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Book Review of The Kitchen Whisperers

By John Kessler

"Students in the class break into pairs and are told they have 5 minutes to write about their favorite dessert: Don’t think about it, don’t worry about word choice or grammar, just keep the pencil moving until the teacher calls time. The students take turns reading their hasty essays to their partners. The partners then interpret the stories — say what they’re really about, because it’s never just dessert. The subjects of the stories are often, say, a much-missed grandmother, a family ritual or a never-forgotten evening with friends. The deeper truth lies just under the surface, and it’s knocking to come out.

Dorothy Kalins — a well-known figure in the publishing world, particularly on the subject of food — has made it her life’s work to help writers connect with these truths. As one of the founding editors of Saveur Magazine, and now as a cookbook producer who guides chefs as they craft the stories of their recipes into narratives of their lives, she knows the touchstones of impactful food writing are culture, family and memory.

In her new book, “The Kitchen Whisperers: Cooking With the Wisdom of Our Friends” (William Morrow, $26.99), she allows herself to be the subject.

The collection of essays has a profound little premise: The people you’ve spent time with in the kitchen are there with you as you cook. They talk to you, guide your hand, and tell you whether it’s time to follow their instructions or your own instincts. This is how cooking knowledge is passed on, whether through a family or through the words and images of a food publication.

Kalins opens the curtain on both, beginning with a bittersweet essay about her mother, who had a conflicted, anxious relationship with cooking. Gil Kalins stressed out over entertaining, but loved choosing the right serving pieces, including a ceramic lobster for hors d’oeuvres. She fretted through the preparation of a Thanksgiving turkey, but then always produced one that was worthy of a magazine cover. She kept a card file of recipes she never used and, like many midcentury moms, let packaged convenience products strip some of the joy from her kitchen.

Compare this essay with one about the late, great Marcella Hazan, whose cookbooks had a more profound impact on the way Americans prepare Italian food than all the Eataly marketplaces combined. Kalins observes Hazan, first as subject of a magazine profile, and then as a friend and mentor in the kitchen, and at the table. She paints a loving and finely etched portrait of this ferociously intelligent and opinionated woman. Around Hazan, Kalins is a “forever student.”

Both women — her mother and her teacher — visit Kalins posthumously in her kitchen, whether she’s making meatloaf (“loose and juicy and tomatoey”) or risotto (beef stock or bouillon, but never chicken).

Other chapters profile the cooks who co-founded Saveur with her, and made it the game changer it was. Editor Coleman Andrews, guided by far-flung enthusiasms, took the team to international locations to find the homiest of stories. Photographer Christopher Hirsheimer gave the magazine its fresh look — not the overly stylized food glamour shots that were popular in the 1990s, but images taken from the perspective of someone standing alongside a cook in their kitchen. As Kalins has said in interviews, Saveur was less about chefs, and more about what their grandmothers cooked.

As Kalins moved from editing magazines to conceiving cookbooks, she again entered the scene as a disruptive force. She had no interest in lionizing restaurant food that could be made only by a team of professionals, but, rather, recipes that would impel readers to cook. The celebrated Gramercy Tavern chef, Michael Anthony, lives in her Manhattan building. He had a habit of bequeathing her his Community Supported Agriculture box when he went on vacation, and it would show up on her doorstep, “like a basketful of stray kittens.” In winter, there would be many gnarly roots to contend with, so she’d turn to Anthony for simple recipes for, say, quick Korean-style pickles. This is the kernel of the idea that turned into “V Is for Vegetables,” his award-winning cookbook set up like an alphabetical compendium.

When it came time to work with Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, the owners of Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant, she understood there was no book without exploring Solomonov’s own traumatized relationship with his homeland, Israel. (His brother, a soldier, was killed in the line of duty.) The narrative of the resulting book, “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” is that of one man, but also of a transformative new culinary melting pot. The book has become an instant classic, and seeing what went into it makes a fascinating read.

As Kalins describes all these people kibitzing in her ear as she cooks, you can’t help but hear your own kitchen whisperers. As I was reading the book, I thought about an Indian home cook I profiled once, showing me how to give sauteed onions the barest tinge of color that she called “pink,” and a chef showing me how to plate a green salad, so the leaves could “breathe.” I thought, too, about my mother’s meatloaf, which had hard-boiled eggs imbedded within and curls of ketchup-stained bacon on the outside.

And, suddenly, I want nothing more.

A quick disclaimer: I worked with Dorothy Kalins on the James Beard Foundation’s Journalism Awards Committee, but I’d love this book even if she weren’t a friend.

John Kessler worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1997 to 2015 as a food writer and dining critic. He lives in Chicago."

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