I admit I wouldn’t have bought the Dirt Candy Cookbook if it weren’t a graphic novel. I don’t normally buy cookbooks and especially wouldn’t buy a vegetarian cookbook. Because I’m so used to having meat in all of my meals, I’ve never even gone to Dirt Candy, Amanda Cohen’s tiny East Village vegetable restaurant, because every time I walk past I realize it’s only a block away from bacon-wrapped chili hot dogs at Crif Dogs.
Despite all these things I have against it, the Dirt Candy Cookbook is the best cookbook I’ve ever read.
Of course, that might not mean anything since I almost never read cookbooks. But in terms of pure value, the Dirt Candy Cookbook is an automatic easy Christmas gift: $20 for an illustrated 224-page creative work, signed by Cohen, and with free shipping. I challenge you to find any boutique brand in New York that offers such a generous deal.
During dinner, I stopped in Dirt Candy just to buy a couple books for gifts and the restaurant’s 18-seats were already filled. But Cohen was nice enough to take the time to come out and sign both books. In one of them, she wrote “Vegetables are your friends!”, which is just the kind of cutesy, lovey-dovey message you’d expect from someone who doesn’t chop up cows for a living.
But Cohen’s philosophy on vegetables is not at all wimpy. I’d even call it militant, except “militant vegetarian” brings to mind someone who blows up farms to save the animals. On the contrary, in her cookbook, Cohen makes no moral stance about meat-eating. Her aggressive opinion is this: Why eat meat when you can eat much better-tasting vegetables?
Cohen believes vegetables can compete with meat if they’re treated with the same kind of fatty decadence. She claims to have had an epiphany when Julia Childs visited her in a dream one night: “You have to use more salt. More butter. More fat. More spice. More vinegar. More wine. More sugar. More flavor. More! MORE! MORE!”
(In other words, if Mayor Bloomberg were to start targeting vegetarian restaurants as part of his health crusade, Cohen’s Dirt Candy would be the first to be shut down.)
Here’s a sample of her Cohen’s repertoire: Kimchi Doughnuts, Grilled Cheese Croutons (“superior to regular croutons in every way”), Maple Asparagus Paella, Celery Pesto, Smoked Maple Butternut Squash (which Cohen claims is the best vegetarian bacon substitute), Pear and Beet Leather, Portobello Mousse, and Broccoli Ice Cream.
(Cohen competed on Iron Chef in a broccoli cookoff. Cohen says she knew things would be bad when one of the judges remarked how she liked her broccoli “nude”; Dirt Candy “doesn’t do nude,” Cohen later blogged, “if she wants “nude” vegetables I suggest she go to a strip club.”)
I can’t vouch for any of Cohen’s recipes since I haven’t eaten or tried them. I do like her philosophy of breaking down her complex dishes into modular recipes, which can be cooked separately or left out as your skill and time permits. It’s an approach to cooking that seems non-traditional but appeals to non-traditional cookbook readers like me.
There’s actually a lot about the Dirt Candy cookbook that makes it great for me but maybe not so great for regular cookbook readers. For example, in true graphic novel form, there are no color photographs of what the food should actually look like, which is a huge departure from modern cookbooks (and virtually every food-related blog). On the other hand, the illustrations by Brooklyn cartoonist Ryan Dunlavey pack a lot of educational value. I’m sort of a geek for creative teaching methods, and so I love how the Dirt Candy cookbook goes beyond the traditional ingredient listing and paragraph-form narrative with the use of pullout quotes and diagrams to catch the eye as you browse the page.
Another reason Dirt Candy may not be a good cookbook: large sections of it are not cookbook at all, but are devoted to a surprisingly personal memoir of how Cohen struggled to open and keep Dirt Candy running, even as it’s become a star darling today. She goes into detail about her fights with contractors ($400,000 just to open the restaurant), the actual cost of a salad’s ingredients ($2.10), the injuries she’s sustained (“scar from spilling one gallon of boiling soup down pants”), and even her occasional doubts about whether all the stress is worth it (“Maybe we need our delusions. Maybe they’re what gets us through the tough times.”)
These biographical sections have no informational value in terms of food recipes. But they end up being just as compelling as the food. The novelty of the cookbook-as-graphic-novel is reason enough to check out Cohen’s cookbook. But it turns out to be the right kind of gimmick for Cohen’s ideas and philosophy, the way that a entree’s visual preparation enhances its actual substance and flavor.
If you want to sample more of Cohen’s perspective before buying her book, check out her blog. It’s not just a well-written restauranteur blog, it’s a well-written blog, period, perhaps one of the most consistently maintained restauranteur blogs that isn’t filled with smarmy self-promotional writing. Instead of just patting herself on the back for a recent rave review in the New York Times, Cohen remarks how unsettling it is that the reviewer managed to sneak into her tiny restaurant – at least three times – without her noticing.
And this is how she handled her first mainstream review:
We just got our first mainstream print review in the New Yorker’s “Tables for Two” section in the front of the magazine. My husband got written up in the New Yorker a few years ago in which they wrote, “Grady Hendrix…doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would enjoy watching a man bite through his arm while masturbating inside a burlap sack, but he is.” After having my husband called out as a demented pervert (which he is, but still…) in the New Yorker I knew the stakes were high and I prepared myself accordingly, instantly purging Dirt Candy of all burlap sacks and banning my employees from any masturbating – either inside a sack or otherwise – while on the premises.
On that note, the Dirt Candy Cookbook is one of the most genius things I’ve read all year, a visually-creative work that makes both a convincing case for vegetables (plus butter plus deep fryers plus whipped cream) and for trying to live the dream (or delusion) in New York.
If you’re in the NYC area, I noticed that the MoMA Design Store (at least the one in SoHo) had a few copies. You could probably buy one and walk over to Dirt Candy to get it signed by Cohen…I don’t think she’ll cut you just for interrupting the dinner hour.
Edit: Cohen announced she will be at the Union Square Greenmarket signing copies of her book (Dec. 15)…probably the last chance to get the book signed before the holidays.
(Source: Flickr / zokuga)