Cookbooks for the Ages (Not quite)

I proposed recently to the owners of Politics and Prose that we collaborate in selling a list of my favorite cookbooks. For any who don’t know, Politics and Prose, a half-mile from Bread Furst and 30 years old, is one of the most successful independent bookstores in America. It is a Washington monument left by my sister, its founder.

The new owners are terrific and more entrepreneurial than my sister was, more than I am. They were entirely receptive to my proposal and followed up vigorously. So now, if I don’t want to embarrass myself, I must make my choices – my 25 favorite cookbooks (at this moment).

As everyone knows thousands of cookbooks are published each year and some of them are good. A lot of the most successful these days are the consequence of celebrity – of television and particularly the TV Food Network that, in its popularity, has become almost a parody of itself. Nonetheless people buy cookbooks on which those celebrities put their names (and often proud photos of their hair and their cleavages as well).

I would have imagined the universal availability of recipes on the Internet would have killed cookbooks. Plowing through a stack of books for broccoli recipes seems unnecessary now that typing “broccoli recipes” into a computer will uncover everything from Gourmet, Epicurious, Serious Eats, and all other wisdom of the ages. And why bother even with a written word in the kitchen when an I-Pad can be neatly propped up in the corner of a counter?


But because of our culture’s current interest in food, the cookbook business has been affected less by the general decline in book reading than have other segments of the book business.

So cookbooks still sell. Perhaps people buy them as gifts. Perhaps because our interest in cuisine has broadened to include many unfamiliar cultures people want to familiarize themselves with those cuisines new to them. Perhaps readers like the extravagant photography in many books. Perhaps – I hope – a lot of them are being read and perhaps even cooked with.

I don’t use cookbooks as I did when I was learning to cook. I started cooking at home seriously when Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the gold standard. Not only did it introduce French cooking to Americans who didn’t know much about French food; but the specificity of its recipes, the ease of following them, made French cooking seem possible to most of us who thought of it as beyond us.

This book more than any other book then important, The Joy of Cooking, The Settlement Cookbook, The Fanny Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook, was an instruction manual to an ostensibly unfamiliar cuisine. It seems quaint now to think of it that way.

This exploration into (some of) my favorite cookbooks has made me think a lot about the way in which cookbooks are now used. As I thought about the list of books I would like to have on a shelf at Bread Furst, I kept excluding nearly all of my very favorite food books. Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, Richard Olney’s Simple French Food are not exactly cookbooks. M.F.K. Fisher wrote about food in ways no one does any longer and her writings are available as a collection in The Art of Eating.

These are not cookbooks. They are food books.   Sometimes they are autobiography, sometimes literature, sometimes essay. Some of them have lots of recipes and some have few.


They are not books whose major purpose is instructional.   They are meant to explore and inspire and they deserve to be considered apart from cookbooks. Perhaps we should devote a second shelf to them.

I exclude here other books that are really interesting and important – food science like that which is done by the estimable Harold McGee author of On Food and Cooking and The Curious Cook.

I also steered away from technique cooks like Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio and Charcuterie.

Indulging my own conservative orientation, I didn’t include the Nathan Myhrvold magnum opus, Modernist Cuisine, or the books of Heston Blumenthal and the world of the influential (now closed) Spanish restaurant El Builli that probably ought to interest me but don’t.

Without any reservation whatever I excluded all of the diet and aversion books that teach how to avoid gluten, calories, salt, and fat – and I steered around the single food cookbooks like one that includes bacon in every recipe.

And then I found myself abandoning a lot of cookbooks that have been really important in my life and in the lives of millions of cooks – James Beard’s American Cooking, a book given to me by my Aunt when I returned to in Washington from Boston, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that showed me the versatility of vegetables, and The Silver Palate, the book that molded the cooking of people who came of age in the 1980s.

These were brilliant influences in their time; Madison still is. But I wanted to point you to books that might help you go beyond the large cookbooks like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, even though such general cookbooks are awfully useful,

So what on earth is left?

I decided to write about the cookbooks that I think are helping cooks broaden their scope, the ones that permit people interested in food to cook in their own homes cuisines that were inaccessible or even unknown.

This, I confess, is a very arbitrary choice for me to have made but fortunately, Bread Furst has a lot of shelf space and if Politics and Prose indulges us, we’ll make room for other little libraries later.

Now, however, I am going to include in our modest pre-Christmas library the books that over the past three decades have introduced me to a greater range of world cuisine to have in my home than I ever imagined before would be possible to have in my home.

