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NEW YORK — Who would have guessed that one mediocre meal at Merchants, of all places, could inspire a food column, launch one of New York’s favorite media couples, and provide a platform for a discussion of perfectly formed fish quenelles?
But when Amanda Hesser, the pixieish New York Times food writer, and Tad Friend, who writes for the New Yorker, met for a blind date, sparks flew. And then he famously ordered — gasp! — a post-dinner latte.
With a plucky, can’t-help-lovin’-that-man-of-mine spirit, Hesser’s popular series of Mr. Latte columns, penned for the New York Times Magazine, chronicled their relationship as well as her attempts to convert Friend, if not into a foodie, then into the kind of guy who appreciates head cheese and dinners that last all night.
To his credit, Friend achieves gourmet status by chapter 18 of her new book, “Cooking for Mr. Latte,” which elaborates on the original essays. But Hesser savors the story of their romance from the first meal she serves him in 2000 — roasted guinea hen, and haricots verts with walnuts and walnut oil — to the lobster rolls and smoked trout salad with quail eggs served at their wedding last September, which marked the finale of Hesser’s column for the magazine.
“Tad read every article before it came out,” says Hesser, minus her signature baby barrettes, over breakfast at the City Bakery. “Sometimes he’d sort of groan at something I’d written, but I’d say, ‘It is true, you did order a Budweiser at that fancy restaurant.’”
While the notion of whipping up meals for your man might seem a little retro, Hesser’s cookbook cum mini-memoir is as modern and urbane as her approach in the kitchen. Alongside the innovative, American-luxe recipes she formulates, Hesser, who studied French haute cuisine, celebrates the high and the low, offering her grandmother’s simple macaroni and cheese recipe as well as Julia Childs’ recipe for Daube de Boeuf. “There is a certain kind of food writing that’s about fantasy, but I wanted to do something that was about a real life,” says Hesser, 31. “It’s not about hiding flaws and making it all seem wonderful. I wanted cooking to seem accessible and make a love of food seem OK and like a normal thing, like someone loving music.”
But beyond the anecdotes and recipes used in her good-humored defense of fine dining, during those three years of courtship, Hesser, who joined the Times in 1997, was also searching for her own culinary identity. Recipes culled from off-duty foodie haunts like Pearl Oyster Bar, Blue Hill and Prune, give the book an insider angle, but most dishes come via Hesser’s talented family members and her dozens of friends — all sophisticated, witty and forever tucking into a fabulous meal. There’s Tama Janowitz’s coconut cake, served at a rooftop party; the veal scallopini with fluffy parmesan a friend makes in Rome; single-girl salmon à la fashion writer Ginia Bellafante, and even Aunt Nora’s mock lobster.
In the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher, Hesser mingles the nostalgic sweep of a gourmet’s life with the practical stuff of cooking. “The recipes in the magazine were more ‘add milk, stir,’” she says. “I added back in a lot of the sensual details.”
She also includes chapters that chronicle the less sugar-coated aspects of the couple’s romance, which were played down in the magazine. “A story about us moving in together and not getting along well seems a little more appropriate to a book that lays out the entire path of the relationship,” says Hesser. “Luckily, nothing tragic or awful happened along the way, but if it had, I would have had to find a way to write about it.”
The tragedies Hesser encounters these days are more likely to be of the sunken-soufflé variety. “People call me up and say, ‘I’ve got this thing in the oven and it isn’t looking like you described. Can you help me?’” says Hesser with a giggle. “I’ve coached a lot of people through cooking dramas.”
She continues to write about food for the Times, selling anyone she can on the superior texture of chocolate mousse and the wonders of Meyer lemons, while testing recipes in the Brooklyn apartment she and Friend share.
Still, while our man Tad may have gone gourmet, it’s nice to know he’s been tamed, not broken. Just the other day, he ordered a cookie with M & M’s baked into it. “I said, ‘You can’t have that,’” Hesser reports, beaming, “and he said, ‘Oh yes, I can!’”