooks to be writing, and there was no narrative food writing—it wasn’t a thing outside of criticism. I graduated from the MFA program in ’94. It was the beginning of the Internet! All of a sudden, there were blogs and there was a public space where I could write about food and get paid for it. So, I was really lucky, I was at the cusp of this new thing. These websites would pay me to write 900 words on pumpkin pie, and I’d write a full story, and it was great. At the same time, though, I was just out of grad school, I was living in New York, which, as you know, is no joke. So I was also waitressing, I was coat checking. I was writing these stories for these websites that are all defunct now. And I was also writing for Time Out New York. I would write some restaurant round-ups, sometimes I’d write trend stories, which are probably my least favorite thing to do.
B&W: Do you remember any of the trend stories that you wrote?
MC: Oh god, yeah. Believe it or not, Fort Greene was an up-and-coming neighborhood back in the ’90s, so I wrote about restaurants in Fort Greene, like, “Hey, this is a new up-and-coming neighborhood with a food scene!” I have one early story I wrote for the New York Times in 1999 about how chefs were using tapioca—not tapioca pudding, but just tapioca pearls—to create new dishes. And that was one of the first trend stories I wrote for the Times.
MC: Nuts. Different time! You know, I always say, you can’t go back and do the thing I did. Young food writers ask: How did you get to do what you do? And my path isn’t there anymore. Nobody is paying you a dollar a word to write a 900-word story on pumpkin pie for the Internet. I truly believe you need to learn how to cook and how to write. And I tell people to take cooking classes and writing classes, work in a restaurant, and just really learn both sides of the craft.
B&W: So how did you get to the New York Times?
MC: I was really just in the right place at the right time. My really good friend knew this guy, who knew this woman, who knew this guy at the New York Times, and she started working as his assistant. And then she went to India for three weeks, and while she was gone, I took over her job. Completely random. It turns out that this man, his name was Rick Flaste, was the person at New York Times who created the Dining In, Dining Out section. He called me a few years later and said, “Hey, do you want to do this itty-bitty little thing called The Food Chain? It’s a food Q&A.” Back in the day, if you wanted to know how to do something, you couldn’t just look it up online. Like, what’s the best way to beat egg whites? Or why don’t egg whites always inflate? Back then, people would write physical letters and mail them to the New York Times building. And I would answer these letters. Nuts, but it was great, it was totally great. That was my first job for the Times.
B&W: You’ve written 40 cookbooks, is that correct?
MC: Give or take. Forty-five, maybe?
B&W: That is so insane to me. I’m wondering, with that many cookbooks, how are you still finding inspiration? How are you still coming up with new recipes? I feel like you’d tap out at 30, but here you are.
MC: A lot of them I was coauthoring, and that’s a whole other discipline. I didn’t have to come up with the recipes or the content, I just had to shape it. But even so, I’ve done two instant pot books: I have this new toy that I get to play with, and it’s a whole new thing and there’s a learning curve, and then you master it and create new recipes. Then, I did a book for kids called Kid in the Kitchen. And again, it’s a whole new way to think about cooking. Many of the books I’ve written are a narrow slice of cooking. It’s like you are taking a new route somewhere and there’s all these new things to see, new things to play with, and to think about. It’s limitless, really. I can’t imagine ever not having something to write about. There’s always a new way to think about food.
B&W: For the readership, because I’m sure everyone is very curious, could you name some of your favorite restaurants in New York City?
MC: Oh god, so many and they change a lot. My world got really small during the pandemic, I think all of ours did, so all of a sudden, it’s anything I can walk to. Some of my go-tos right now: I live in Prospect Heights, I’ve been in love with the cooking at LaLou, which is a little wine bar restaurant, it’s fabulous; Sofreh, which is Persian and around my corner, is fantastic. I mean, gosh, so many places. A few takeout places where I get wonderful things to cook with: Brooklyn Larder, R&D on Vanderbilt, Olmsted, Maison Yaki—all of these things are within a ten-minute walk from my house. Alta Calidad is another favorite one. The chef there is really, really interesting. He’s Indian, he’s cooking Mexican food, and it’s just fabulous. That’s the neighborhood round-up for you. Bien Cuit for their bread and pastries is great.
B&W: You’ve written a crazy amount of cookbooks, you have so many recipes in your arsenal—what are you most proud of in your career?