First Mediterranean cookbooks:

There are two queens of the Mediterranean. One is Joyce Goldstein who opened Square One Café in 1984, America’s first avowedly Mediterranean restaurant. She has written 26 cookbooks all of them still in publication.  My favorites are Back to Square One, published in 1992, and Cucina Ebraica.


As for Paula Wolfert, I have always thought of her as more anthropologist than cookbook author although her recipes are wonderful. Her Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (now, in a new edition, called The Foods of Morocco) was published in 1973 when virtually no one in America knew about this classic cuisine.   Her Slow Mediterranean Cooking and Cooking of Southwest France (She claims to have discovered Jean Louis Palladin) are nearly as wonderful.

The greatest cookbook of Middle Eastern food, I think, is Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food the first edition of which appeared in 1972. Few Americans then knew about the richness of food in Greece, Egypt and Turkey but you won’t say that after looking at this book.

I admire a lot the wonderful cookbooks of Aglaia Kremetz who presented her latest (and I think best) book in a visit to Washington just last month, Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts. And Washington’s own Najmieh Batmanglij wrote a marvelous cookbook of Persian Food, a cuisine still little known in the US, called Food of Life, Ancient and Modern Iranian Cooking.

            I don’t want to neglect the work of food giants like Marcella Hazan and Joan Nathan (a neighbor of Bread Furst), both of whom, have written abudently, Hazan about Italy, Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, and Joan about Israel and Jewish food of the diaspora Jewish Cooking in America and Quiches, Kugels and Couscous, the Jewish cooking of France .

But the world of Mediterranean cooking and cookbooks generally has been influenced greatly in the past few years by Yotum Ottolanghi, an Israel who lives in London, writes for the Guardian, and operates food shops in London that are quite wonderful. His cooking is boldly flavored and oriented toward vegetables and very Mediterranean.   His cookbooks will be on our shelves especially the newest, Plenty More.

I am certainly biased toward the Mediteranean (after all, bread was invented there 6,000 years ago or so). And Mediterranean food is understood and easily embraced by Americans. But one of the wonderful developments of the past 25 years is how open-minded and eager America has become about other foods. It’s now possible in many places, certainly, around Washington to find ingredients for many of the cuisines of the world.

And so I add to our shelves, other favorite cookbooks of other cuisines:

From Asian cultures:

 Indian Cooking by cooking teacher and noted actress, Madhur Jaffrey.

Classic Indian Cooking by Julia Sahni, a chef and brilliant recipe-writer.

Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, a really beautiful bookof classic Chinese recipes.

Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen, a large collection of recipes and a lot of information about the fundamentals of this now-familiar cuisine.

Land of Plenty by Fuchsai Dunlop, a brilliant exploration of Sichuan cooking

Cradle of Flavor by James Oseland, great recipes from Indonesia and Malaysia.


From Latin cultures (about which my knowledge is pretty thin):

Authentic Mexican by Rick and Deann Bayless, restaurateurs, chefs, teachers.

Gran Cocina Latina Maricele Presilla, a Cuban-born historian, entrepreneur and chef.

And that leaves cooking in the U.S. and here is where I get lost. There are so many wonderful books of American cooking many of them from very good restaurants. I could choose any number of them. Although I am sure I will rue this, I have limited myself just now to a few:

Ad Hoc at Home, the Thomas Keller book that anyone can cook from.

Sunday Suppers at Lucques, written by the Los Angeles chef, Suzanne Goin.

Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, by Frank Stitt, the Birmingham chef, an exploration of Carolina low country cooking.

Heritage by Sean Brock, chef-owner of Husk, the extra-ordinary Charleston restaurant.

Finally, could I create a bookshelf at Bread Furst without books about breads and sweets? Right now my favorite bread books are:

Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson, my copain in San Francisco.

Flour Water Salt by Ken Forbish, a particularly sensible didactic bread book.

And appropriately at the end of the list I offer these dessert books from an opulent library of wonderful dessert books.

Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz, now best known for his blog about Paris food.

Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax, a 2001 book that that influenced me a lot and holds up very well.

Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts by Alice Medrich, author of several other dessert books equally wonderful.

Baking from My Home to Yours, yet another fantastic interpretion of French desserts by Dori Greenspan whose earlier book, Around My French Table, is one of my favorites.

All these books will be available at Bread Furst thanks to Politics and Prose (where obviously they are also available).

