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The Washington Post Food section’s 1956 debut was announced with a headline declaring “Mrs. Homemaker, This Is for You!” Much has changed in the six-plus decades since, but demand for the recipes run in the paper remains high. For the first time they’ve been collected in a cookbook composed of reader favorites. We talk with editor Bonnie Benwick about how the section has evolved along with our tastes.
- Bonnie Benwick Deputy editor and recipe editor, Washington Post Food Section
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a project both 57 years and mere months in the making, The Washington Post's first cookbook, a collection of recipes for readers, many of them from readers, chosen by readers going way, way back in the archives to the year 1956. What did I say, almost half a century? No. I meant more than half a century. 1956 is when the food section made its debut with the headline, "Mrs. Homemaker, This is for You!"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWell, times have changed since then, but The Post's resolve to providing recipes that are easy, innovative and healthy seems only to have grown. Here to walk us through the pages is the editor of the project, Bonnie Benwick, deputy food editor and recipe editor for The Washington Post. She recently served as the food editor for "The Washington Post Cookbook: Readers' Favorite Recipes," the first cookbook published by the newspaper. I'm reaching behind me for it. It's heavy too. Bonnie, good to see you.
MS. BONNIE BENWICKHey.
NNAMDICooks across this region with binders full of yellow, sauce-splattered recipes they've pulled from the pages of the food section all want to know what the heck took so long?
BENWICKYou know, it's a very good question. I asked long-time food editor and food critic Phyllis Richman right before the project got started why she thought that was, and one of her reasons I'm not really gonna share with the public, but the other one was...
NNAMDIThat's the one we wanna hear.
BENWICKYou'll have to worm it out of me over the next few minutes.
NNAMDIOK. We'll get it.
BENWICKAnyway, mostly -- I think it's -- we think it's because the food editorship was kind of a five-year gig. Nobody was in it for a super long time. and they were also pretty darn busy. I mean, there weren't that many people on staff, and the food section used to be, and our older readers may remember this, you know, like 16, 18 pages. They published on -- first, they published on Thursdays, but then they were publishing on Wednesdays and Sundays. And that's enough to keep you busy without doing a cookbook, I think.
NNAMDIYes, we were not the originators of food Wednesday here on this broadcast. It started in the pages of The Washington Post. But if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. If you have a collection of recipes pulled from the pages of The Washington Post, tell us about your favorites, 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Bonnie, it's my understanding that the first food section editor, and this warms my heart...
NNAMDI...was a radio host. Tell us a bit about her and...
BENWICKI thought you might like that.
NNAMDI...tell us who the typical reader was when this debuted.
BENWICKWell, Eleanor Lee did, in fact, have a home -- she was a homemaker -- billed as a homemaker. And she had a radio show in D.C., so some wise editors at The Post decided, hey, she's got one of those audience bases. This was before Twitter and BlogVille. So they asked her to come on and be the editor. So, you know, what she did, really, looking -- it was sort of like spelunking, for me, through lots of microfiche and using our resources and that of the Library of Congress.
BENWICKI have to give props to Connie Carter over there in the food and science division. She was really so helpful on this project, and she's -- she just knows everything. She knows...
NNAMDIWho was the typical reader when this debuted?
BENWICKThey were, in fact, homemakers. They were women. When food started appearing before it was its own discreet section, when it started appearing in The Washington Post, it was in the style section which, of course, was labeled for and about women. And I would say a lot of the recipes, you know, was a lot of entertaining recipes.
BENWICKSomebody, you know, a foreign officers wife, a diplomats wife would have a luncheon. They would present the menu as they made it. They would even talk about the kind of trays that you would use, table settings and flowers to put on the table, very much all about entertaining...
NNAMDIIs there such a thing today as a typical reader?
BENWICKI don't know if there's a typical reader who's giving a lot of luncheons, which is apparently what a lot of the recipes were. But I would say from our feedback, the typical reader of the food section is -- it's a much broader base. We have men and women. We have young people and old. We've got people who are looking for quick recipes, people who are looking for healthful and vegetarian recipes.
BENWICKWe're trying to take care of that with separate columns in the section, plus we try to keep people up on food politics and sustainability, on newest cookbooks, on -- we even have a barbecue columnist. So I don't know too many papers in the country who do that.
