Angels

Erik Tanner/The New York Times/Redux

Deb Perelman Could Do This Forever

The woman behind Smitten Kitchen avoids dinner burnout by cooking not for her kids but for herself.

When Deb Perelman and I sidle up to the counter of a bakery in New York City, she tells the cashier she just wants water. Already sweating in my puffer coat, wondering where we will sit, I panic when it is my turn to order. At a loss, I ask her what’s good, stammering about how we need to order a food item for the opening paragraph of my profile of her. Without blinking, Deb points to the chocolate rugelach and I ask for four. Deb then locates my mint tea for me and guides us outside to sit under the heat lamps, where she settles us. As someone who has read her blog and cooked her recipes for going on 15 years now, I realize that this is all I want, ever: to sit somewhere cozy with a carb in hand and have Deb Perelman tell me what to do.

Deb has been doing this for a lot of people for a long time, at least on the internet anyway. She hit publish on her first recipe in July 2006 and has since published an archive of recipes that must number into the thousands, not to mention three cookbooks, the first two of which spent a combined 19 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Her latest, Smitten Kitchen Keepers: New Classics For Your Forever Files, gives us the best of what we've come to expect over the years, new-and-improved, but still accessible, versions of standard recipes that you'll want to add to your repertoire and then come back to again and again.

Deb knows that the internet is awash in recipes and viral food trends on social media and cooking sites you’ve never heard of that have perfected the SEO for “chicken with orzo," but Deb is the rare star of a different era of the internet who is still doing what she loves and what has made us love her: posting meticulously researched and tested recipes, charmingly written and photographed by her.

“He maybe gets it,” Perelman says of her 13-year-old son. “He’ll be like, ‘My teacher said she likes your recipes.’”Photo by Deb Perelman
Deb’s daughter, age 7, thinks her mom is a terrible cook. Photo by Deb Perelman
1/2

All of my friends want to know what Deb Perelman is like in person, and to each of them I relish reporting the same thing: She is just how you’d think. Totally normal. Funny, neurotic. Only an inch or two taller than me. (I am not tall.) “She would totally be our friend.”

For what it’s worth, Deb claims she would totally be our friend, too. “When I talk to people over the years, I'm like, ‘No, I actually think we could be good friends,’” she says. “I don’t see why we wouldn’t be. I understand we live in different places, we have different lives, but I’m sure that we draw each other, if that makes sense?”

She says the vibes are always very good when she goes on tour and that she feels very lucky. She describes her typical cookbook-signing audience as “just a bunch of people and their moms.”

I thought of this comment the next evening when I went to the first of many Smitten Kitchen Keepers events, where Deb would be in conversation with novelist and Brooklyn bookstore owner Emma Straub. It really was a bunch of people and their moms, lined up around the block in the subfreezing Brooklyn Heights night. I was laughing to myself and thinking that those of us who were attending solo would probably buy two copies and give the extra one to our mom for the holidays, when a pair of elderly women with deep Brooklyn accents walked by and asked us who we were lined up to see. Somebody told her.

“Who’s that?” she demanded. “Is she from the Food Network?”

“I mean how many times are you having a panic spiral when you’re making a recipe?”

No, she’s not from the Food Network. She’s from the internet. She is from our texts to friends (“Deb does it again”), our midday emails to our spouses (“We should make this”), and our inner monologue while we cook (“Deb says September is secretly the best month for summer produce”). She’s there in our flush of embarrassed pride at a dinner party, when somebody compliments our galette or our fritters, and we shrug humbly and say, “Smitten Kitchen,” by way of explaining how we have suddenly transformed into a domestic goddess.

“One of the things that I find comforting about you,” Straub tells Deb that night on stage, “is that whenever I need to cook anything... I can just go to Smitten Kitchen or go to one of your books, and I can find it there. You’re like, ‘Yes. Here’s the banana bread.’ And then you’re like, ‘Just kidding, I made it better.’ Which I think is so lovely. That it’s like, it is an archive. But it’s also a living organism, and I as a user, I feel like you are so present there. It feels like a community.”

I imagine I’m not the only person who learned how to cook via Smitten Kitchen. When I get to tell Deb this, after all these years, in person, I feel like I might cry into my chocolate rugelach. When I ask her about her approach to recipe-writing, it becomes clear that this is no coincidence.

“I think that you should be able to make a recipe and it should come out exactly like the picture, and it should work for you the first time, even if you have very limited cooking knowledge.” And if not? “Then the recipe didn’t do a good job.”

She understands it’s a high hurdle, but that’s also the point. It’s her job, as she puts it, to “take the static out of a recipe” — to anticipate any little thing that might cause us a problem and call it out. After all, she has been around long enough to know that the last thing the internet needs is another mediocre recipe.

When Smitten Kitchen the blog first launched, it was chattier and more offhanded, full of funny commentary and Flickr links. There from the beginning though, was Perelman’s distinctive voice, developed by her preceding blog The Smitten, a Sex and the City-era accounting of online dating and then planning her wedding to her husband, Alex, whom she met through the blog.

Now married with two kids, Perelman still works from the tiny home kitchen in her Manhattan apartment. And while she maintains the curiosity and openness of the amateur, she marries it with the rigor of an obsessive. She tells me that as the site has gotten bigger over the years, she has “doubled and tripled and even quadrupled down” on how picky she is about posting a recipe and getting it right.