Mark Kuller


Mark Kuller died today. We knew he would but what a loss.  Mark was the creator/owner of Proof, Estadio, and Doi Moi, three wonderful Washington restaurants.

He was a giant of a man, six feet six. When he hugged me my head met his chest. But height was not the only way in which he was big.

He was a man of prodigious appetites – wine, food, hospitality, and people. His laugh was big. So was his confidence. So was his mind.

It seems so ironic, cruel, that a man who loved life so much should die at 62, particularly as his marriage was only four years old and his new son less than a year.

Mark began coming to The BreadLine, my restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, just after it opened in 1997. With enthusiasm and joy he adopted The BreadLine and came for lunch three times a week, often even more than that.

I knew him as a bon vivant, a man who loved women and cars with a loud laugh and a lot of friends. That was all I then knew.

Mark decided to open a restaurant – a wine restaurant, natural for an entrepreneurial man, a risk-taker who loved food so much and had a 6,000 bottle wine collection. He thought he could continue law practice and be a restaurateur on the side, but he told me as he plunged into the detail of opening Proof that he couldn’t do both – and the restaurant was so much fun.

Proof was a great success and in 2005, he and I started talking about jointly opening a breakfast restaurant and bakery and went to look at sites where that might work. But I was uncertain and Mark had other passions. He moved on to open Estadio, his Spanish restaurant on 14th Street. Then he then took space in a building just being constructed and began thinking about a restaurant with Southeast Asian food.

It was there in late August last year, during the trials, the “friends and family” dinners that precede a restaurant opening, that Mark sat down at my table and said, “I’ve just been diagnosed with stage four liver and pancreatic cancer.”

He became a cancer expert over the next weeks, guiding his treatment and his hopes. This most optimistic of men was clear and hardheaded about what would happen. Determined to leave all in good order, he made arrangement for his business and other matters.

At the same time, as optimism kept creeping back, he set goals: At first they were ones for a few years: I want to stay alive so that my children remember me. They then became more short-term: I want to stay alive until the babies are born. I want to stay alive for (older son) Max’s wedding.

Mark was alive when the babies were born. But finally he had exhausted all the treatments available. It is really sad that he won’t be there for Max’s wedding. It is terribly sad that so joyous a man lost – inevitably – to the “emperor of all maladies.”

Our First Clear Failure

My son, Francois, the historian (whose new book, When the United States Spoke French is available at Politics and Prose bookstore – shameless son-promotion – says, “It was a noble attempt but, like Scottish independence, defeat must be conceded.”

Francois Furstenberg

Francois Furstenberg

I wanted particularly to hear his view as it was his idea to put breakfast out on the sidewalk to make it really, really convenient. I thought it was a great idea. We have called it Break Furst.

We went at it for three weeks and our sales over the three weeks have not increased.

Neighbors steam by Bread Furst from 7:30 to 9:30, hundreds of people all walking past our store. (The sidewalk on the other side of the street is closed for a construction.) Of those hundreds perhaps 50 pause to look and 26 stop to buy. That’s 26 customer in two and a half hours.

We thought you would like it. Our freshly baked foods put into cellophane sleeves. Everything priced to the dollar. Cash only, no credit card delays. Coffee for those who wanted it. We had it all. Even the D.C. government added its encouragement.


If the sales had been increasing even a little over the three weeks, I would continue this effort. But they haven’t been increasing. They have stayed the same, about $90 a day. I don’t know why.

I don’t know why our neighbors didn’t stop. Perhaps you don’t want to buy near you home and carry downtown.

I thought you might decide to carry our baked goods on the Metro because, frankly, they are better than what is available downtown. I thought you’d pick up a breakfast treat and have it when you arrive at your office (as most of you can get coffee in your offices).

But you don’t want to do that. Perhaps you all eat breakfast at home. Perhaps you don’t eat it at all.

Francois says, “I blame the carpets in the metro, which I assume are the reason for the no-eating policy. What kind of self-respecting public transportation service installs carpets anyway?”

Whatever the reason I concede defeat.

No more Break Furst.

Breakfast For Our Neighbors

We are doing all that we can think of doing, within the limits imposed by our young age and modest experience, to make Bread Furst a place with which the neighborhood can be pleased. We have been embraced far more quickly and tightly than I expected.

Since we opened in May, customers have said to me a thousand times: “Welcome back to the neighborhood.”