NNAMDIA barbecue columnist. Our guest is Bonnie Benwick. She's the deputy food editor and recipe editor for The Washington Post who served as editor for "The Washington Post Cookbook: Readers' Favorite Recipes," the one we have here in studio. It's the first cookbook published by the paper. If you have questions or comments -- what changes have you noticed in the food section of The Post over the decades? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIThe last time you were here, Bonnie, we talked about the sense of community around food blogs and what that sense of community can create. Were food sections in newspapers generally -- and maybe in The Post in particular -- a kind of precursor to that phenomenon?
BENWICKAbsolutely. I mean, there were recipe contests that were regularly held -- at least there were announcements of them that I looked at in old food sections of The Post when I was doing the research. Even now, I think there are communities that are developed through people talking to each other and saying, oh, I, you know, I look at The Post every week. I get recipes for it, or they write in and they say, I had this party and I had people over and I made Post recipes and it was great.
BENWICKThe people -- when I went about doing the book, I got reader recommendations, as the title suggests, and a lot of people had said, you know, I've been making this recipe for 25 years, and you have to really put it in the book, and it's not in your online database, and so therefore, you've got to get it in there so...
NNAMDIHere's an indication of who the readers were on this section, I guess, at a previous time. Well, let's hear from Elizabeth in Springfield, Va. Elizabeth, tell the story.
ELIZABETHOh, hi. I love your show, Kojo, and I'm looking forward to the cookbook. And about 10 years ago, I got a recipe from The Washington Post for man-catcher brownies and (unintelligible) made them, had tinkered with the recipe until basically they're the perfect brownie. And they really are. They're fudgy in the middle, and the crust is like super thick and wonderful. They're made -- I would like to say I've shared the recipe with a lot of people, but I haven't. I kept it a secret and (unintelligible) my name all the time.
NNAMDIWell, to show how the more things change, the more things stay the same, that man-catcher brownie is one o f the recipes featured in "The Washington Post Cookbook." Is it not, Bonnie?
BENWICKIt is. I think probably four readers wrote in and said you have to put it in there. And that just so happens to be developed by Leigh Lambert, who was an editorial assistant in the food section at the time. She had -- was working on a master's in gastronomy online. She always liked to bake. She had worked on pastry kitchens. And there's a disturbing amount, as you know, Elizabeth, of sugar and eggs in that recipe, but it's fantastic. And I like to try to treat myself by cutting them into very small pieces.
BENWICKBut it's a no-fail recipe. And as a matter of fact, Leigh, who lives in Takoma Park, had gone on to make something of a cottage industry of them. She's got a business called Naughty Bits Brownies, and she's riffed on that recipe a few times, and I think it was in Oscar swag bags a couple of years ago, really sort of got out there.
NNAMDIElizabeth, thank you very much for your call. One of the things you talked about, how much you like this recipe, all of the recipes in this book are tried and tasted, aren't they, all of the recipes the Post does, features, correct?
BENWICKThis is correct.
NNAMDIThe other is where or precisely from whom do the recipes that appear in this book come from?
BENWICKWell, thanks for linking to that video online about the book that Joe and I did. It's on your website.
BENWICKThere you go. So I would say, in this collection, probably 40 percent of them come from readers or from contributors who lived in Washington and used to contribute as freelancers or columnists to The Washington Post. The rest are from chefs. They're from cookbooks. I had to get permission to run them. There's a really great, very quick recipe from Ina Garten, the "Barefoot Contessa," for her mustard-roasted fish.
BENWICKAnd that was something that I had run as "Dinner in Minutes," but she gave us permission to use because it's just such a great recipe. I mean, how could we not? And, again, because people had asked for it many times.
NNAMDITwice a year, the Post runs a selection of recipes that are among its most popular. Since it's summer, let's talk Top Tomato.
NNAMDIHow did that contest come to be, and why do you think it's so popular?
BENWICKOh, it's my favorite, my baby. Joe agreed. You know, he's always up for things that are fun. I think he's brought a lot of fun to the food section, and I'm speaking of Joe Yonan, of course, the current editor.
BENWICKSo I love tomatoes, and everybody has a lot of them in the summer, and what are you gonna do with them? So people sent in -- I think the first year we got close to 400 recipes, and every year we get several hundred entries. We ran a full section of them in August. I think this August, it's gonna run on the 14th, if I remember correctly. I'll check that before we're off the air. But we'll put a notice in the paper soon, and people will send in.
