Tuesday, August 23, 2011

McSweeney's Starts Cooking

In typical McSweeney's fashion, the San Francisco based publishers have entered the world of food writing with a rather unorthodox beginning. The first book from their newest imprint, McSweeney's Insatiables, is Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant. This book tells the story of Anthony Myint and his wife Karen, opening a cart in 2008 in San Francisco's Mission District.

What is so interesting about that? Thousands of carts opened across the country after the economic collapse. In this case, a talented cook began by offering delicious late night food at dirt cheap prices. They twittered and they gossiped, the buzz spread, and so did their business. They eventually moved out of the cart and into a number of other iconoclastic restaurant formats collaborating with famous chefs in the community and donating proceeds to charitable organizations. Their book not only chronicles their madcap tales of how this all came to be, but shares many of their recipes with step by step photography. This is not a glamorous cookbook, but it is gritty and substantial.

The writing is sincere and silly. There are bold ideas that came from bold actions. Besides the sly commentaries and original page layouts, there is also a comic storyboard about how it all began. It is a very fun book to read or even peruse. At the end of the book, they list the four golden rules of a successful chef, after which you "reap your rewards." Once you complete the four steps, the authors have the following advice:

The night before you open to the public, take a shower and go to sleep early.
This will be the last time your life feels under control. By the time you wake
up, you'll already be a couple hours in the shit, no matter what time it is.
Equipment will malfunction, food will be compromised, and the first-aid kit may or may not be adequate...Congratulations! Your rejection of money, a social life, or any conventional form of happiness is now complete. You are a
successful chef.

There are laughs in many forms available in these pages. It makes sense that McSweeney's would be their publisher. In their own words, the authors had never written a cookbook, and the publishers had never printed one. Cookbooks are a very complex kind of book to produce, requiring not only an interesting story and good writing, but lots of photographs, recipes and recipe testing. This takes a considerable amount of time.

The surprising turn for me is how McSweeney's crew has begun their new genre with such hubris. They have also become the publisher of Lucky Peach, a quarterly food magazine conceived by New York celebrity David Chang and Peter Meehan. David Chang is many things. Like Anthony Myint of Mission Street Food, he is an opinionated, iconoclastic chef who started out by feeding people delicious late night food on the cheap. Like Anthony, he went on to open several other food service operations. Both publications have a collaborative spirit, with contributions from other famous chefs and food writers, and also a desire to bring fine dining concepts down to the proletariat price point.

Chris Ying is the editor-in-chief of both Lucky Peach and Mission Street Food. The $64,000 question in my mind is how this project ended up at McSweeney's. Dave Chang and Peter Meehan had published the Momofuku cookbook with Potter, an imprint of Random House in New York. They had originally conceived of Lucky Peach as a Food Network TV show, then as an iPad app. Somehow it ended up being a magazine from a west coast publisher that had never handled food writing before?!? It could be that a new generation of publishers, like the new generation of chefs, are willing to explore new media.

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