“I was the first in line at Marvelous Market.” (My first bakery that used to be up the street from Bread Furst.)

“This is just what our neighborhood wanted.”

“This is such an addition.”

All that is very gratifying and it is really wonderful to see as we do the same customers all the time. But some things have not turned out quite as I expected. As welcomed as we have been, we still have a lot of work to do.

I was pretty confident before we opened that the neighborhood would want breakfast foods and we focused on breakfast in our planning. When we opened we offered biscuits and scones, muffins, croissants, Danish, and so on.



Having spent many cold mornings in this space during the months of construction, I had seen the long lines of customers walking down Connecticut Avenue from Nebraska to Van Ness and the Metro stop. I had luxuriated in the closing of the sidewalk on the east side of the street for a construction that would last a year. I looked forward to the hundreds of people walking by, many of them hungry for our breakfast treats.

I was wrong.

People don’t stop. Perhaps you don’t want to board the Metro where eating is prohibited with food in your hands. Perhaps you don’t want to carry food from Bread Furst to your offices downtown. So relatively few of you stop.

But we make good breakfast foods better than most one can get downtown.

So on Tuesday we’ll try to make those foods more accessible. We will begin Break Furst, breakfast on the sidewalk, the smart idea of my son Francois.   We’ll have a long table just in front of the store and on it will be six breakfast foods including a breakfast banh mi.


Purchases will be in cash only, even dollars and no coins required, and you will be able to slap your money on the table and take a breakfast treat practically without breaking stride.

So we’ll see if that makes breakfast more convenient for our neighbors in a rush.

We have tried to be neighborly in other ways more fully under our control and we have had a lot of help from the neighborhood.



Marjorie Share lives up the block and adopted us months before we opened. She has as much as anyone added to the aesthetic of Bread Furst.

She conceived the outside patio, bought the pots, selected the foliage and did the plantings. She did it as a loving volunteer who wanted to make Bread Furst more attractive for the neighborhood.


I wrote several months ago about neighbor Dipa Mehta’s fight to help us get our gas turned on. (“Dipa Did It,” April 20, 2014) That was the beginning of her career at Bread Furst.


Dipa is Bread Furst’s advisor, critic, and emissary to the world who manages to get done by skill and persistence tasks, like managing the process to get a liquor license, something that would have taken us – who knows how long to complete?




She even allows her children from time to time to help behind the counter.


I insisted several months ago on paying Dipa for the time she devotes to Bread Furst and so she now bills us at an hourly rate 4.5 percent of what her rate was at her former law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton.


My most passionately held objective in opening Bread Furst, was to create something that would become immersed in this neighborhood and would become a contribution to it that might last. We’ve started.


The Arrogance of Taste

A customer accosted me on the stairs a couple of weeks ago. “Why do you put butter on everything,” she asked.

“What do you mean,” I asked her.

“The sandwiches,” she said, “You put butter on the sandwiches.”

“We put it on the ham and cheese. We don’t put it on the grilled vegetable sandwich. We don’t put it on the tomato sandwich. Just on the ham and cheese.”

Jambon Beurre

“Why do you have to put it on the ham sandwich,” she asked to which I replied: “If you want a ham sandwich without butter, ask for it. We’ll make it.”

“But why do you have to put butter on it in the first place?”

“It is called a jambon beurre – ham and butter.”

Some days later someone said to me that the breads we make are too dark. “They are almost burned,” she said.

“No they’re not,” I said, “They are dark and caramelized. They aren’t burnt and they don’t taste burned.”


I wrote in this space some time ago that criticism is very important and I like getting it and learn from it. But I realize that at the same time, I am somewhat impervious to it. We make food that I like. I like my own taste. I am arrogant.

I told Hadj Osmani the other day that I wanted to change our egg salad. “What’s the matter with it,” he asked. “It doesn’t have flavor,” I told him.


He looked at me incredulously and this from a man who has worked in kitchens with me for 20 years and ought to know better than to say as he did: “We are using 90 eggs a day,” he said, “We are selling 90 eggs. The customers love the egg salad.”

I made a face. He knew why. That the customers love something is not for me a standard for what we do.

That’s arrogant – I know it.

I remember recoiling often when my sister Carla, the founder/owner of Politics and Prose, would say to a customer standing at the checkout counter, “Don’t buy that; you’ll hate it. At least you ought to hate it.”

Perhaps this runs in the family?

