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The Piglet2015 / First Round, 2015

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Lunch at the Shop vs. Huckleberry

Lunch at the Shop

Peter Miller

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Huckleberry

Zoe Nathan

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Judged by: A.J. Jacobs

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A.J. Jacobs is the author of four New York Times bestselling non-fiction books, including The Year of Living Biblically and Drop Dead Healthy. He is the editor at large of Esquire and a commentator for NPR. He is currently helping to build the biggest family tree in history (it's at 81 million people) and plans to throw the biggest family reunion ever in June of 2015. All proceeds from the reunion will benefit Alzheimer's research. You are invited

The Judgment

My first thought when these two cookbooks arrived in the mail? Well, this just isn’t a fair fight. 

First came Lunch at the Shop by Peter Miller, with its unadorned red cloth cover and lentil salad recipes inside. And then there was Huckleberry by Zoe Nathan, owner of Huckleberry Bakery and Café in Los Angeles, with its butter- and sugar-filled breakfast recipes, and its cover photo of a butter- and sugar-filled brioche that just cannot contain its buttery and sugary goodness, nor its blueberries, several of which have burst onto the table below. (I should note that Huckleberry does contain some non-breakfast recipes, such as beer-braised pork on toast with an egg on top. But even Zoe says that breakfast is where it all began for her.)

The battle would come down to this: Breakfast versus lunch. 

And to my unsophisticated palate, there’s no question who was David and who was Goliath.  

At first, it felt like giving my eight-year-old son a choice between playing his Skylanders: Giants video game and doing homework about quadrilaterals. I mean, how can you compete with breakfast? Breakfast is pure fun. Especially modern American breakfasts, which have somehow turned into early-morning desserts. All sweet and starchy, with optional grease on the side.  

This festival of hedonism is going up against lunch, the middle child of meals, a culinary Jan Brady. They're often utilitarian and unglamorous, which is the whole point of Peter Miller’s book: His tome is a defense of lunch, a manifesto to reclaim the mid-day meal as a pleasurable and important ritual. 

Could he convince me? I vowed to remain as objective as possible. 

I started with breakfast. Huckleberry is a big, gorgeous book with endorsements from celebrities (like Gwyneth Paltrow and, more bafflingly, Elijah Wood), and photos that are so close up you feel the Apple Cinnamon Crumble Muffin might poke you in the eye. 

Zoe is charming and down-to-earth -- and just a little bit frightening. In the foreword by her friend and protégé, Laurel Almerinda, you learn that she, in the frustrating, exhausting throes of opening a new restaurant, was known to “kick a new dent in the freezer, destroying another pair of kitchen clogs and disappearing into the office for a long while.”  

Even if she did re-emerge and calmy return to work at her station, I was glad she wasn't supervising my cooking. 

I started with the Chocolate Chunk Muffins, partly because it’s one of the easier recipes, and to put it politely, I’m not an experienced chef. I like eating food, reading about food, thinking about food. But I just don’t make food all that often. Turns out even my inexperience couldn’t ruin them. They were great, the bitter dark chocolate a wonderful counterpoint to all that sweetness. (I used 85% cacao, like a boss. My kids found it too bitter, but the grown-ups approved.) 

I also made Zoe’s cornbread, which was as melt-in-your-mouth moist as the shiny photograph promises it will be. She recommends folding in two cobs-worth of fresh kernels -- but only if the corn is in season. “If not, omit,” she commands. Even though I’m intimidated by Zoe and her clog-destroying ways, I ignored her advice and used out-of-season corn. It turned out okay, I think.  

But if this cookbook contest were purely about writing, Lunch at the Shop would win. The author, Peter Miller, who owns a design bookshop in Seattle and trained with French chef Maurice Thuillier, writes with a whimsical, lively, and just a bit mannered voice -- and I love it. Lentils, for instance, “are a noble assistant to many foods and a trusty backpack to many vegetables.” Chutney is “like a brightly colored shirt or scarf -- in both taste and color, it helps break up the routine of a lunch.” And the Vietnamese sandwich is a “brilliant example of overcoming the plainness of commercial bread with a complexity of sauces, marinades, seasonings, picklings, greens, and bits of meat. It is a colorful parade inside a very plain shell.” I don’t know much about Peter Miller, but I like to imagine that he wears a bow tie and rides his bike to work after putting a cuff clip on his corduroy pants. 

I also like his thesis -- that lunch is overlooked. He argues lunch has been reduced, in his words, to stand-up counters and take-out platters. We need to reclaim lunch, the “separation between the front of the day and the back, a narrow strip between stretches of work.” 

I made one of his lentil dishes, with onion, celery, tomatoes, and carrots. (Though, forgive me, Peter, I forgot to buy real carrots so I ended up using the bullet-like pre-cut baby carrots that have had their flavor chemically removed.) Still, that was some hearty vegetarian goodness. I also made his White Bean Soup and Broccoli Rabe, which I liked even better. Probably because I prefer white beans to noble assistants/trusty backpacks. 

And now I must make a big confession: I violated the spirit of the Peter Miller’s book by making and eating these dishes for dinner. I’m sorry. Work has been crazy. But at least I also violated the spirit of Zoe’s book by making my muffins at night as well. So it was even. 

Peter Miller’s recipes are good. His writing is lovely. His thesis is one I agree with, at least intellectually, even if I couldn’t pull it off in real life. But this cookbook contest is not just about the words, or the thesis -- it's also about how much each book makes you want to cook. How alluring each is. And oh that granulated sugar, that powdered sugar, those constant instructions to add even more sugar for sprinkling. I just can’t resist being drawn more toward Huckleberry, for the recipes. For the sugar. 

