The Piglet2018 / Semifinal Round, 2018

Kachka vs. Six Seasons

Kachka

Bonnie Morales & Deena Prichep

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Six Seasons

Joshua McFadden & Martha Holmberg

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Judged by: Carmen Maria Machado

2ad875e8 1968 4ee0 ab66 3c5baa5b9771  carmen maria machado shot by art streiber

Carmen Maria Machado's debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Prize. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Guernica, Gulf Coast, NPR, and Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. She is the writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania, and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.

The Judgment

I am a fairly seasoned home cook but shy about dough; for this reason and more, I enlisted a dear friend, Mal, to come help me judge the cookbooks for the Piglet. Mal is a brilliant baker with an ongoing pie project—the Surprise Pies Club, in which she bakes experimental desserts based on a set of questions for the recipient—and she brought a black-bottomed lemon curd pie for us to eat at the end of the night. It turned out to be the only thing we’d eat all day that didn’t come from Kachka or Six Seasons.

We spent an entire Sunday creating a set of dishes from our two cookbooks. The day’s menu was broken into two distinct courses: lunch, from Kachka, composed of Moldovan Eggplant Salad, Siberian Pelmeni (meat dumplings), and Buckwheat Honey Butter for dipping vegetables. Dinner, from Six Seasons, included Cabbage and Mushroom Hand Pies, Parsnips with Citrus and Olives, and Delicata Squash “Donuts” with Pumpkin Seeds and Honey.

 

Before starting lunch, we sampled Kachka’s horseradish vodka—which had been infusing over the course of the week in a dark cupboard corner—ice cold, tempered with honey, and mixed into Bloody Marys. Soft with vodka and heady with excitement, we embarked on separate dishes for the first course: Mal began the dough for the pelmeni, and I diced and roasted eggplant for the salad. We kneaded the dumpling dough by machine and by hand; when Mal sliced into it with a knife, she gasped at the texture and called to me to see the tender, cream-colored gap where she’d separated the halves. It was obscenely silky; it took all of my self-control not to stick my index finger into it.

I blended pork, veal, onion, ice water, and salt for the filling. Mal laid the dough down over the pelmenitsa mold, stuffed each pocket with filling, draped a round of dough over it, and took the rolling pin to the whole thing. We were shocked and delighted when bite-sized hexagonal dumplings dropped out of the mold, like magic! The eggplant salad—that exquisite combination of eggplant, tomato, and pine nuts that never gets old—was easy, as was the butter, so the final step before eating was dropping the plump little pelmeni into the boiling water. When they’d risen to the surface, we drained them and dressed them with butter and vinegar.

I was startled by how much I loved this meal. The eggplant salad, cut with the acidity of the tomatoes and studded with toasted pine nuts, was smoky and perfect spread on toasted pita bread; we swiped the luscious, European-style butter mixed with spicy Russian mustard and buckwheat honey onto our plates so we could dip radishes and coins of daikon; the hot dumplings were far more flavorful than their simple ingredients would have suggested.

 

I realized I had simply never considered food from this region before; or, perhaps more accurately, it was a cuisine I had never been exposed to, and thus had never chosen to try when looking for places to eat. We spent a good deal of this meal chewing with great decadence, helping ourselves to second (and third, and fourth) portions, and staring at each other with shell-shocked, blissed-out expressions.

Once we cleaned up and took a well-needed afternoon nap, we embarked on dinner: the dishes from Six Seasons. Again, Mal worked on the dough, and I made the filling for the hand pies. After assembling them, they had to chill, so in the interim we made the parsnip salad: a glorious mix of satiny, nutty ribbons of the titular root, the salt of oil-cured olives, and the sweet, citrusy burst of eraser-pink cara cara oranges.

But it was the pies that stole the show. The exteriors were flaky and buttery—I could hardly believe we’d made them with our own mortal hands—and the interiors were a warm, earthy mix of cabbage and mushrooms rounded with Worcestershire sauce. We moaned as we ate them, and the next day I finished the leftovers on a train to New York like Maggie Smith ate cold chicken in the carriage to Misselthwaite in The Secret Garden.  (Exhausted from our task, we put a pin in the donuts, and I made them later that week; their crisp and creamy texture, hot from the oil and exquisitely salty and sweet, was a singular pleasure.)

We closed the day of feasting with a slice of Mal’s pie and the cacao nib vodka, spirited into sophisticated and not-too-sweet White Russians. The sheer decadence of our day brought to mind my favorite scenes from the Redwall series. (Maybe I’ll get to make Deeper’n’Ever pie, Otter Hot Root Soup, and Rose Pudding next?)

 

It was only the next morning when I realized the dilemma I faced. Both cookbooks produced delicious food. Both were easy enough for a serious dilettante like myself to cook from while also providing a bit of a challenge. Both were physically beautiful objects—Six Seasons’ matte, debossed cover and stylish, muted photography was gorgeous and trendy, while Kachka’s bright colors, stunning design, and show-stopping endpaper entranced with its boldness. By all of the necessary parameters, both cookbooks fulfilled, and then exceeded, their obligations.