Small business is very difficult. It’s difficult to start a business and difficult to run one. We can’t pay people what larger businesses can and we don’t do enough volume of business to allow a lot of mistakes. (No failures like an F-35 fighter plane are possible.) So one has to be really committed to do this kind of work.

The commitment for me comes not from being nice to people – I am not that, god knows – but from being obsessed with the breads, pastries, and foods we make.

I do care about many other things – local, organic, seasonal, about tradition and originality. I care about changing Bread Furst physically to correct the customer flow mistakes we have made and tremendously about how Bread Furst looks and how clean we are.

But above all I care about the flavor of the food. The egg salad must taste like something. The peanut butter cookie must be baked enough. The bread crust must be deeply caramelized.

I think – I hope that’s a reason customers trust us. You come in and you buy something you’ve not tasted before – a quinoa salad or a simple slab of peach tart. I think you believe someone has been tasting the salad to see if it has enough flavor and the tart to see if the crust is good.

That’s my job and I like it; but being the taster puts me into a position of arrogance

Someone has to make decisions about food. Someone has to decide that Fox’s U-Bet, the Original Chocolate Flavored Syrup made since 1895, made with vanillin, artificial flavor and lots of corn syrup, is not going to be in our bakery even though it has been made for 119 years.


Certainly it is a balance between my taste and the customers’. If you don’t like what we do you won’t come and shouldn’t so I do pay attention to what is said to me by customers . But to tell you the truth Hadj was right. You were buying enthusiastically the egg salad that I thought wasn’t good enough and no one complains about our cookies.

So why bother? I don’t know how to get on and when to get off the slope of allowing customers to make decisions about our foods. If I cede to you the power to decide how things are to made and cooked and taste, I lose myself. Besides, to tell you the naked truth, I think I have higher standards than you do.

As we make what we made, I know that could do just fine by getting by. We could use cheaper ingredients. We don’t have to make our own mayonnaise. I don’t have to buy mozzarella from Di Pasquale’s, a little store in Baltimore’s Highlandtown neighborhood. We don’t have to shop at Yas Supermarket and Yekta, Persian stores in our suburbs.

But I think about how many customers buy from us something that we’ve not made before and they’ve not tasted before; and I know that you are doing that because you trust us.   That trust may be the most precious asset of Bread Furst and we’d better be worthy of it.

The Art of Pastry

I had dinner last week in an expensive restaurant.   As I read the menu my eye was drawn to a dessert:

PISTACHIO IN OLIVES cake is made with the oil from castelvetrano olives, layered with pistachio cream, sorbet is the juice and flesh of cara cara oranges, crispy pomegranate, kumquats preserved in blood orange juice and moscato

            What a luscious-sounding dish! Olive cake with the crunch of pistachios, cream, orange sorbet, pomegranate, moscato. Everything goes together pretty well; everything sounds so good. Whatever I order for the dinner, I thought, I am going to have that.

And I did.

P1100829-3        What arrived was not the slender slice of cake I expected but a tiny rectangle. On top was a small oblong of sorbet and the rest was presented in dots and smears and dribbles and crumbs. It was one of those austere pastry paintings, something done for the pleasure of the pastry chefs and having nothing to do with my dream dessert.

Restaurants make their most enduring impressions with what they serve first and what they serve last and both of those are baked goods.

Because they know that, most good restaurants buy bread from wholesale bakeries even though they would like nothing more than to serve their own and stop bearing the costs of good bread. They buy their bread from bakeries because good bread is expensive to make, requires an expertise not generally shared by their staffs, and because they can’t justify investment in the expensive equipment required.

But good restaurants do not buy their desserts from a bakery because they want to make money on their desserts and want to make “a statement about who they are.”

I don’t write that to demean them. Dessert is the last memory of dinner and it’s important. It is a shot of sugar and leaves sweetness in the mouth.

As this is the era of overeating, it is particularly important that desserts be more than just another reason for eating sugar of which we have far too many reasons already. Dessert ought to be sweet, yes, but not too sweet. It ought to be a little rich perhaps, an indulgence.   And it ought to be small.

I acknowledge – and I have said this before — that I prefer under sweetened desserts and simplicity. I love dark chocolate because it’s bitter. I dislike white chocolate because it’s pointless.

Especially at this time of year – the season of peaches and raspberries – restaurants and bakeries have such abundant opportunities to make simple desserts. The pastry people at Bread Furst had already begun making a peach cake when I asked them to make in addition what we used to call Bobalie’s peach pie.

