I am always so hopeful that young cooks with a lot of passion and talent will write books that help to transform the North American diet in a positive way. That is why I have to admit that I am more than a little disappointed in the two finalists for this year's Piglet. Not because the authors are not talented, both obviously are, but because both books seem to contribute to feeding our addiction to sugar and fat. I am predictable and I always want to celebrate books and cooks that are helping people to fall in love again with fruits and vegetables. It will then come to no surprise that I hoped that Nigel Slater's wonderfully thoughtful Tender would make it to the end.
Both books — Momofuku Milk Bar and The Art of Living According to Joe Beef — have forewords by my friend David Chang and I enjoyed the personal reflections on the characters behind the restaurants. Christina Tosi's introduction and personal story about how she came to Momofuku Milk Bar is refreshingly matter of fact, unaffected and concise. In her words you begin to get a sense of an organized mind at work, something that is reflected in the precision of her recipes. All pastry chefs have that same kind of focus but the truly clever ones are also creative, a quality that Christina has in abundance. Sadly, it is in the ingredients that Milk Bar really loses me — it seems that they don't have real ingredients in their pantry. I understand the creative appeal of turning something bad into something surprising but I can't support the choice of highly processed ingredients when fresh and organic ones are increasingly so readily available. Across the board the Milk Bar recipes are too rich, too sweet, and just too intense for me. The fact that "Crack Pie" is their most famous recipe is quite telling.
When I first opened Joe Beef the page I landed on was Smoked Cheddar with doughnuts, an ominous sign. Many of the recipes in The Art of Living According to Joe Beef are heavy-handed and high in fat, but not all of them. As I leafed through the pages I came to be charmed by their story and the unconventional way the book is laid out. There is a sense of history to the book and their deep love of Montreal is evident throughout. There is richness in detail and usually a lovely idiosyncratic story for each recipe that makes the book as much of an engaging read as a straightforward cookbook. I loved the story of "Building a garden in a crack den" and the recipes that accompanied that chapter like Pickled Rhubarb, Carrots with Honey, and the lovely Herbes Salees. They speak with such affection about how they have replaced "pop cans, plastic bags, and cigarette butts that littered our yard with tomatoes, kale, and turnips." They say that building their garden was "not an environmental statement" but whether they want it to be or not, to me and I am sure to many who read this book, it is.
Appropriately, the decision between who wins the Piglet award this year between Joe Beef and Milk Bar came back to crack, and ultimately, I would rather be building a garden from a den than to be an addict.
It is my honor and pleasure to announce the winner of this year's Piglet is...The Art of Living According to Joe Beef.