BENWICKWe try to tell people, you know, it's not just another tomato sauce. We're looking for something a little out of the box. And the recipe that made it into the book, again, that several readers wrote in to tell us had to be there was the winner from 2011. It's a -- she calls it tomato kimchi-chi. She used to live in the Washington area, and now she lives in the Norfolk area, I think. But it's got this great blend of Asian flavors.
BENWICKIt has sesame seeds and jicama, daikon radish, a little bit of hot stuff, but you could use it as a condiment. You could eat it on a shoe. I mean, it's really great stuff.
NNAMDIDoes this that I'm now consuming on the air have anything to do with the Top Tomato contest?
BENWICKIt doesn't. That's actually icy-spicy watermelon soup. That's a recipe...
BENWICKYeah. That's a recipe created by Lisa Cherkasky, who's a local food stylist. You might have had her on the show. It's watermelon juice and watermelon, jalapeno, jicama, a little bit of salt, a little bit of red wine vinegar. Very, very simple, takes about 15 minutes to make, as long as it takes you to hack into a watermelon.
NNAMDII haven't chewed on it yet. That's why I didn't realize it was watermelon, but it is delicious. We're gonna be taking a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. The number is 800-433-8850. What do you turn to the food section for today? Recipes? News features? Tell us what you enjoy most and if there's anything you might like to see more of. 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDI...with Bonnie Benwick. She's deputy food editor and recipe editor for The Washington Post. She recently served as the editor for "The Washington Post Cookbook: Readers' Favorite Recipes," the first cookbook published by the paper. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. We talked about the Top Tomato contest. And even more popular, it would appear, is the holiday cookie section, but one could not help noticing that there's barely a cookie to be found in this cookbook. Might there be a cookie book in your future?
BENWICKAh, you've figured it out.
NNAMDIIs that what you're gonna do?
BENWICKYeah. I had some fantasy. I mean, the -- you know, we were -- the publisher sort of set the size of the book. I think I had probably twice as many recipes. There are about 173 in there now, but they didn't all fit. So a holiday -- we could do a holiday book. We could do -- definitely do a cookie book. The cookie issue, which we -- which former food editor Judy Havemann started in 2005, we do every December, and it quickly just became, again, a full issue of cookies.
BENWICKI think we sort of shoot for 25 recipes, but we might have a few more online every year. And there's usually a cookie project, something sort of, I would say, three-dimensional, but cookies are three-dimensional, something that sort of stands by itself that's made of cookies. People have come up with some really lovely, inventive things. So, yeah. I'm hoping since this book is also on e-book that -- and now we've sort of cracked the code -- that we could do an e-book on cookies, separate book on cookies. I'm all for it.
NNAMDIWell, one kind of cookie that did make it is also the oldest recipe in the collection. What exactly is a Filbert fruit delight?
BENWICKI love that recipe. It's a -- again, it takes about 10 minutes. It's a no-bake recipe that Eleanor Lee put in there, dated from 1956, and I was just so thrilled to see it. It's a -- it's basically fruit and nuts, so moist. You sort of roll it together, and then roll it in confectionary sugar. They can be made ahead of time and sort of re-sugared, but they're sort of fruity and delightful, a nice bite, easy to do. You know, I was happy to put them in there, but someone, of course, a reader, had brought them to my attention.
NNAMDII understand another deceptively easy treat that's a favorite comes from Chef Michel Richard, and in this case, appearances can be deceiving too.
BENWICKChocolate grapes. They look like chocolate truffles, if you look at the picture in the book, and they're so great. They were in his cookbook. And I think when we wrote about his cookbook, that might have been from 2006 or 2008. I can't remember. You know, Joe and I, you know, we made them 'cause we test all the recipes, and we were -- it was the sort of OMG moment. And then Joe and I proceeded to make them when we would appear at, you know, International Food Festival in the Reagan Building.
BENWICKAnd everybody sort of -- it's just great. You know, you're getting some chocolate. You're not feeling guilty about it. You can freeze them. They really pop, and they're crisp and clean-tasting, and what's not to like?
