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The Piglet2015 / Quarterfinal Round, 2015

Smashing Plates vs. Buvette

Smashing Plates

Maria Elia

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Buvette

Jody Williams

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Judged by: John T. Edge

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John T. Edge has served as director since the 1999 founding of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He holds an M.A. in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and an M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. A columnist for Garden & Gun and Oxford American, Edge wrote the "United Tastes" column for the New York Times for three years. Winner of the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation, he serves as a faculty member for the M.F.A. Program in Narrative Nonfiction at The University of Georgia and as an Editor in Residence at Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, Tennessee. Now at work on The Potlikker Papers, a history of the modern South told through food, Edge has written or edited more than a dozen books.

The Judgment

I blurb a lot of books. Because I like them. Because smart friends ask nicely. Because, in all honesty, when my name has not been recently blazoned on a new book, I miss seeing my name on a new book, and I recognize that, like showing my face on television, it’s one key to remaining part of the conversation. 

Writing short and pithy bursts of praise is tricky business. Lend your name too freely, or render praise too purple, and you earn the label blurb whore. In the circles of writer hell, that mark is one declination above hack and relies on many of the same cheats, like encroaching the smartly alliterative line and abusing the exclamation. 

The mailman recently dropped two books at my door: Smashing Plates, a queer, bluish-black thing, with a knotty octopus on the cover and a blurb from Ferran Adrià starburst at bottom-right. And Buvette, a red-spined text at once prim and sexy, chocked with Italian-French bistro recipes by Jody Williams, chef of the eponymous New York City restaurant. 

Like the restaurant, Buvette the book is alluring. Witness Williams’s blue cheese-topped salsify in Cabernet-and-honey syrup. And her carrots that loll in a sherry vinegar reduction. Witness the mustard- and rosemary-perfumed gougères that, as Williams promises, fall flat on their faces. 

But it took a second and then a third read before my wife, Blair, and I gave ourselves over to Buvette’s charms: Blair baked a loaf of schiacciata bread that turned out just like the pretty picture in the book. And then she roasted a fennel-perfumed chicken that gave her the confidence to roast more chickens. 

The recipes in Buvette were clear. The dishes were delicious. The problem was my prejudices: No matter how good the recipes were, no matter how simple the instructions for the Orange and Campari Marmalade read, no matter how pleasantly bittersweet the results tasted, I’ve grown weary of Italian-French mashups that reinforce American obeisance to the so-called grand cuisines. 

Smashing Plates, on the other hand, took me places I’ve never been. Like small town, minor island Greece. And a taverna in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus. What’s more, the book includes a recipe for Sesame & Peanut Brittle Ice Cream that I have yet to make but patiently awaits my summertime attentions. 

Some of the Smashing Plates appeal is exotic promise. Some of it is sensual. Read Maria Elia’s homage to her forebears and you get the sense that, if you follow her recipes, you’ll soon be at a table with her family, scarfing Zucchini-Coated Calamari and shrimp swaddled in ouzo mayonnaise. (Forgive me, I’ve already slipped into blurb speak.) 

For those reasons, I have chosen Greek mystery over the French-Italian ethic of Buvette. In service to The Piglet and its peoples, I whore today for Smashing Plates by Maria Elia.

Instead of documenting the meals my family has cooked from Smashing Plates -- like the crazy-simple dish of mashed potatoes with kalamata olives that has become my preferred side when grilling steaks for our newly omnivorous 13-year-old son, and the Parsnip Skordalia that redeemed a recent Sunday night dinner of grocery store rotisserie chicken -- I have conceived three blurbs, ready to replace Adrià on the paperback edition.  

In sum, they reflect my impressions of the book and its attributes. In abstract, they reflect the bloviate state of back-of-the jacket copy, circa right this hot minute: 

1) How to tenderize an octopus by hurling it against a rock (page 80). How to pickle a chicken and tuck it beneath a skein of olive oil and keep it for a week (page 54). How to craft halloumi cheese from goat’s milk and why it tastes better confettied with dried mint (page 34). How to avoid the sharp thorns of a caper bush, and how to vicariously pickle a caper leaf plucked from said bush (page 153). Read this book, follow these recipes, and those skills will be yours. 

2) Greeks evidently have a thing for watermelon. You will too after you make Maria Elia’s chile-roasted feta, served hot on a bed of cold watermelon. Or her scallops with watermelon, drenched in raisin oregano dressing, capped with horseshoes of soutzouki. 