Inspired by a dish from Union Square Cafe, this charred brussels sprouts toast with ricotta is an old-school favorite of Deb’s. Photo by Deb Perelman

On Instagram, Smitten Kitchen has 1.6 million followers, and these days I’m more likely to find her new recipes from her newsletter than Google Reader. Yes, she still moderates her own comments section. No, she has not learned how to delegate. Productivity might be down, she says, but she has gained a clarity of focus. “I think kids can do that, they force you to do time management better,” she explains.

Perelman’s kids are 7 and 13. After much debate, she and her husband decided the kids would stop by the event tonight, just to say hi. They will be coming from school and then Hebrew school, and she tries to limit the chances for them to be publicly scrutinized. “I just feel like when they were little ducklings, I could cart [them] around and put their faces up, but I just feel like now they’re people and it’s a long day,” she says.

I ask her if her kids get what she does for a living, or know how successful she is. Her son is 13. “He’ll be like, ‘My teacher likes your recipes.’” Her daughter, 7, can’t wrap her head around the whole thing yet, but Perelman thinks that’s a good thing. “She shouldn’t have to,” she says. “I mean, I can’t wrap my head around it, and I’m 46!”

“I think we get burned out when we’re trying to serve people who are unhappy tyrants.”

I think to myself how lucky they are, to have Smitten Kitchen for a mom! A woman who never lost touch with her desire or curiosity! Whose kitchen is always producing the most delicious food.

“Your daughter, though,” I ask. “She must love your food?”

“No, she hates my cooking,” she deadpans. “I have a kid. Are you kidding? She hates food. She thinks I’m actually a terrible cook, and she finds this whole thing very baffling.”

I ask her if she was ever tempted to make her work more kid-centric, especially after she became a mother. “I think definitely people wanted that,” she says, “and I think I’ve resisted it in part ’cause I didn’t want to feel pigeonholed. And I also am not sure I wish to cook for them.”

I laugh. That word: wish!

There have been several chocolate chip recipes on Smitten Kitchen, but these chocolate chip cookies with salted walnut brittle are “the very most perfect” chocolate chip cookie for Deb.Photo by Deb Perelman

“Just hear me out,” she says, as if I wouldn’t. “What if we cooked for us? And I don’t mean in a Mommy wanted sausage tonight and that’s all you get for dinner. Hope you’re hungry, kids way. I just mean that kids are really picky and they have their own opinions about food. And believe me, I hear it, I absorb it. It’s in my head every time I make a choice about food. But I could just make everything that they say they want and they would still not eat it. And then I would be very sick of cooking, very quickly. I think we get burned out when we’re trying to serve people who are unhappy tyrants.”

Deb tells me she hears from a lot of people who stopped cooking after they had kids, because it just wasn’t fun anymore, serving said tyrants. She says it bums her out.

It bums me out, too, living it, with a few notable aberrations. One of those aberrations, I’m delighted to tell her, is the recipe I just made from Keepers: charred salt and vinegar cabbage. My 8-year-old son said to tell her it was amazing. Miraculously, he devoured it. “And you were right,” I said. “I thought it was going to burn—”

“Because what if somebody doesn’t tell you that?” she says, energized. (The headnote on the recipe reads: “It’s going to seem too charred, too vinegary, too vegetal when you first pull it from the oven, but the pan will not make it to the table intact.” Correct.)

“I mean how many times are you having a panic spiral when you’re making a recipe?” she asks. “Because you didn’t know that the dough was supposed to stick to the counter or if the cabbage was going to seem like it was burning?”

Ginger garlic chicken noodle soup — for days when no one wants to go outside, but no one wants to spend all day making chicken broth, either. Photo by Deb Perelman

This is why we trust her. I know that Perelman has tested and retested every recipe she posts, and that, after all these years, she still has us in her mind as she walks us through the steps. “Whatever voice is living inside me is not one who thinks that I am actually very much better at cooking than other people,” she tells me. “I’m just more obsessive and I have more time, since I’ve been allowed to make this a career.”

And that is my relationship to her as a reader, that is our contract: Deb makes the cake 10 times over and explains it to me in such a way that I, a humble mom who has one shot at cooking her kid’s birthday cake, can pull it off on the first try. And in exchange for her skill and wisdom and good taste, I put my eyeballs on her website, share her recipes with all my loved ones, and am first in line to buy her cookbooks (plus a copy for my mom).

And that trust and loyalty is what separates Smitten Kitchen from so much so-called “food content.” I don’t come to Deb Perelman for lifestyle tips — there is no Deb home tour, or Deb serving ware, or Deb-core aesthetic — I come to her when I need to cook something wonderful and eat it in my real life. I come to Deb to experience the satisfaction of pulling something off — because with her, whether what she’s making is difficult or simple, random or iconic, it’s about the thrill of getting it right, and helping other people get it right, too.

“And it’s not like my way is right and your way is wrong,” she explains. “The right way is the way that works for you, but I’m going to share the thing that worked for me, that I thought was really cool.”

The next night, onstage with Straub, she tells the audience she could do this forever, that there are still so many recipes she wants to perfect. She still does get really excited when something works.

And I believe her, because I feel the same way.

You can order Smitten Kitchen Keepers and keep up with Deb’s book tour on her website.

Photo by Deb Perelman