So how to pick a winner? I began to consider what makes a cookbook special, the way you might consider what makes a short story collection special. After all, individual recipes have their value, but a cookbook is a conversation. These cookbooks in particular have the added quality of being the creation of a particular restaurant’s chef, and so the physicality of those spaces, the dimensions and histories of the restaurants themselves, also enter into both projects.

I considered the book’s paratext—or, if not paratext exactly, the material that exists outside of the recipes themselves. I love, for example, that Six Seasons opens with a larder chapter, in which McFadden articulates the necessary items for a well-stocked pantry; it is practical, aspirational, and achievable. I also adore the go-to recipe section, which covers basic sauces and doughs, and later mini-chapters that cover necessary basics like pickling and dressing a salad.

Likewise, I love how Kachka is part memoir; an exploration of the space Russian cooking occupies in Morales’ life. I was delighted that the section about infused vodkas ends with a discussion of drinking culture and a list of toasts, and spreads about Russian markets, pantry staples, and sample menus. I admire how the author approaches the thorny nature of the Russian/Soviet Union diaspora; how she tackles the multifaceted identity of her cookbook’s food in relation to a constellation of nations and peoples, cast against the width and breadth of the region’s history. The text is sharp, funny, playful, and informative, and the biographical opening is beautiful—the story of the origins of the cookbook’s name made my nose tingle like I was about to cry. Against this kind of pathos, complexity, and vision, Six Seasons didn’t stand a chance.

And so, moved by its personal material, emboldened by its ambition, and as satisfied by its offerings as a fat little badger having eaten her fill, I declare Kachka the winner.

 

And the winner is…

Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking

Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking

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Do you Agree? (45 comments)

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23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Six Seasons should have won it all. By far it’s the best of all 16.

0a080f68 41f2 4eaf aff7 3f91ec3c2c84  fb avatar

I'm....really, really disappointed by this verdict. Six Seasons is, as other commenters have mentioned, a better cookbook. It's more relevant to how we cook and eat, its recipes are both more innovative and more approachable, and has changed how I and many others cook with vegetables forever through its unique perspective and approach. Kachka's win on the basis of its strength as a personal and cultural memoir seems to miss the point of this contest entirely, and having cooked out of it, I don't think it has the culinary firepower to merit its win.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Both books are fun, beautiful, interesting reads and educational. I am proud to say I worked on both books. And yet Six Seasons is the book that I keep closest to me in the kitchen. Now with splatter marks of tonnato and kale sauce on it. It is the book that I have dog eared countless pages and will continue to cook from time and time again.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

i agree completely!!

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

While Kachka contains good recipes and very interesting stories, it saddens me that it only furthers the misconception of what "Russian" food is since the authors fail to give credit to other cultures where credit is due. There were 15 Soviet republics, with different cultures and cuisine, but ever since then all the different dishes became all of a sudden "Russian" and the book continues on that path (even though there is an explanation in the book that not all dishes are actually Russian, to an average reader "Russian" will be the association from now on). It would be a lot more appropriate to use "Soviet" instead of "Russian" and include which former Soviet republic each dish actually came from. I've seen other great cookbooks where authors would include origins of dishes and it's always fascinating and educational.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Great review! I thought for sure Six Seasons would be taking the cake.

8ff9a676 5d6e 4f83 8d3b ed94114a2052  stringio

While this is a thoughtful review and a fair assessment of both books, much like the actual NCAA tournament, the outcome breaks my heart (well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration)... I respect the metric she chose, the cultural memoir aspect of Kachka, but I think this is powerful for a certain demographic of home cooks. The metric I would choose is what could change the cooking and the approach to cooking of the most people- and I really think Six Seasons makes the way we should be eating now delicious and accessible.

Ed83541d 859c 43d6 90ad 1f8163d7cde5  532719 3658538260807 1195156242 32905581 1657496368 n 2

I love this: "...what could change the cooking and approach of the most people..."

0a080f68 41f2 4eaf aff7 3f91ec3c2c84  fb avatar

Absolutely agreed. These are cookbooks. Emotional pull should fall second to the metric you advocate. Kachka will give you feels - Six Seasons will change how you cook and add at least a dozen recipes to your rotation.

549d9fb3 53ef 4170 b68e 8bae2e055be7  dsc 0048b

Lovely review! I am very happy to have both of these books!

5b4f6be2 01b1 42ed 9447 40f12b7b750d  e611b2f2 266d 4281 ae52 90da46edbfab

Well-written review, but I was disappointed by the result. Six Seasons is one of the best cookbooks written in the last decade. It has a staggering high percentage of surprising, excellent, and approachable recipes, and is one of those books that will easily live at the forefront of your cookbook pile year after year. Congrats to Bonnie though...she wrote an amazing cookbook despite my reservations on the verdict.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Well said!

