PW: All of the 250 recipes in The New York Times Seafood Cookbook were previously published in the New York Times. How did you go about selecting them?
Florence Fabricant: I guess it helps to be a pack rat. I have the Dining and Living sections going back more than 10 years. I went through them section by section, starting with the most recent, and marked down the page numbers, names and dates of recipes. I culled close to 1,000 entries. Then I eliminated recipes that were taken from other cookbooks, and I was down to about 700 recipes. Then what I did was make a list of all the varieties of fish and seafood I felt should be covered. I looked at them from a standpoint of balance and eliminated duplication and anything hugely complicated. That brought me down to about 400 recipes. Next [New York Times editorial director] Mike Levitas's assistant stepped into the breach and I gave her the list of 400 and she put them all on a disk and printed them all out. With that in hand, I was able to start shuffling them and really looking at them. It was really largely organizational.
PW: What was the next step?
FF: I was faced with inconsistency in the recipes, too. One example: at one time they decided that references within a list of ingredients to a quantity of water would be eliminated, mostly for space reasons, but there were recipes that had water listed. It was a lot of nitpicky stuff. I corrected the recipes in hard copy, then enlisted the help of a couple of copyeditors here on our style desk and paid them to enter the changes I'd made. From there I started to really prepare the book, deciding the order of things and looking at blocks of text that appeared with the recipes but had to be edited down. You couldn't run 2,500 words on salmon and four pages later 2,500 words on shad.
PW: That sounds like an enormous project.
FF: It really took over my dining room table. It was also frustrating. Trying to work with Times past was not as effective as I hoped it would be. I wound up with piles and piles of newspapers. I felt like the Collier brothers.
PW: What did the selection process teach you, historically speaking, about American fish consumption?
FF: It's changed a lot. The number of varieties that were the subject of articles and recipes has vastly increased in recent years. There's a growing emphasis on wild versus farmed salmon, and wild striped bass is back. Shellfish like langoustines, razor clams and cuttlefish you couldn't buy anywhere, and now you can. Also, if you go back to the late 1980s, most of the herbs are dried except for parsley and dill. There was a moment when balsamic vinegar burst onto the scene. And there was a lot of butter in the past and, coming full circle, butter is back.
PW: Do you have a favorite among the recipes?
FF: There are a few recipes in the book that I make all the time. The one for clams on the half shell broiled with scallions and bacon is a classic in my house. It was part of a big clam round-up that I did, in the course of which I learned how to open clams. It was a revelation. I think my instructions on how to open a clam are better than any you've ever seen.