FEATURE

Supper Club

New York Times food writer Melissa Clark '90BC, '94SOA invites everyone to the table.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Summer 2017
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Photographs © 2017 by Eric Wolfinger. From “Dinner,” Published by Clarkson Potter, an Imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.

It’s a Tuesday morning at Brooklyn’s Runner & Stone bakery, and Melissa Clark ’90BC, ’94SOA is in line, holding court. 

A layer of fog hovers over the gritty Gowanus Canal nearby, but the bakery is airy and warm. Clark, like a cat, has found the sunniest table, and she’s placed her order — a buckwheat baguette, extra butter, and a latte with plenty of sugar. Now she’s chatting up the other customers, selling them on the surprisingly nutty texture of the buckwheat and the fact that the bakery uses rich European butter. She talks quickly and emphatically, and by the time the other customers have reached the cash register, they’re transfixed by this preternaturally cheerful woman with the broad smile and the mane of red hair. Many abandon their original orders and decide to mimic Clark’s.

“I can’t seem to help myself,” she says. “You’d think I was on the payroll.”

In fact, Clark has nothing at stake. She just loves food, to the point of evangelism. And if there’s a way to make a meal better — even an ordinary Tuesday breakfast — she wants to share it with the world.

Clark’s new friends may not recognize her, but odds are they’ve made one of her recipes. She’s written the weekly column A Good Appetite in the New York Times’s dining section for more than a decade, and a search of NYT Cooking, the paper’s digital culinary hub, finds nearly a thousand recipes attributed to her. She’s also written or collaborated on a mind-boggling thirty-eight cookbooks. This spring, she released her latest — Dinner: Changing the Game, a collection of what Bon Appétit called “over 200 why-didn’t-I-think-of-that recipes.”

Clark is known for pairing basic, easily mastered cooking techniques with new and interesting ingredient combinations, giving home cooks vastly more options. For example, Dinner includes eight different recipes for roast chicken: one with sherry vinegar and grapes; one with smoky paprika, crispy chickpeas, and kale; and so on. Once readers are comfortable roasting a chicken, they suddenly have eight dishes in their arsenal. Quick pizza dough (store-bought is also fine) gets topped with butternut squash, pecorino, and roasted lemons — a sophisticated alternative to tomato and mozzarella for the same amount of work.

One dinner game-changer, Clark says, is keeping a well-stocked pantry. She suggests, for example, that home cooks invest in a jar of harissa, a North African chili paste that she uses in a chicken dish with leeks and potatoes, a slow-roasted tuna with olives, and a spicy baked shrimp with eggplant and mint. Pomegranate molasses — a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine — finds its way into chicken breasts with walnut butter, roasted tofu and eggplant, and peachy pork with charred onion.

“People really get into a cooking rut, thinking that they can only make five or ten different recipes. There’s that beef thing they make. Or that chicken thing,” Clark says. “But my book has twenty-six chicken things. And most of them are riffs on the chicken thing you already know how to make.”

This is not to say that Clark expects, or even wants, people to follow her blindly. She loves it when people tell her not only that they’ve made her recipes, but how they’ve adapted them to their own palates. The recipes are meant to be jumping-off points, totally functional as written, but always open to what she calls, very technically, “futzing.”

“I see myself as a guide,” Clark says. “Everyone has a thing. Mine’s just always been food.”

 

Clark grew up in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, in the seventies and eighties, in a house where meals were cherished and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was like a family Bible. Clark’s parents — both Columbia-trained psychiatrists — were enthusiastic home cooks who teamed up to host dinner parties nearly every weekend. 

“They were constantly making fricasseed rabbit and pâtés,” she says. “I thought that was what everyone ate for dinner.”

Clark’s earliest memories are of being in the kitchen, helping her parents make bread or shape walnut-studded dough into cookies: “If there was a bowl to lick, I was ready to help.” Weekends were also for exploring, and the Clarks followed their stomachs. They went to the Lower East Side for bagels and lox at Russ and Daughters (still Clark’s go-to for smoked fish), to Sheepshead Bay for clams at Lundy’s, and to Chinatown for dim sum, where Clark honed her already adventurous palate: “I always went for the cart with the chicken feet. Eating them is a delicate process. I’m really good at it.”

But Clark’s real culinary education came in the summers, when her parents would shut their psychiatric practices for the month of August and take Clark and her sister to France. Long before Airbnb or even e-mail, they would arrange house swaps with other families.

“We’d exchange actual letters,” Clark says. “And then this French family would come to Brooklyn, which was not the most charming place in the world in the eighties. And we’d go to some magical little town in Provence. We got the better end of the deal.”

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