The premise of CookFight, the new cookbook from the New York Times writers Julia Moskin and Kim Severson, is boldly stated in the numbers-heavy subtitle: “2 Cooks, 12 Challenges, 125 Recipes, an Epic Battle for Kitchen Dominance.”
To some, this might sound like the bookish version of "Top Chef." But to me, the whole thing is eerily similar to what happens in my home kitchen on a weekly basis.
As newlyweds with a shiny arsenal of brand-new toys, my husband and I make the big issues of married life small by bantering — occasionally heatedly — over which knife is the best to use for chopping, whose risotto recipe is the most authentic, and if there is any way at all to eat a vegetarian meal and be satisfied. Cook fights are our love language.
The same, it turns out, is true for Moskin and Severson. The two were tossed together as Dining Section newbies at the Times, where they traded food tips and techniques over the tops of their cubicles (and restaurant critic Frank Bruni’s head). Self-proclaimed “work wives,” they soon became fast friends.
“Julia is my wing woman,” Severson told me. “She totally gets me.” Theirs is a relationship built on differences: Moskin the “East Coast food snob” named after Julia Child, Severson the heartlander with an arsenal of recipes from her Italian mama.
Bruni invented, then documented, their first cook fight: a dinner for six with a maximum budget of $50 dollars. Next came Thanksgiving, the only challenge to almost produce tears. (If you ask Moskin, her sides stole the show. Meanwhile, Severson continues to defend the turkey.)
A cook-fight cookbook was conceived not as an opportunity to take their competition up a notch, but as a distraction from their working-mother lives. “We did not set out to write an exhaustive New York Times cookbook,” Moskin said. “Other people have done that.”
What they did want to do was to provide insight into the rhythm of a friendship. CookFight isn’t actually about kitchen dominance at all, though there’s a lot of friendly trash talk. It’s a book about two people who like food (and each other), have firm opinions, and enjoy robust debates.
Moskin quickly scrapped the idea that there’s a clear winner in the cook-fight world. “There will never be one Best Fried Chicken,” she said. “This isn’t about perfection.”
So what’s the point, I wonder, thinking about all the times I’ve made a dish hoping that someone will declare it “the best.”
“If there is an agenda to our work, it is that we want people to keep cooking and not think of it as this unapproachable skill that people can only do on television,” Moskin continued. “We’re trying to say, ‘Hey, this is fun. You can talk about it; you can have conversations about it. It’s not just you alone in the kitchen.’”
I think of our current kitchen treaty. When my husband is in the kitchen, the doors get shut and the music goes on. I’m a bit more hospitable when I cook, but am still not too keen on receiving advice, no matter how friendly.
It’s possible, Severson noted diplomatically, that the recipes in CookFight are good enough that they will be the “argument-ending” recipes.
“Did Julia tell you about her mac and cheese?” she asked. “It’s the most-emailed article in New York Times history.”
All of a sudden, here we are, back to the twin ideals of ego and pride, the very things that characterize most cook fights. I really believe that my plum-cake recipe is the very best, but do I win friends by declaring this?
I take a deep breath and decide to ask my burning question: Can competition in the kitchen be a good thing?
“Yes,” Severson replied emphatically. “It’s good to have somebody to push you, someone you can learn from.”
Moskin echoed that opinion when she talked about what she learned while writing her half of CookFight: “It is so easy to play it safe and just make the same few recipes over and over again. But that’s not what makes cooking fun, and it has to be fun, or else I’m not going to do it. Kim taught me to not be afraid to try something really ambitious, even if it might not work.”
She was astonished, she said, by Severson’s “spectacular” recipe for pork braised in milk and cream: “It’s a beautiful, falling-apart roast with lemony cream sauce.” Severson, meanwhile, waxed poetic about Moskin’s bacon-fat gingersnaps, calling them an “unfair” inclusion because they are so good.
When I asked one last time about the merits of cooperative versus competitive cooking, Severson got philosophical.
“What better way to learn how to be a better human being?” she asked. “When you share a kitchen, you have to weigh how much you’re willing to compromise for the sake of the relationship.”
You must consider a better idea, give up some control, let go. It’s not about dueling chili recipes or who roasts a better chicken.
It’s not about the cook fight; it’s about the conversation.
Anne Zimmerman is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.