NNAMDI800-433-8850. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you haven't yet, give us a call now at 800-433-8850, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is Joan in Washington, D.C. Joan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOANHi. I live in Washington, D.C., and I'm a member of an eight-person sewing group that's been meeting for about, oh, 29 years. So we've raised our children together, and the, you know, the whole -- but the one thing we do is we meet at 10. So we serve breakfast, and then we serve lunch. And the other members of the group are, almost to a person, really fabulous cooks. I mean, they've been all over the world, and they, you know, they can do the perfect roasted chicken, and they can bake their own bread and whatever. And then there is me.
JOANAnd I rely on The Washington Post. And so I watch the food section, and when there's a page that comes out that looks like everything on it is something I might possibly be able to do with some oohs and ahhs mixed in, I'll grab it. So this Saturday is my turn. And I'm gonna do The Washington Post's May 15 page with some exceptions. I don't think there's a pea and lettuce soup that goes on and on. I don't know if I'm gonna have time to do that.
BENWICKGoes on and on. I like that.
JOANBut there is this linguine with roasted puttanesca sauce, spinach and pine nuts. I just thought -- I think that I'll enjoy that. And it didn't look like it was gonna be over my head. And instead of doing the peach pie, I think I'm gonna do a cobbler. And I'll probably do the garlic oregano Caesar salad maybe without the chicken.
BENWICKI love that. I love that you're actually cooking like pages worth of stuff. And I have to tell you pea and lettuce soup doesn't really go on. I mean, this is something -- I feel like it's probably one of my greater flaws as a recipe editor. I tend to sort of overwrite the recipe directions just to make sure that it's really clear that you're -- you'll be able to make it and that you won't have questions.
BENWICKWe used to get -- over the years and since I started in food in 2004, we used to get a lot more emails like, what did you mean by this, and how long do I do that? So I sort of edit defensively. I put all that information in there, but it makes the recipe look longer. So I'm guilty, I raise my hand, but I'm trying to talk you through it.
BENWICKSo the pea and lettuce soup is delightful. One of the things that I like the best about that recipe was because -- was the fact that she -- the recipe developer, who's a cookbook author for Maine, Kathy Gunst, uses -- she makes a broth. Like the next time you have to make vegetable broth, all she does is after she shell the peas, she uses the pea pods, she simmers them, and she makes like this lovely light green pea broth, which is the basis of that soup. It's a great idea. And it's something, you know, you feel like you're sort of using all parts of the vegetable that way.
BENWICKSo it's sort of like -- I mean, it's just like making a shrimp broth, and there's literally nothing else in it. You could put an onion in it if you wanted to. But I think this summer, I'm gonna use that as a vegetable broth base when I have to do stuff like that.
JOANThat's great. Well, that -- and that leads to me a question. I recently, you know, tried out a juicing company. And it occurred to me that I -- a friend of mine who have juicers end up with all of this, you know, dry sort of green stuff. Do you -- have you used that to make soup?
BENWICKI haven't. I've used it -- I've sort of used it as an infusing thing, but I strain it out. Sometimes I'll put it in a, you know, cheesecloth, you know, wrapped up in cheesecloth or something because there's some more flavor there. There's -- well, there is just so many things. We could probably do a whole section sometime on things that you can use, repurposing all parts of vegetables, like people are cooking with all parts of the animals these days but...
NNAMDIBonnie Benwick getting new ideas even though she is in the middle of the broadcast. Joan, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Decoyise in Washington, D.C. You're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Decoyise. Are you there?
DECOYISE BROWNYes. We're here.
BENWICKOh, it's Decoyise. Hi.
NNAMDIHow do you know it was Decoyise and not Decoyise?
NNAMDIHuh. Thank you, Decoyise.
BENWICKAw. Just -- she just so happen to have put -- have done the coconut cake recipe, which is in the book. She won a Make-Me-Wanna-Shout Challenge two years ago?
BENWICKOr almost three years ago, I guess now, you know, which was just a great cake. So, of course, once it was pointed out to me, I made a beeline out to her house and got her story. And she baked a couple of, you know, she baked a great chocolate cake, showed us how she makes her coconut cake. How you been?
NNAMDISo Decoyise said -- you said we are here. Who is with you?
BROWNMy friend Brenda who entered me into the coconut cake challenge.
NNAMDIAhh, I see, which you eventually won. And so you are the Make-Me-Wanna-Shout coconut cake recipe?