MC: There was the pea guacamole controversy. That was definitely fun because I got Obama to tweet at me. He puts garlic in his guacamole, and I totally disagree with that.
B&W: I disagree with that as well.
MC: I broke the deep-fried Twinkie story. Have you ever been to a state fair where you’ve had a deep-fried Twinkie on a stick?
B&W: Never, because I’m from Los Angeles, and we don’t deep fry things because we suck. But anyway, back to the Twinkies.
MC: So, deep-fried Twinkies are now one of those things you can get at every state fair. I wrote a story about it. I found this guy deep frying a Twinkie. He was probably the first person to ever deep fry a Twinkie and put it on a restaurant menu. And so I wrote about him and then it got huge and deep-fried Twinkies took off. So that was fun—I changed this guy’s life forever. He was a Scottish guy who came to New York, opened a chip shop, and, apparently, when you are cooking at the fish station at a fish and chips restaurant, and you’ve had a few beers at the end of your shift, anything you have around goes into the fryer. So, he’s coming out of work and he goes to the bodega down the street and what does he find? Twinkies! And he throws it in the fryer.
B&W: That actually sounds incredible.
MC: I wrote a profile that I’m really proud of, of Betty Fussell, who is one of my mentors.
B&W: Is she the mayonnaise cake woman?
MC: Exactly. I’m proud of that piece because I feel like it really captures her. I’m interested in food writing for women. Everybody wants to be a food writer now, but to be taken seriously as a food writer a generation ago, if you were a woman, was really hard. It was a whole other landscape. I’m very interested in telling these stories of women who are really the pioneers of the field, and Betty Fussell certainly was one of them. I’m about to write another profile of a woman in London, named Claudia Roden. She wrote the Book of Jewish Food. These are things that I’m proud of and continuing to work on.
B&W: I’ve seen your New York Times kitchen tour. You have an immaculate kitchen that is immaculately organized. I’m wondering, with the amount of stuff that you have—the amount of gadgets, the amount of spices—what is your go-to, desert island cooking tool?
MC: Of course, I need my knife and my cutting board. You just need your knife and your cutting board, although I suppose if you’re on a desert island, you can use your knife to cut yourself a new cutting board. And my microplane. I love my microplane. I need my microplane.
B&W: Oh, yes. I had a feeling you were going to say that. These days, I think that a lot of people think of Allison Roman as the anchovies girl—she’s the one who’s always trying to incorporate anchovies into her recipes. But the truth is that you are the original anchovies girl.
MC: That is true.
B&W: Are there other foods like anchovies that you think are underappreciated and deserve their moment in the spotlight?
MC: I mean, organ meats I wish people would eat more. This weekend, I made beef kidney, and it was so delicious. Gosh, that’s a real outlier, though. I shouldn’t be telling people to eat more organ meats, that’s just weird. Horseradish. It’s just a simple little thing you can get at any store. We don’t use it enough as a condiment, on sandwiches, and in dressings. Using Asian fish sauce as an umami booster should become more mainstream again. If you’re a committed cook, chances are you either have some or you know where to get it. It adds so much flavor—just throw it in any kind of marinade that you’re doing, in salad dressing. I love it with eggplant. Also, butter. Use more butter. People don't cook with enough butter. When you butter your bread, just go for it. Keep your butter at room temperature, it’s very important. Italian chilis—I think Asia is the focus of our chili paste craze right now, but Italy has some amazing and really interesting chili paste with different flavor profiles, including one that actually has fish in it. It is amazing. If you find a dish is missing something, add that in. It will likely be what you need.
B&W: Now, potentially my most important question that I’m going to ask you: Tonight is Rosh Hashanah. What are you making?
MC: I make olive oil challah that I love. And it’s from my friend Robin Aaronson, who also went to Barnard. It's her mom's recipe that I've adapted. I was considering doing a chicken soup, but it’s too nice out for that, so I’ll probably do a simple chicken dish. I have a sweet and tangy chicken on the New York Times that I love, so I might do a simplified version of that. I’ll probably make some kind of roasted potato with that, of course, we will have a big green salad, probably green beans, and honey cake. I haven’t done any of this and it’s already noon.
B&W: Luckily, that is the final question. We have concluded. You can go make your challah.