Bobalie was a great character in my life – in the life of my family. She was an immensely talented woman, ferocious in appearance and angry a good deal of the time. She started working for my grandparents at the age of 15 – lying about her age – and she worked for my grandparents for 60 years.

She was a brilliant cook and her great talent was simplicity.   Her peach “pie” was a rectangle of exceptional piecrust with peaches arranged on top, a sprinkle of sugar and a few drop of lemon juice. It was served with whipped cream or ice cream but was just fine on its own – especially sneaked out of the still warm pan.




I was so excited when the test tart was presented me the other day and Chris was a little incredulous. “You like me to be honest with you: It would be improved by a little pastry cream (vanilla custard) underneath.”

Pastry chefs can’t give up complicating things.

I always wonder, however, just how much the pastry chefs who make artful desserts really like the pastries they make.   Their smears and dots they put on plates are never big enough to convey flavor and I think flavor is what customers really appreciate.

I consulted Alex Levin, pastry chef at Osteria Morini who is smart, talented and artistic


            A dessert that I make has to taste great. Or else, I might as well pack up my stuff and go home…Some of my desserts take a more traditional route – like my weekend specials of cobblers with fresh peaches and berries, oat streusel and gelato right on top of the hot dish, or the chocolate cake with espresso gelato.

Others are quite deconstructed, like my Goat Cheese and Lavender-Scented Peaches dessert. The elements though each play a role, and then I enjoy arranging them in a way that is visually interesting. Every sauce, cake, mousse, meringue, fruit, gelato, etc. plays a particular role in terms of look, taste, texture, temperature and contribute to the overall experience.

 I started thinking about desserts in this way at my CIA student internship at Jean Georges. There, the goal was to wow the guest with the most delicious desserts that were equally as artistic and unusual looking.

Jean Georges. It’s those French again. I can understand why restaurant might want to wow its customers with artistry and looks but this is not high on my list of objectives (and in a retail setting not really achievable).

I want to make sweets that, like our chocolate cookie for example, simply makes a customer think, “This is really good.”  I want to make desserts that evoke nostalgia because we love them as children and they can for a moment bring back those child-like feelings.

I want to make desserts about which customers say, “This reminds me of summers in Maine.”



Rhythms of Nature

One of my treasured neighborhood advisors keeps telling me to “advertise” our commitment to ingredients grown on local farms.  We are making pickles with local cucumbers and buying blueberries and beets from small farms.  Indeed, we are buying whatever we can get from farms around us.  Our doors are open to them when at the end of the farmers’ markets that bring them to Washington, they have leftovers to sell to us.

I have been reluctant to say much about this because I don’t want to be seen as one of those dogmatics who write on their in-store signs the precise number of miles traveled by the carrots and kale.  I am not one of them.


My commitment to local ingredients comes less from a concern about their carbon costs although I know that is very important.   It comes less from a commitment even to the prosperity of small farms that surround Washington although that too is very important.

I believe in local ingredients most of all because of they taste better, because if tomatoes are left to ripen on the vine as they should they are incomparably better than those picked and packed before they are ripe.  That’s why I want tomatoes from Virginia, not Florida.

One can’t be too rigid about this.  Pineapples and artichokes don’t grow here and canned tomatoes have their place.  But fresh tomatoes are an entirely different thing from the canned ones and that is why in short order you are going to see Bread Furst’s food tilt heavily toward them.  It will stay tilted that way until October when local tomatoes disappear altogether until next July.


I am less a locavore than I am a season-obsessive.  I believe in eating with the seasons.  I love the rediscovery of asparagus in the spring and apples in the fall, of corn, melons, and peaches in July and pears and pumpkins in October.  I love it when I receive from a local produce fellow as I did a day ago an email that says:

Hello Everyone,

 Sweet corn is now available, these are not your typical silver queen varieties, these are actually awesome!

Following Mother Nature gives me rediscovery through every season of every year.  And of course I get the flavor bonuses of eating foods when they ripen on vine, bush, and tree.

I suspect I got started early in life on this course by a grandmother and a fish.  My grandmother whom we used to call “the last of the Edwardian ladies,” made at her table a celebration when in late February shad became available in Baltimore, a city that always loved shad as much as it loved oysters and crabs.


Whole unboned shad, asparagus, and new potatoes steamed with butter was our best  early spring dinner.  Followed a month later by lamb and peas.

