A whole new world in the kitchen
Reviewing Molly on the Range and A Common Table
A few years ago, I attended a cookbook writing panel with Alison Roman where she was asked about the way she uses ingredients like harissa, za’atar, and yuzu kosho in her recipes. She responded that as a white person, she didn’t want to be seen as an authority on any of the cuisines where those ingredients originate. Instead, she saw her role as introducing readers to those ingredients, in hopes they would be inspired to explore those cultures in more depth by seeking out the expertise of chefs of color.
In last issue’s review of Dessert Person, we saw Claire Saffitz take a similar position, dropping ingredients like garam masala, pomegranate molasses, and miso into her recipes. Both writers are part of the global pantry trend that has suffused mainstream food media over the past couple of decades, where recipes bring in ingredients from all over the world, too often removed from their cultural context. While the hearts of these writers and publications are arguably in the right place, ultimately it’s a pretty shallow way to introduce readers to ingredients from other cultures—and has readers of color demanding better.
So, today I want to focus on two cookbooks that do much more work to authentically bring readers into new cuisines. Written by two food bloggers, Molly Yeh’s Molly on the Range and Cynthia Chen McTernan’s A Common Table bring in memoir elements to deeply ground the recipes in their families’ cultures and their personal influences. Also, the recipes are bangers.
Both writers earned their book deals from the popularity of their blogs, My Name Is Yeh and Two Red Bowls. Maybe because of their blogging background, their books are very personal—really half cookbooks, half memoirs. In fact, they both have a bit of a rom-com structure, following the development of their relationships with their college/law school sweethearts into cohabitation and marriage, and depicting how they adopted their in-laws’ culinary traditions into their own home cooking.
Molly on the Range brings you into Molly Yeh’s world, taking you from the Chicago suburbs where she grew up to her college years studying percussion at Julliard, through a few years working as a writer and food blogger in Brooklyn before moving to her soon-to-be husband’s family farm on the North Dakota/Minnesota border. The recipes in the book are influenced by her Chinese and Hungarian-Jewish heritage; but also the foods she ate as a kid; the specialties she misses from New York; and her travels in Israel and Europe. She also dives deep into the food culture of the Upper Midwest and the Norwegian food traditions of her husband’s family.
Yeh’s writing is by turns irreverent and profound, describing her transition from a partier in college who could house a slice of Koronet pizza the size of a toddler while high on a weed brownie to a cozy homebody who realized she was ready to leave New York when she looked forward to ordering delivery from Domino’s. Having followed her husband back home to his family’s somewhat isolated sugar beet farm, she recreates a wider world for herself through her kitchen. Through her recipes, you’ll experience the delights of an Israeli breakfast with fluffy pitas and hummus “made correctly” (emphasis hers) that will ruin you for “cold acidic grocery-store hummus;” get a taste of Chinese American classics like potstickers and scallion pancakes; and try Jewish dishes with a twist like brunch brisket with challah waffles and rosemary sufganiyot with tomato jam. Yeh also extolls the popular dishes of the Upper Midwest, providing multiple variations on hotdish, the casserole that gets her community through freezing winters; and spinning up a version of cookie salad (“crushed cookies and mandarin oranges held together by Cool Whip and pudding and not an ounce of shame”) with pastry cream, whipped cream, and Italian rainbow cookies made from scratch.
Molly on the Range is a joy to read just as a memoir alone, but whichever recipes you do try out, you’ll find reliable. We make the pita and hummus so often the book actually fell apart, and I’ve drawn on some of the sweets to make birthday treats for my partner for years, such as the Sesame Coffee Cake and Chocolate Tahini Cake with Tahini Frosting. As far as the more intimidating recipes, I found the Rosewater Marshmallows so easy I was actually kind of shocked. (The recipe is time consuming, but not as difficult as it looks.) I decided to make the Za’atar Monkey Bread, which uses Yeh’s basic challah recipe, on an impulse on a weekday evening and found success with my first time ever making challah. We pulled off chunks of the incredibly light and fluffy bread, dipped them in garlic butter, and finished half the loaf in one night.
