Author: Nathan Williams with Rebecca Parker Payne
Publication Date: October 15th, 2013
Read: March 2014
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Rating: 3 Shared Meals
This cookbook will always have the odd distinction of being the one where I opened it up to a random page while browsing and saw my cousin’s wedding photographer staring right back at me. Weird coincidence, right? Check out page 250. There he is! (Took really beautiful photos of the wedding, too.) …I’m trying to come up with some way to connect this to the cookbook itself and what I thought of it, but am failing. Basically I just wanted to share that little tidbit because it was completely unexpected and made me laugh. Okay, moving on.
Kinfolk Magazine is a popular small press quarterly that bills itself as “the lead entertaining magazine for young food enthusiasts and adventure-seekers” and “a blueprint for a balanced, intentional lifestyle.” I’ve seen the magazine in my wanderings about the internet, and the relaxed, simple, rural-hipster vibe appealed to me. I haven’t picked up a copy yet, so when I saw this cookbook by the same people come up on NetGalley, I thought it would be a good way to try it out and get a sense of what Kinfolk is all about.
I love everything that the founder of the magazine, Nathan Williams, talks about in his introduction. He discusses the rituals of gathering together with friends to cook and eat, and how this sort of entertaining inhabits some middle ground between simply hanging out and the rigid, la-tee-dah associations the word “dinner party” can have. He says the idea for the magazine was “born in the course of trying to describe those evenings spent with friends when the hours pass effortlessly, conversation flows naturally, cooking is participatory, and the evening ends with a satisfying sense of accomplishment.” The goal of the magazine is to demonstrate this idea of entertaining and to make it accessible to younger people like himself and his friends. What he describes as casual, meaningful entertaining is something I’m totally behind—I’ve experienced it often in my life, though I never really thought of it in those terms until I read what he’d written about it. Some of those experiences that immediately came to mind while reading included my junior year of college, when my flatmates (of whom Susan was one) and I were the odd ducks who did not subsist on pizza and cheetos, but had higher aspirations for our comestibles. We had an impressive collection of cookbooks and planned out all of our meals a week in advance, assigned people to cook each night of the week, and had a complicated but accurate system for dividing up the grocery bills. We ate dinner at the table together most nights, and for those roomies who could not attend we always saved leftovers. Our senior year, when Susan and I were test cooking for the newspaper column we wrote together, we often invited friends over to help in the process and partake of the results. Later, when I was living in Japan, the other foreign English teachers in my city and I instituted what we called Magic Mondays, where we would gather at one of our apartments and have a delicious dinner that the host cooked for us, talking and venting and laughing until it was time to go home and look forward to the next Monday, when we would descend upon whomever was next on the rotation schedule. Having experienced myself how fun, warm, and good-for-the-spirit these kinds of social interactions can be, I was excited to read about other people identifying and exploring that idea.
For this book, Williams traveled the world to visit the homes of many contributors to the magazine to experience their style of hospitality within this uncomplicated-yet-intentional idea of entertaining, and to gather some recipes they like to make for others. And here’s where The Kinfolk Table parts ways with most traditional cookbooks: It’s concerned with the people who provided the recipes as much as, if not more than, the recipes themselves. Which kinda makes sense, given the Kinfolk outlook on life and entertaining. The book is organized by cities (or areas) visited, and for each city, he profiles the people he met there. For each person, couple, or family, he talks a bit about what they do and how they exemplify the ideas behind Kinfolk, and then presents a recipe or two from them. Sometimes there are no recipes, but instead a suggested menu inspired by the person and the time spent with them.
It’s a pretty cool idea, but at the same time it can be a little disappointing if you’re expecting a cookbook. For a 340-page book, there are only 88 recipes, and that’s with me counting the menu ideas as recipes. If all you’re interested in is the food you can easily skip the Kinfolker profiles, but the organizational system makes it difficult to locate something specific, since there are no chapters devoted to desserts, or breakfasts, or anything like that. There is an index, but it’s a book much more suited to browsing and sticky noting rather than hunting down something particular. The recipes themselves are fresh and tasty-sounding, ranging from the exceedingly simple (sorry cousin’s wedding photographer, but do I really need a recipe to show me how to eat melon with yogurt?) to the more complicated but still doable (making your own phyllo dough!). They emphasize enjoying nature’s bounty and what’s local and in season. There are some cool international recipes, as well as many family classics and new inventions from varied cultural backgrounds, but there weren’t actually all that many that really jumped off the page at me and stuck in my mind like, oooh, gotta try making that. A couple that did stick with me were the Vanilla, Lavender, and Earl Grey Chocolate Pudding with Sea Salt and the Sugar Snap Peas with Fresh Mint and Whipped Ricotta. I also enjoyed learning about Danish open-faced sandwiches from the author’s friends in Copenhagen, and about pulla, a Finnish dessert bread. Yum! Many of the recipes, though, are for simple things, and while simple can definitely be delicious, I had hoped more of them would grab me and inspire me to make them.
The photography is beautiful, and showcases the people and places of the book with an artful, rustic simplicity. It’s hipster-y in the barn wedding, Madewell catalogue sort of way, but there’s no denying the beauty of the images. There are more pictures of the people and places than of the food from the recipes, and when there are pictures of the food the focus seems to be more on presenting it artistically than in getting a good look at the finished product itself (though to be fair, there are sometimes photos that put the attention fully on the prepared dishes). Personally I would’ve liked more of a balance between people/places and food photography, but that’s just me. And like I said, no matter how you slice it, the images are simply elegant and evocative.
Sometimes there’s header text for the recipes from the person who provided them, but often there’s not. Most of the non-recipe prose is in the author’s individual profiles preceding the recipes. For the most part, it was inspiring to read about people living creative lives and following their dreams while also making a priority out of spending time with friends and family, talking and eating. I liked that it wasn’t only young people, and that there was a range of professions represented, many of them creative in nature, but sometimes the words used to talk about these people and their lives and style of hospitality felt sort of…fabricated. Sometimes I got swept up in the beauty of the words, and other times I found myself getting a little irritated. Some words cropped up over and over again in the profiles, things like “nourish,” “easy hospitality,” and “meaningful conversation.” All good things and evocative phrases, but after reading them so many times to describe so many different people, true as they may be, they started to lose their power. At times the writing felt like it was trying too hard, and was more concerned with making sentences sound pretty and wise than in what they actually said. And though the writing was usually inspiring, there were times I got a mild hipper, organic-er, creative-er-than-thou vibe that was a little off-turning…like they’re trying to convince me these people never buy their pie dough from a store when they’re in a hurry, like they never get a craving for a McDonald’s French fry, like they never watch TV when they could be outside.
But maybe that’s just me. Despite any aspects of the writing that may have bugged me after 300+ pages, I still fervently support the ideas expounded upon in the introduction, which the author sums up nicely at the end of that section: “Entertaining looks different for each of us, but as long as we’re cooking and inviting people into our homes with a genuine interest in connecting, conversing, and eating together, then the way we do these things becomes insignificant and ultimately comes naturally.” I couldn’t agree more, and overall, it’s cool to read about people who live interesting lives, incorporate these ideals into them, and are kind enough to share some of their favorite recipes (though I would’ve liked a higher recipe-to-other-stuff ratio). There may not have been a ton of recipes that immediately made it onto my must-try list, but there are a few I’m looking forward to and others I wouldn’t be averse to trying out at some point. I’d categorize it as more of a lavishly photographed lifestyle or entertaining manifesto with recipes than a full-on cookbook, and though it’s not a favorite, I might pick it up someday.
*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.