That is a habit which has persisted.  My mother stopped driving her car at the age of 94 but before then she took some delight in buying the first shad of the season for my sister and me.

These days, as everyone knows, everything is available all through the year.  Strawberries for Christmas?  Why not?  They’re being grown somewhere and are in the Chevy Chase Safeway.

I know it is a trick of my psychology that I lose my appetite for foods out of season.  Who wants to eat an apple when blueberries are available?  Why bother with oranges if apricots are in season?

So although I wish I could claim to you that when we make blueberry pies as we do right now we are doing it to reduce our carbon footprint.  But the truth is we replaced lime meringue pies with strawberry cobbler and then cherry pie and now blueberry because limes are out season, strawberries and cherries came and went, and blueberries are now here.

This is one of those principles I cherish at Bread Furst.


Lesson from Palermo

A decade or so ago, I visited Sicily. Eager to avoid eating like a tourist, I asked during my first afternoon over coffee in a little Palermo café where I could find a real Sicilian dinner.


A few hours later I was walking around the Teatro Massimo to a restaurant whose name I now forget.

It turned out to be huge, perhaps 100 tables, not very promising, I thought. I was seated right away and was told what the fish of the day was and what it would be served with. I was given a bottle of house wine, uncorked, and invited to visit the antipasto area.

No plates of veal or pasta could be seen on any table. Everyone was eating either a whole fried fish or a variety of antipasti as an entrée to the meal.


I walked to the front of the restaurant to the antipasto area and found there the variety missing from the diners’ tables: Sticks of fried eggplant, octopus salad, carrots and greens, olives, caponata, grilled red peppers, cheeses, salumi, fish, tomatoes, arancini, and I don’t remember what else.

The foods looked fresh and in such numbers and diversity that to have sampled each one was out of the question – and so I took bits of some – and could easily have made a dinner—and wanted to. The importance of a main course, the fish had receded (although the fish too turned out to be simple and wonderful).


I have been thinking about the food of Bread Furst. During the past six weeks we have served as evening take-away food Moroccan chicken one week, blue catfish the next, jerk chicken, couscous, chili relenos, spring green vegetables, roasted beets, potatoes and artichokes, vegetable soup, avocado soup. We are making good food with good ingredients and I can’t describe to you what we are doing.

Perhaps I am trying too hard to be consistent, a characteristic I am not known generally to possess, but this seems awfully disjointed and theme less.

When over the many months I was planning to open Bread Furst I knew I wanted in our take-away food assertive spicing, multi-cultural food, local ingredients.

I imagined three or four sandwiches for lunch, one soup, and three salads; and for dinner adding to those salads two or three take-away dishes.

I find now after two months we put on the menu as carryout foods dishes we like and often you like them too. Two of our sandwiches are so popular that I can’t change them. You buy our salads and evening foods but I must be able to understand and explain what we are doing.

I can do that with our bread: We make traditional breads, a line of whole grains, a line of ancient grains, and soon a line of flatbreads – all traditional.

bread oven           I can describe our pastry – enough French pastries to satisfy our Francophilac pastry chefs and the rest traditional American desserts.

Why can’t I describe our food?

I can talk about food values: Rooted, tradition-based, seasonal, multi-cultural. I can talk about my own style – leaning toward the Mediterranean, heavy on vegetables and grains, foods that are bitter, spicy, sweet/sour.   But apart from the pickling program on which we have embarked and our own jams, we haven’t really found yet a food repertoire to which I feel committed.

I think about my style of cooking and what I like to eat on a summer evening — salads with a few grains and herbs and crunchy seeds and nuts, flavors of the grill, pickled herring, cheese, beets.


I keep thinking about that Palermo antipasto bar and particularly at this time of year when fresh, local vegetables are coming to market.

Suppose instead of doing three or four foods each day, we did 20. Suppose instead of making chicken curry, Swedish meatballs, and ratatouille we made half a dozen salads from seasonal ingredients, some grainy combinations, our own tuna confit (tuna-fish), artichoke hearts, bacalao, three-bean salad.

We could set those up each day on the front counter and let you choose from the diversity of our preparations; and we could change those preparations seasonally. It would be an antipasto bar. You would be able to find all the time a few dishes that really interest you.

This week our large and heretofore unfunctioning large case is finally going to function; and this week you will find in that case a range of spreads – hummus, eggplant, pimento cheese and others.  We’ll add to those next week and put into the case foods that give you a lot of seasonal choices.

