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.