3) Maria Ellia slanders moussaka. Specifically, she slanders the mousakka depicted in “photographs outside touristy Greek restaurants, which often produce poor, greasy versions.” Until I tried her Moussaka-Stuffed Tomatoes, that’s all I knew. When I made that recipe in the dead of winter, the beefsteak tomatoes I lugged home from our local big box had the texture of balsa. No matter. The results were far from greasy and close to genius. 

And the winner is…

Smashing Plates

Smashing Plates

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Do you Agree? (21 comments)

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over 1 year ago hobbit2nd

Smashing Plates is one of my favs in the Piglet - glad it won this round.

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almost 2 years ago Jess

It sounds like both of these books are wonderful, but I'm so disappointed to see this judge admit to a personal bias against an entire culture and cuisine. Perhaps he wasn't the best person to judge a book about a cuisine he admittedly is "tired" of? I could do with less talk about the judge himself and more about the actual recipes- how easy and accurate were they? How creative were they? That's more interesting and related to the topic at hand than his desire to remain relevant. I really expected more from Food52 here.

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almost 2 years ago Zelda

Brave of you to admit to your wife lacking confidence to roast a chicken, but...really???

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almost 2 years ago Zelda

Mr Edge certainly makes a very enticing case for Smashing Plates. Like the best French, Italian or Spanish peasant cuisine, the appeal of Greek food lies in great produce that requires only minimal interference to create delicious dishes. Ironically, that dependance on seasonality and freshness is often an obstacle to cooking Greek food at home, unless I find myself on holiday by the sea, with access to freshly caught squid, octopus or line caught fish. My copy of Vefa's Kitchen remains pristine. This one does look very tempting, though. Thanks for a great review.

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almost 2 years ago pandapotamus

So good!

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almost 2 years ago Joan Osborne

Delightful review. Gotta check out Smashing Plates.

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almost 2 years ago klrcon

A well done review that actually made me want to read both books!

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almost 2 years ago crazyasitsounds

This is a highly entertaining review! I confess I don't have any experience cooking Greek food. This book seems like the place to start.

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almost 2 years ago Naomi Manygoats

Ok I must buy Smashing Plates, not to abuse a poor octopus, but for the moussaka.......yum! I love Greek food too, we cook it a lot!

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almost 2 years ago sexyLAMBCHOPx

Chops is a trusted home cook.

Greek food reigns supreme. Cant wait to check out the book.

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almost 2 years ago Tanya

I love Greek food, and Smashing Plates (love the name) sounds like a great place to start cooking Greek at home

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almost 2 years ago chels

All of these cookbooks being reviewed truly sound like the most wonderful cookbooks...

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almost 2 years ago M Stuart Itter

Its true that coverage of the French/Italian food concept is everywhere. The thing I liked about Jody William's book was her insight into how to eat and live well without a lot of the rigamarole of the French/Italian mind set: a wonderful egg in the morning, a quirky risotto for lunch. But, you can make the same argument about the coverage of cooking from every little town in the world. I am buried in books, all used to the point of falling apart, from Southeast Asia, China, India, Turkey, from Mexico and Argentina, from...from. Me, I will take the insights into a civilized way of eating from Buvette, than still more recipes from the nooks and crannies of the world. John Edge's world of southern cooking is in its prime now. That is where I will go next for something well done and different.

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almost 2 years ago eliza_z

all these great reviews of Smashing Plates - it's been added to my cookbook wishlist!

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almost 2 years ago cookbookchick

Yassou, John T. Edge!

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almost 2 years ago healthierkitchen

this book is the one that I knew least about coming in and am wanting the most!

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almost 2 years ago GinaP

I predict Smashing Plates wins it all! (I not-so-secretly hope so). I don't even have the book yet but from the reviews, and what I'd heard pre-Piglet, it's a gem
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almost 2 years ago Nicole B-L

Great review to elicit curiosity about Greek cuisine, which I feel is too often pushed aside to make room for other Mediterranean options. Can't wait to read the book.

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almost 2 years ago dusty516

It's a fantastic book. I bought it last summer and fell in love with it; it's brilliant and imaginative Greek cooking--heady stuff for a culture that is so mired in tradition (full disclosure: my partner is Greek and goes into fits whenever I suggest playing with classic dishes. That said, even he likes this book!).

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almost 2 years ago Victoria Carr

Wow. I have to say I love Buvette, the place, I love Buvette, the cookbook, and I love Jody Williams' meatballs so much I would marry them if I could. I have trekked around the City to all the restaurants where she left them on the menu when she moved on. I have now made them at home since she so generously passed the recipe on in Buvette, which I have and would recommend as an addition to anyone's library, but I am adding Smashing Plates to Flavor Flours and Fancy Desserts as books to add to my own library. Smashing Plates may end up this year's PIGLET. Let's see.