The book is so heavy on atmosphere that there’s a bit of a fantasy quality to it, exemplified by the homemade Lunchables (think: crackers and baloney made from scratch) in a section titled “Farm Lunch” that Yeh explicitly admits would actually be useless to the high-calorie needs of her farmer husband. Yeh’s entire job is food (she now has a show on Food Network which we frequently cook from at home) so she has more time to dig into these kinds of preparations. In contrast, Cynthia Chen McTernan had a toddler and a job as a corporate lawyer when she wrote A Common Table, so the recipe selection, while not without its projects, is a little more grounded in the time constraints of everyday life.
In the introduction to A Common Table, Cynthia Chen McTernan explains that the book is “a journal” of the food she makes for her family, “reflecting the myriad cultures and influences that make us who we are.” Chen grew up in South Carolina as part of a Chinese American family; her husband is from Hawaii and half-Korean; together they went to law school in Massachusetts, worked as corporate lawyers in New York, and have traveled in Southeast Asia—and all of these influences show up in her cooking.
The range of goodies in the breakfast section is representative of the variation throughout the book: the chapter starts off with congee (a rice porridge with many variations throughout East Asia), and includes Kimchi-Brined Spicy Chicken Biscuits, Condensed Milk Toast and Yuanyang (Hong Kong coffee tea), and Black Sesame-Stuffed French Toast. You can throw together something simple like a topped toast, or dig into making fried chicken and biscuits from scratch. You can have your breakfast from Hong Kong, China, or the American South with a Korean twist. And, you don’t have to worry about buying black sesame seeds and then having them languish in your cabinet after you make the Black Sesame French Toast, because Chen purposefully ensures that specialty ingredients are used multiple times throughout the book.
We’ve made something out of nearly every chapter of this book, drawing on it for weeknight meals, date night dinners, and holidays. Our most-cooked recipe is the beef bulgogi, which is has a sweet marinade that smells totally intoxicating when it hits the pan. The beef can be frozen in the marinade and the cooked meal makes great leftovers—basically the ideal situation when you’re cooking constantly in quarantine. The Bulgogi Burgers, topped with gochujang mayo and homemade fried shallots, are so good they’re basically the only way we cook burgers at home now. I also get my partner to make the My Favorite Cinnamon rolls recipe every year for Christmas morning, and I’ve seen from Chen’s Instagram that we’re not the only readers who have made them a Christmas tradition. They are the platonic ideal of a cinnamon roll: fluffy and rich but not too sweet or dense.
Overall, the recipes in this book are largely very cookable, and you might even find some of them enter the rotation of dinners you return to frequently. The book is also a real pleasure to read: Chen has a rare talent for describing every recipe in a convincing and eloquent way. For example, in the Spicy Ahi Poke recipe, she breaks down the traditional form of the dish and then explains:
My husband’s favorite is this creamier version, cloaked in a simple mixture of hot sauce and Kewpie mayonnaise after the poke has marinated, and topped with a confetti of masago or tobiko. The mild heat is a perfect contrast to the fresh, crisp tuna, and the pink sauce will cling seductively to any leftover rice in your bowl for a flavorful ending to your meal.
With these types of descriptions for her recipes, carefully introducing the origins of the dish and layering in her experience with it and/or the inspiration for her take, Chen does the work it really takes to broaden a reader’s horizons. Through her writing, she helps readers connect with different cultures by laying bare the emotional bonds we make with food.
Both Chen and Yeh succeed in the project Chen describes in her introduction:
Ultimately, I wrote A Common Table because I know food can bridge all kinds of distances, geographical or cultural, to bring us all around the table. It represents the traditions and loved ones from our past and present, and it can represent things that are totally new to us, too. Food is what connects us, a common denominator that sustains all of us, both physically and emotionally—and I hope this book will serve to make that only more true.
There’s so much variety in the recipes in these books I worry I didn’t have the space to capture it all. If you’re considering buying a copy, I encourage you to take a look at the recipe lists for each book on their Eat Your Books pages (I almost always do this before buying a cookbook). Molly on the Range recipe index | A Common Table recipe index
Molly Yeh develops more recipes for Food Network now than for her blog. You can find some clips of her show on YouTube.
Next issue: Look out for a special bonus issue on Friday, where I’ll share Cynthia Chen McTernan’s Bulgogi Burgers recipe!
Note: Links to books in my letters are affiliate links, and if you buy I will earn a small commission.