NNAMDIWhy does it make you wanna shout?
BROWNWell, that was the name of the contest.
NNAMDIOh, I see.
BROWNAnd I think they are just kind of something that makes you so happy. When you eat it, you wanna shout.
NNAMDIOh, great. Great. But, Decoyise, thank you so much for sharing that with us. And since you mentioned coconut, coconut is one of the key ingredients in the recipe or the photo featured on the cover of this book. Tell us what that is.
BENWICKThat is a mussel and shrimp broth, a mussel and shrimp soup with a coconut broth. And it's really delightful. It's got, you know, cilantro. And again, it's one of the sort of easy recipes.
NNAMDICoconut lime broth.
BENWICKYeah. And it has lemon grass in it. You know, there's a tiny little funny story about that. My son lives in Chicago, and he graduated with an illustrator degree, so he's sort of into graphic design. And he took a look -- when I send him a picture of the book cover a long time ago, he took a look at it and instead of saying how great the food was, he said, is that our spoon?
BENWICKBecause we do the food styling a lot of it in the studio. And I have to give a shout out to Deb Lindsey who took a lot of pictures that were in the book. I work with her every other week, and we take pictures of food, and we're, you know, trying to do our best with the fairly small studio, but she does a great job.
NNAMDILet's talk about one of your favorite dishes because it takes a little longer than the other things we've been discussing. But you note that it's worth the time and care that goes into it, which is why I understand why you like it so much. Is it the coconut cake with the lemon and cream cheese frosting?
BENWICKThat's her cake.
NNAMDIThat's Decoyise's cake?
BENWICKYup. It's a two-page recipe. So, of course, it looks daunting. And like dummies, we didn't put a picture of her cake in the book. And we should have done that, too, because if you just took a look at it, you'd really wanna make it. So I'm hoping everybody will.
BENWICKIt's the ultimate coconut cake. It really is.
NNAMDIDecoyise, well, hoping to see you hanging on the studio sometime in the future with that cake. Thank you very much for your call.
BROWNYou're welcome. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnother, perhaps -- and you, too, Brenda. Another, perhaps, unique recipe that dates to the early '70s is a breakfast dish with a decidedly atypical ingredient for that time of day. What's the story behind the beer omelets?
BENWICKThis was a recipe from Phyllis Richman's tenure. In the course of writing a story about some people who vacation and make food, the -- one of the men in the household woke up with kind of a hangover, I would say, and he was sort of looking for something to make an omelet with. Normally, I guess he would have used a little spot of milk or cream, but he didn't have that around.
NNAMDIOh, hair of the dog, baby.
BENWICKAbsolutely. And, you know, it -- I mean, it totally works. There's a -- just a little bit of tang, you can't really taste it. And I, you know, hats off to the ingenuity of home cooks everywhere.
NNAMDINot every paper or cookbook author test their recipes. How long has The Post been doing it? And I asked that question earlier but we had -- have a caller on the line, Sharon, who I won't be able to get to but who wants to know how you test the recipes, who does it, how many times.
BENWICKThose are all good questions. I'll try to be quick. We have volunteer testers. There is no -- according to popular belief, there is no formal test kitchen at The Washington Post. There is a kitchen upstairs that we use when, you know, big chefs come to town, so we have a nice place to work with them. But we rely on volunteer testers.
BENWICKAnd I've got people -- right now, I've got as many people outside the building as I do working inside The Washington Post. We reimburse for ingredients. They make the dish a lot of times. What we're shooting in the studio is, in fact, what the testers have made. And so in that way, they're sort -- the recipes are tested in the home kitchen. And so that's good for us. And sometimes, you know, it's tested for efficacy.
NNAMDIAfraid we're out of time. What am I testing here?
BENWICKYou are testing -- tasting a sort of an AU certified version of the pisco punch, which is really -- it's cool and delicious. Isn't it?
NNAMDIAlso to be found in the "Washington Post Cookbook." Bonnie Benwick is the deputy food and recipe editor for The Washington Post. She is editor of the aforementioned "Washington Post Cookbook: Readers' Favorite Recipes." It's the first cookbook published by the newspaper. But if Bonnie has her way, there'll be more. Thank you.
BENWICKThank you. Thanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you so much for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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