BEHIND THE BYLINE • MELISSA CLARK
Putting a New Spin on Classic Recipes
The food writer Melissa Clark on the holidays, her favorite cookie and how she relaxes when she’s not cooking.
By Katie Van Syckle
Dec. 25, 2021
The food writer Melissa Clark, who is credited with introducing the world to the deep-fried Twinkie, has been a contributor to The Times since 1997. She has published thousands of recipes and has written A Good Appetite, her weekly Times column, since 2007. Ms. Clark, who divides her days between recipe testing and writing, has published trend stories, guides, countless articles, videos and 44 cookbooks, with a new one coming soon. Here, she talks about what the holidays are like for a food writer, her favorite cookie — shortbread — and how she could probably make a batch blindfolded.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you start writing for The Times?
I think the first thing I wrote was in 1997. A gentleman named Rick Flaste was the editor of what was then the Dining In/Dining Out section, and he asked me to do a little column called The Food Chain. This was before you could just go on wikiHow. People would write in with questions, and we would chose something to respond to in print. My first one was about beating egg whites and the proper technique for doing that. It wasn’t in the paper every week; it was probably like, twice a month or so. Rick would choose the questions, and then I’d write the response. Then, in 2007, when Pete Wells was the Dining editor, he gave me a column, and that was when A Good Appetite was born.
How would you describe the focus of your work at The Times?
When I starting out writing the column in 2007, food blogs were just beginning. And we were giving recipes a voice they hadn’t really had before. It was a new idea that Pete had to give writers the space to write about recipes in a slightly more personal way. It was a little bit personal and a little bit didactic — we were teaching you something. We were also letting you into the mind of a cook. We are still informed by the same idea that we are going to teach you things, and we’re going to give you delicious things to eat, and we’re going to let you in and show you some personalities.
When did you decide you wanted to be a food writer?
I always knew that I wanted to be a writer, and I didn’t know what form that would take. And so many food writers, especially in my generation, will say, “Well, I read M.F.K. Fisher.” And it came together, and I realized, oh, I can write about food in a careful, thoughtful way that was beyond writing about recipes. At that point, I started freelancing and did as much food writing as I could.
How do you come up with a recipe idea?
A lot of it comes from what I’m cooking at home. I’m also responding to what people want, what people are searching for, what my editors are talking about and what’s in the air. I’ll try to respond to a need like “We need more chickpea recipes.” For me, it’s trying to answer the question of how do I take a classic dish and then push it in a different direction from what we’ve seen before.
What are the holidays like for a food writer?
So whatever holiday it is, it takes place months before the actual holiday. Usually, I’m eating turkey in July, and I’m eating Christmas cookies in September. Then when the holiday comes, I’ll do something completely different for my family from what I’ve written about.
What is your favorite cookie to bake? Is it also your favorite one to eat?
Shortbread. I can make shortbread blindfolded. I make it all the time. It’s really easy. It’s delicious. I love eating it. I have the recipe committed to memory because there aren’t that many ingredients. It is so easy to change and adapt, and it is really fun to play with.
How do you decompress when you’re not working?
I try to run every day, go to the park every day. I do yoga. We love opera. We would go to a lot of operas; we would go to a lot of museum shows, but we haven’t been doing that as much. I spend more time in the park. I’ve been going on walks with friends. I’m also a big fiction reader. I especially love the 19th century, and I read a lot of 19th-century novels.