AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Stanley Tucci, Rachael Ray and Patti LaBelle - what do these people have in common? They're among the 100 greatest home cooks of all time according to Epicurious. The idea for the list came from editor David Tamarkin. And while some of the names on his list are surprising, others are not - Julia Child, food critic Craig Kilborn and a man who helped redeem American cuisine, cookbook author and TV personality James Beard.
DAVID TAMARKIN: Before James Beard, there was no such thing as American cuisine - or perhaps there was an American cuisine, but it wasn't celebrated. And I think there was a pressure to cook continental, if you remember that word. And when we were thinking about that, we're thinking about French food, Italian food. We often think about the fanciest of those foods. So when we're thinking about French food, we're thinking about silky sauces and, you know, a duck confit and stuff like that, stuff that nobody in their right mind would ever make for dinner on a Tuesday night.
James Beard came along, and he said, you know, you don't only have to cook French food, but you should be cooking American food. And it can be way more simple. One of his most famous dishes is just, like, white onion on buttered toast I think. And he used to serve that as an appetizer - not cooking the onion. So it's an intense bite (laughter).
CORNISH: Oh, really (laughter)?
CORNISH: It's raw onion on toast.
TAMARKIN: Just raw white onion toast - that's one of his most famous dishes. So anyway, if you can get America to embrace that, you can do anything.
CORNISH: Another name on the list is Zephyr Wright. She was a Texas-born, college-educated White House chef for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. And her role's interesting because there was already a White House executive chef. So why did she make your list of a hundred all-time greats?
TAMARKIN: Well, they brought her from Texas and kept her on staff to cook for them on the second floor of the house in their private residence because they wanted to eat things like Texas chili and cornbread, and they didn't want to kind of mess with the fancy French (laughter) stuff that the official White House chef was making.
She was considered I think part of the Johnson family, and so when she brought up the hesitations she had about traveling with the Johnsons because, you know, she was a black woman, and at that time, she was being subjected to the indignities of segregation, Johnson reportedly took that to heart and said that it affected him very deeply and was one of the things that contributed to the Civil Rights Act.
CORNISH: In fact that he gave her one of the signing pens from signing that bill.
TAMARKIN: I think the words he said were, you know, you deserve this more than anybody, something like that.
CORNISH: Another pair - Malitta Jensen and Mildred Day - they created deserts for the Kellogg Company. I guess they're the people who brought us Rice Krispie Treats.
TAMARKIN: And how influential is that? We really tried to find people who were not only good cooks but impacted home cooking for home cooks to come. And so they created the Rice Krispie Treat as a promotional stunt, but now it's one of the first things that people cook. You know, you're a kid. You're helping your parents cook in the kitchen. Nine times out of 10, the first thing you're going to cook is a Rice Krispie Treat, so that's deeply impactful. So I love having them on the list.
CORNISH: Today there are so many sites out there for home cooks, not just Epicurious - Chowhound and just, like, a kabillion...
TAMARKIN: I've never heard of any of those.
CORNISH: ...Recipe blogs.
TAMARKIN: I don't know what you're talking about.
CORNISH: (Laughter) Right. Are we in a golden age of home cooking?
TAMARKIN: Home cooking is dying, so I would say, no, we are not in a golden age of home cooking. I think we're in a situation where, you know, more and more people are living in cities. And cities are great for home cooking because, you know, you have farmers' markets and grocery stores all around you. You mentioned we have access to recipes, so many recipes.
But we're also living in a time where a lot of the messaging out there about food is about restaurants. We're also living in this time where we're looking at food videos online. And people are looking at those more and more and more, but they're not cooking more and more. So...
TAMARKIN: I think we're seeing...
CORNISH: We're essentially looking at the video and being like, that would be great to do...
TAMARKIN: (Laughter) Right, right, right.
CORNISH: ...And then watching a movie - right? - on streaming (laughter).
CORNISH: Like, we're not rushing to the kitchen.
TAMARKIN: Yeah, I mean it's - I think what's happening is we are seeing cooking more and more as entertainment. What we want to do at Epicurious is we want to kind of push cooking as something that you do on more of a daily basis than - because we think that cooking has a lot of benefits.
CORNISH: David Tamarkin is editor of the website Epicurious. We spoke to him about their recent project, the list of the 100 greatest home cooks of all time.
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