Sometimes Goliath wins. Sorry, lunch. 

And the winner is…

Huckleberry: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes From Our Kitchen

Huckleberry: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes From Our Kitchen

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Do you Agree? (54 comments)

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almost 2 years ago pandapotamus

This is tough, but I'm glad Huckleberry made it through!

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almost 2 years ago Thom Carter

Yes but I want both cookbooks!

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almost 2 years ago cookbookchick

The thing about the Piglet is that to be chosen by Amanda Hesser, et al, as one of the "Sweet Sixteen" out of the legion of cookbooks published in any given year, is already an honor. Honestly, as much as I love cookbooks, I would not have given Lunch ("disguised in red linen") a second glance were it not for that and for A J's high praise of Peter's writing. Now I, and I'm sure many others, are putting it on their "must buy" list. Yes, the Piglet IS good, clean fun, and pretty great publicity, too.

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almost 2 years ago Suzanne Levine

Oh, Kimberly, you said what I wanted to say before I derailed.

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almost 2 years ago kimberly clements

Here's the thing.... Peter Miller doesn't set out to tell us what to do, or give step by step how to do it. Truthfully, you make these recipes twice and they are in your brain & creativity-well. They stick in your mind and become part of your own repertoire. The food is good, tried and true. What Peter DOES do with this book is tell us a few stories, remind us to slow down just a bit, take something seemingly simple and mundane and find the opportunity and welcome inherent within it. How many cook books leave you inspired ? Peter Miller has thoughtfully brought into the light a simple ritual - lunch at the shop - which in the context of a busy workplace makes all the difference in the world. The Piglet is just good clean fun. But truth be told... I was rooting for David (a Goliath disguised in red linen).

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almost 2 years ago AGIRLANDAPIG

Going to grab Lunch at the Shop now!

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almost 2 years ago kpeck

I loved reading this review (for us non-pro-chefs, it was wonderfully down to earth)...and having read both books myself, I have to agree with the outcome - I swoon for Huckleberry and Zoe Nathan!

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almost 2 years ago Hilarybee

Huckleberry is one of my favorite, most used cookbooks in my kitchen- even though I've only had it since Christmas. I absolutely love the whole grain pancakes. They are on heavy weekend rotation at my house. The cheddar cheese in the recipe is a genius binder that makes the pancakes luscious but light. The dark chocolate loaf cake is a favorite, as are the brioche doughnuts. I don't find Zoe Nathan's baking recipes any more or less fussy than most baking books. Compared to some others in my collection- like Joanne Chang's Flour- it is a walk in the park. To me, Huckleberry is reminiscent to two other favorites- Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce and Rustic Fruit Desserts by Schrieber/Richardson. I'd highly recommend it to a baking enthusiast.

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almost 2 years ago Elizabeth George

What a well-written review! I was sad when it ended!

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almost 2 years ago Mulzee

I like this review because it still makes me want to still read both of the books equally. Definitely a hard choice!

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almost 2 years ago Suzanne Levine

Time has a wonderful way of calming things down and I thank you cbc for your comment. Of course I'm partial to my brother's book though I still can't understand the point of judging two books that don't have a whiff of anything in common. I was harsh but, damn, both of those authors deserved more.

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almost 2 years ago Katie

I just want to eat the cover of Huckleberry! But for the way I eat on a daily basis, I'm going to put Lunch at the Shop on hold with the library right after clicking "Add Comment." Thanks for a fun review!

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almost 2 years ago Suzanne Levine

It is difficult to forgive your admittedly cavalier attitude or respect your commitment to judging this two decidedly disparate books. I suspect that you read Lunch superficially which kept the spirit of the book at bay even though it is completely integral to the recipes. Your lax approach towards reviewing both books dishonors the authors' very hard work. I'm sorry that they ended up in your hands. Your approach trivialized the serious business of book writing.

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almost 2 years ago cookbookchick

Suzanne, I am stunned by your harsh and accusatory comments. If you read the other comments, you will see that Mr. Jacobs' review has convinced many, including me, to buy Lunch at the Shop. Of course you are free to express your opinion, but perhaps you should also have mentioned your apparent relation to Peter Miller.

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almost 2 years ago Sarah Simms

Most enjoyable Piglet review I've read yet!

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almost 2 years ago Kaybaker

As one who loves breakfast (and fabulous baked goods) at any hour I think Huckleberry deserves a spot on my bookshelf.

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almost 2 years ago jenniebgood

"...a culinary Jan Brady." Probably the most genius, hilarious metaphor I've heard in any Piglet review! I'm giggling at my desk-thank you for that review!

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almost 2 years ago Naomi Manygoats

A wonderful review! Have not heard of either book, the last year I have been intensely battling cancer reoccurrence.....so saying that, the Lunch one sounds lovely and healing. Giving up gluten, too many carbs, and sugar, otherwise, Huckleberry sounds wonderful!

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almost 2 years ago Katie Sytsma

This sounds like it might be the toughest match up yet. But butter is hard to beat.

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almost 2 years ago PieceOfLayerCake

PieceofLayerCake is a trusted source on baking.

If nothing....Huckleberry wins for the most alluring cover photo of all time (excluding Tartine, but I'm biased). I can't compare, because I haven't even heard of Lunch at the Shop, but for Huckleberry's pies alone...its a winner.

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almost 2 years ago BakerK

Two fabulous cookbooks! Congratulations to Zoe Nathan on a beautiful and inspirational baking book.