Column: Migrating toward a new American food story

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 11/20/2021 10:10:26 PM
Modified: 11/20/2021 10:10:11 PM

I smile as I open a morning email from the NYT Cooking newsletter. Its subject line, “A Taste of Fall,” introduces a perfect-sounding menu for a cool October evening: a “simple, exquisite romaine salad with anchovy and lemon, a savory butternut squash pie and a dessert of red wine and pears.”

I could do this.

Yet on an ordinary weeknight, I’m unlikely to spend that much time preparing dinner. A baked squash and some fish would suit us better, I think. And a salad too, but minus the anchovies.

With my love of good food and my passion for cookbooks, I was an early fan of The New York Times newsletter “What to Cook,” started in 2017. Sam Sifton, a former Times food critic, is the managing editor and chief writer. Over the years I have viewed the newsletter both as inspiration and as a link to a community of cooks.

In the early days, it was Sifton’s personality — casual, outgoing, expansive — that drew me in. I followed him on his travels to Maine each summer where he offered easy seafood recipes using the local catch-of-the day. And I was informed by his reading suggestions, from the latest fiction to challenging writers like Teju Cole on race relations.

At one point I became so intrigued with these recommendations that I did a bit of research into Sifton’s family background. His grandfather, I learned, was the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who had been an esteemed professor at Union Theological Seminary when my husband was a student there.

It was a satisfying discovery.

Today, I find myself less enamored of the “What to Cook” emails that arrive five mornings a week. The recipes still have immense appeal, whether I am motivated to cook or just engaged as a reader about food.

Something, though, has changed. Is it Sam Sifton, I wonder, or is it me as a reader?

I’ve recently started noticing that each NYT Cooking newsletter states clearly that everything there is available only to those who pay by subscribing to the Times. Further, it appears to me that the cultural suggestions point ever more frequently to magazines, museums or media sources that could be costly. Is my community of cooks also a coterie of the elite?

I had a similar question about a recent column that began this way: “Good morning. Is this the day I convince you to roast a duck just so you can shred the meat and scatter it over sautéed sea scallops, then serve the combination with hollandaise sauce, alongside a peppery watercress salad? I’m hoping so! You don’t even need to roast a whole duck. A couple of legs will do, cooked low and slow in a kind of confit situation. Shred them when they’re done, make the hollandaise, the salad and then the scallops. Bang, zoom. That’s a Sunday night feast.”

Really, I thought, with almost a sense of indignation.

Even for me, it would take significant organizing for the shopping, considerable money for the purchases, and hours of time for cooking, to make this “bang, zoom” Sunday night dinner. I wasn’t interested.

And why not, I asked myself.

Since 2017, the inaugural year for these newsletters, the world has changed dramatically. Influenced by the fear and heartbreak of COVID-19, the angst of racial tension and political division in the United States, and the mounting evidence of the dire consequences of climate change, I am not the same reader today that I was then.

Yes, I do plan to continue subscribing to the NYT Cooking newsletters. It’s an energizing community I don’t want to part company with. In addition, though, I am intent on broadening my horizons in relationship to food, recipes and other cooks.

Regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status, gender or age, all of us grow or buy food, prepare food, eat food and live within culinary traditions. I am certain that food is one vital way to foster conversations that can build bridges and reveal commonalities among us. Adjustment, adaptation and new connections can begin here.

There is wonderful material in the regular food section of The New York Times on Wednesdays. Recent editions have included an article on “Preserving Black Food Culture and Stories,” as well as a piece on “A Cookbook by, and for, Indigenous People.” These are a start to the education I am after.

Throughout spring and summer, I talked often with family and friends about a new favorite cookbook published in 2020: The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, by Marcus Samuelsson. It’s a collection of essays and recipes I find informative and illuminating, as my understanding of the world takes in greater diversity and I see food and cooking in a different light.

In a chapter on “Migration,” Samuelsson observes, “Food always keeps moving. ... Our hearts and minds should also be open to heading somewhere new. ... Let’s migrate toward a new American food story that recognizes all of us.”

My thought exactly.

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt. Email her at

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