Cook Fight pits long-time New York Times food writers Kim Severson and Julia Moskin against each other. They’ve been vying each other for recipe dominance for years, each attempting to outdo the other in competitions ranging from a Thanksgiving cook-off to a budget meal challenge.
“This isn’t some macho throw down,” Moskin told PW. In fact, Severson and Moskin are the best of friends, rather like an old married couple that know each other’s strengths and weaknesses as well as they do their own. Their skills as writers and cooks shine through Cook Fight’s collection of essays and recipes, making this book just as enjoyable to read as it is to cook from.
Severson and Moskin recently shared their thoughts with PW on everything from friendship to Frank Bruni to pho.
For most of us, fighting in the kitchen usually results in an upset stomach or seething hatred of the other person. Is that the case with you two?
KS: No! Have we ever annoyed each other?
JM: No. The one time we did have a fight it wasn’t even over food.
KS: That’s right. I just got all sort of Italian, like, “You’ve got to have my back at all costs.” It was all about friendship.
JM: The fight construct [of the book] is sort of playful and I hope people don’t think this is like Death Match.
KS: It’s like a good debate more than actual fighting. Unless you think I’m wrong, Julia. Tell me!
JM: No, and it really wasn’t fighting. It was more that we had competing ideas. And competing instincts and competing notions. And just a fair amount of snark.
You come from markedly different backgrounds, yet have become very close —“work wives,” as you put it. What drew you together?
KS: We got thrown into the [New York Times] Dining section. Julia was already there and I came in from San Francisco. We were sitting close to each other, and here we were, two people who shared this love of cooking and food.
JM: There’s a little bit of a foxhole mentality in the dining section, like we all need to stick together. Frank Bruni was sitting between us, and he was the restaurant critic and —he would say this himself—he was not much of a cook. He wasn’t all that interested in all these endless conversations that Kim and I would have about lasagna. He was not among the family of people who get that you can talk about lasagna for 48 hours without stopping. That’s what brought us together. We would just stick our heads up over the cubicle. Also, Kim had all these experiences I hadn’t had, like eating at Ruby Tuesday’s.
KS: Julia had never actually been to a suburb before! She was fascinated by all things suburb.
JM: And she was raised in the suburbs. And in the Midwest. And she has the Italian mother thing. I very much am born and raised in Manhattan, and named after Julia Child. My parents are great cooks but they learned to cook from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. We had very different spheres of information and it was both helpful and also at times, totally mystifying to find out what the other person knew and didn’t know.
KS: I needed Julia to help translate New York for me. I remember my parents were coming and I was going to go pick them up at the airport. She just looked at me like I was crazy and said: ‘You’re going to pick them up? No, no, no. This is not what you do. You get a car service.”
JM: Right! Who does that?
KS: I was also fascinated by those super-sugar-y nut carts because they always smelled so good to me when I came and visited. She would just shake her head at me and say “Those are horrible, but go ahead.” But she also showed me that the dirty water hot dog—the street hot dog—is a good thing. She kept me from being such a rube on street food in New York. The other great thing about Julia is she knows the history of every restaurant, every chef and which dish came from where.
JM: Which is really annoying for most people. I walk down the street and I’m like “In 1987 there was a restaurant there that served risotto.”
KS: I couldn’t get enough. It was like being with the popular girl in New York.
Each of you brings a different style and approach to cooking. What do you admire from the other’s skill set?
JM: I think my main talent is I like to do a lot of research and I like to steal recipes from other people that I think are very good. I have a nose for a good recipe. Whereas Kim is actually likely to be out there cooking and testing and trying new things.
She put a recipe for pho as one of her recipes in the book and I thought, ‘Well that’s completely insane. Who would make that at home?’ Well, you know what? People do! People are really curious. And as we know from our work as food writers, young people are really branching out. I tend to be really too tame and Kim tends to be a little more out there.
KS: The point you make, and I think it’s true, is that the kids today, they can make kimchee at home but they can’t make a dinner for people. They can’t just whip up a nice little dinner out of something they have in the ‘fridge. People have great cooking skills but they don’t know how to cook. We’re not trying to teach people to cook, but we are trying to show them how to put things together in a way that is not too tricky or challenging. We just want to get a good dinner on the table most of the time.
JM: These are not things that we learned because we have some special access to chefs—although I think our editor was a little disappointed about that—these are really just things that we learned from each other, that we learned from our moms, that we picked up from cookbooks. The fact is that while we were working on this cookbook, we were both working these sort of insane jobs. We both have small children and partners and parents, and this cookbook is a document of those years and of a life that sometimes seems unmanageable. We used each other and bounced our lives off each other in a way that produced this book.
It seems the take away from this book is that it’s worth taking the time to cook and eat well. Why does good food matter to you?
KS: I think that we learn everything at the table. You learn how to share. You learn how to leave something nice on the platter for the next person. All of us has that heartfelt need to nourish ourselves and when you do it with someone else you build community. I don’t drink any more so I have to get my pleasure where I can, and there’s just something special about sharing something delicious with someone. There is just no better way to build a bond with someone.
JM: And also, we’re both mothers and read all the research. There’s that pressure about the family dinner and ultimately it’s important to both of us that we convey that when you’re reasonably good at cooking—and you don’t have to be great at it—it is fun.
What do you say to the person who wants to eat better, but who is afraid of boiling water?
JM: What Laurie Colwin said: Start small. Start with one thing. Start with beef stew. Get a recipe from someone that you trust. Then follow the recipe. That’s a big place where people go crazy. Sometimes people get overly ambitious. Start small. It can be a great simple dish. You don’t have to run around putting cinnamon in it and wowing people with your knowledge of the chipotle. Start with the basics.
What would be your desert island meal from the other person’s repertoire of foods?
JM (to KS): Gingersnaps are not a meal. [The book features a recipe for otherwordly bacon-fat gingersnaps.]
KS: I’m not choosing the damn gingersnaps! I still come back to that tomato soup that you made, and your warm gougere. Those are two beautiful things. She’s really got this mac ‘n’ cheese thing down, too. And these brown butter shortbread that I made the other day are really super-great. And then also the snappy green beans with the garlic and ginger. I never really liked the caramelized corn thing as much as you did -- it’s okay -- but those frickin’ corn fritters. She has really good corn fritters.
JM: The scalloped tomatoes definitely. And her pork braised in milk and cream, which raised all my weird ancestral kosher hackles. It just sounded so strange and it’s so good. I don’t know if I told you this Kim, but my sister made it the other night and…
KS: Did she love it?
JM: She told me “I’m on Team Kim.” I told her she can like one of your dishes, but she can’t be on Team Kim. Oh, and that ginger cake recipe is excellent. That would make me happy. That is my desert island meal.