Df43343e db93 4fac a72d 68d05089a724  2013 09 09 13.45.37

The Piglet is my favorite reason to return to Food52 and it's been a pleasure to read this year. It's disappointing for me to see SIX SEASONS lose, if with such grace. I park my glass of water at home on an Ava Gene's coaster and think about radish salads with pickled cherries all the time. The roasted cauliflower steaks are delicious, and the first thing I made after reading Evan Kleinman's review. Very simple, quick dishes to make from things in the fridge. However, cookbooks are where to turn for meals prepared from someone else's POV and it's the sense of surprise and discovery that makes Kachka stand out. (I haven't looked at the book yet, but am reminded of Wolfert's Eastern Mediterranean.) Thank you for this, and for that happy little badger.

Cb038322 efa1 4767 bca9 7ce6c6737371  stringio

All of the sudden I am a cool mom. Every night I discuss The Piglet with my oldest daughter. She looks bored or acts like the cats from Wendi McLendon-Covey's review. So... today I showed her the bracket, thinking it would be more understandable. It was like a phoenix rising from the ashes when she recognized the judge. "Mom, OMG, Carmen Maria Machado is one of my favorite authors. Send me the link to this! I have got to read this. This must be legit!" Thank you Food52 and your Piglet competition for making my daughter look up from her phone and make me seem like I know something. At least for the next few days.

Ed83541d 859c 43d6 90ad 1f8163d7cde5  532719 3658538260807 1195156242 32905581 1657496368 n 2

I feel ya, sister-mom! :-)

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

This review has moved me to again examine Kachka, which I had been sure I had no interest in. Regarding it as historical preservation of a culture as well as a cookbook, I am convinced it needs to be part of my library. And also that I have to start reading the introductions in my cookbooks!

Wanting to learn more about what happened in Bobr, I finally found this link on page 3 of Google, but no other historical reference, which breaks my heart: http://shtetle.com/shtetls_minsk....

549d9fb3 53ef 4170 b68e 8bae2e055be7  dsc 0048b

Oh my! It seems like you've found the link to the chef's father's testimony about his mother and relatives.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Kachka wasn't on my wavelength until The Piglet began, and I have been growing curiouser and curiouser with each round. But Carmen's exquisite review totally sealed the deal for me. And it is, to my mind, the finest judging of this year, as well. It has such warmth and spirit in the judge's voice, along with such respect for the books' creators vision and hard work. Thanks everyone, now bring me a Katchka!

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

PS I meant to say "cool co-writer." And yes, I use many, many exclamation points!

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I'm the co-author of Six Seasons, and I was honored to "lose" to Katcha! A cool restaurant, cool owners, cool co-writier (congrats, Deena!), and the resto is right in my neighborhood (plus I had my first date with my boyfriend there...the power of pelmeni!) Thanks to Carmen for the thoughtful and enthusiastic review, and thanks to The Piglet for including us!

Fcc3d1e7 aa93 4d15 9150 697aeb72c2d8  10f46b0c 6f2b 4c92 9324 7fcae93d103f

Your two comments made me smile!

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

And made me want to hug you, Martha.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Congratulations on a wonderful book! I love Six Seasons, plus it was very thoughtful of you to weigh in on Kachka.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

My initial reaction was that you were bowing out gracefully, but then I realized there is no bowing out at all. Six Seasons is a wonderful, well-received, highly revered cookbook, and The Piglet is not winner takes all. (As Billy Joel once so wisely said "sooner or later it comes down to fate.") I don't think there has been anything but an accolade here for Six Seasons. IT IS AN AWESOME BOOK. I have it; I love it. Congratulations.

Ed83541d 859c 43d6 90ad 1f8163d7cde5  532719 3658538260807 1195156242 32905581 1657496368 n 2

100% class act = Martha! I love Six Seasons and I hope you are proud of your work, because you should be - fabulous book! (I love exclamation points, too!!!)

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Unfortunately, it is a winner take all contest.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Lovely, thoughtful review. I'm now looking forward to reading Machado's book, which was a bonus!

16587ee2 49ab 4852 890d efd7ffba48e9  2016 03 23 22 01 52

This review might be my favourite of this year's Piglet. It's beautifully written, well-considered, and with a twist at the end. I was sure Six Seasons was going to win this year, but this review held no disappointment. I'm going to be adding Kachka and Ms. Machado's work to my shelves.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Six Seasons is brilliant so I'm sorry it didn't prevail but now I need to get a hold of Kachka.

4e5475f9 b6bb 4281 b017 0b4b246f52db  fb avatar

I was already intrigued by both books, but now I feel like I want to go pick up Machado's short story collection. Her writing was so evocative!

4798a9c2 4c90 45e5 a5be 81bcb1f69c5c  junechamp

What a great review. The author's enthusiasm made me want to cook from both books.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Kachka! I bought a copy after Rachael Ray's review and loved it so much I gifted it to someone who will love it just as much as me. I bought myself another copy today! Such a fun, vibrant cookbook and like the reviewer - I don't know much about this type of cuisine but I am going to have fun learning!