And as summer continues we’ll experiment with the antipasto bar. I trust you’ll comment liberally.



The Jenkins Prescription

I didn’t get as many ideas from Steve Jenkins as I had hoped. Zanne Stewart, the former food editor of Gourmet Magazine and one of my favorite people, wrote, “

I’ll be eager to learn what Steve has to say. He’s one of my favorites and, possibly, the most entertaining of all…”

 Me too.

We didn’t have to wait long: Steve wrote that it is obvious what we ought to do:

            “You absolutely MUST offer a half-dozen or so early-harvest monocultivar olive oils. Preferably all in dark bottles so as to protect them from the doubtless harsh shop’s light.

            “Early-harvest monocultivar olive oils are the ones that offer that fabulous adult bitterness and pungency. ‘Fruity’ olive oils (late-harvest) are unworthy of anyone’s attention; they offer no pungency or bitterness, an indication of low polyphenol levels. High polyphenol levels are the raison d’etre of olive oil.

            “I would also offer the best line of fruit preserves you can muster… Jams and olive oils. Nothing else.”

photo 3

            But I don’t think that’s right. We have so much shelving and I want to make use of it. Olive oils to be sure. Jam, yes indeed, and we have begun to make our own.

We are also making crackers, croutons, lavash, crisps, and four-packs of our English muffins. Caramels and brittle and soon bags of wonderful shortbread. And now that summer is upon us we are making pickled vegetables.   They too will be on the shelves starting this week.





And next week finally the huge refrigerated case we imprudently ordered from Italy, the one that arrived not working, will finally be made to work. And then we’ll be able to offer soups and salads and a great diversity of spreads for bread (hummos, pimento cheese, olive tapenade, and the like) all of which I have been thinking about.

photo 1

We’ll follow Steve’s advice although I am dubious about Washington’s appetite for monocultivar olive oils.

So then what? I haven’t gotten enough guidance about the uses of our shelving.

Bread Furst is a bakery but I am learning yet again that appetites here for breads and pastry are not great enough to make us prosper so I am groping for the answers to other foods customers might want us to sell.

We don’t have the answers yet.

Going to the Guru

This, my first essay in some time, is an open letter to Steve Jenkins.

You may not know his name but food people do as he really invented artisan cheese in America.  Well, that is to say he was the first person I know about who began to import really good cheeses from Europe and market them effectively to people who then became cheese-eaters.  He did that with other specialty foods too and has been for more than 30 years a champion of good food.

So I wrote to Steve this morning:

Dear Steve:

Bread Furst has been open for six weeks now.

We have beautiful shelving on the wall facing our service line.  Old reclaimed wood, thick boards mounted against a white brick wall and as you can see we are doing very little with those shelves.  A few jams, honey, some Italian Nutella, mustard, the usual but hardly up to the creative standards of Steve Jenkins.

This is a bakery, a neighborhood bakery.  We make food of course because I have a butterfly mind and the neighborhood likes us to make food.  Sandwiches and salads and starting this week some dinner dishes for people to take home.  We have a bit of charcuterie and a nice little selection of cheeses.


We have a huge reach-in refrigerator that arrived weeks ago from Italy new but needing repairs.  When it is repaired we will produce more foods for take-home, a wide selection of spreads for breads that in the past customers have liked a lot — and I do too.

We’ve also started our pickling and canning program and all summer long we’ll make jams from local fruits and pickle vegetables.

But this is a bakery, a neighborhood bakery and I don’t want to lose the character of a bakery and become a food store with breads and pastries.  So the question I raise with you is what shall we do with all that shelving, the shelving behind the line, the shelving in the customer area.  Some of it will get occupied by our pickles and jams but not all of it.


I could go to New York for the fancy food show at the end of the month to look for other people’s foods but I know I will be overwhelmed by jams and mustards and candies and crackers and will be even more uncertain, if not nauseated.   I’d rather hear what you have to say.

Second question:  What do you think we should do with that deli case, the one pictured above.  Philippe (my son) thinks we should fill it with pastries so that customers have time to linger over them as they wait to order.  That means our charcuterie and cheese would be consigned to a little display case at the front and/or to the reach-in — when it is functioning.

“So what?” Philippe says, “You’re a bakery.  Why bother with that stuff anyway.  You’re not selling very much of it.”

So I appeal to you, Steve.


You know more about display (among other things) than anyone else and you are not known to be shy with opinions, even wrong-headed political ones.
What should we do?