A Washington Post cookbook, at last

From kale chips to chocolate grapes, “The Washington Post Cookbook” came out with readers’ favorite recipes this week. Food Editor Bonnie Benwick talks about how she put the book together. (Gabriel Silverman/The Washington Post)

Of all the people who are gratified to wrap their arms around a Washington Post cookbook at last — hallelujah! — I’d wager few are more thrilled than me.

You’d think after a half-century or so of dedicated coverage, we would have put together our own compilation by now. Yet Monday was the official release date for our very first, “The Washington Post Cookbook: Readers’ Favorite Recipes.” It’s fitting that our readers had a hand in it. I was lucky enough to help bring it to life.

Newspapers have been a constant, trusted source of culinary inspiration for cooks who, depending on their own kitchen confidence, continue to clip-and-save with scissors or digital apps. You can’t beat the convenience of a newspaper recipe, or the price.

Talk of a Post cookbook came up now and then, reports Phyllis Richman, whose work enhanced the Food section for more than two decades. For various reasons, it never happened. We do have an online recipe database, of course. Input of archive material has been slower than we had intended. Somehow, though, a cookbook in the hand is worth a dozen links in your inbox.

Fast-forward to the end of 2011, when a real opportunity arose. The project would take extracurricular work, on a tight budget with a modest publisher. But it was time.

You’d think after a half-century or so of dedicated coverage, we would have put together our own compilation by now. Yet Monday was the official release date for our very first, “The Washington Post Cookbook: Readers’ Favorite Recipes.” (Cara Kelly/The Washington Post)

Once it got underway last year, two things became clear: Food pages and their audience have changed, yet the value and spirit of a newspaper food section remain the same. (I can think of a quick third thing: The need for new ways to cook chicken is never-ending.)

The size of this book and a relatively quick turnaround time dictated its scope. No encyclopedic tome, no attempt to place recipes into some sort of Washington-centric context — although that would have been deliciously entertaining.

Diving into the archives of Post food pages revealed for me a fascinating, broader arc: the buffets and silver trays of social mavens and foreign officers’ wives; the contests for quick casseroles made with canned conveniences; the rise of the poultry-fied nugget and the American melting pot; the reconnection with what is fresh and locally grown.

The writing evolved, ever more comprehensive and engaging. Staffers and freelancers explained the differences between quahogs and geoducks and tracked shopper interest in packaged turkey parts. Food coverage expanded beyond the kitchen counter and beyond the food section itself; amen to that. Authors introduced ingredients that called for committed consumerism around town; I’m convinced that the international aisles of supermarkets grew in response to weekly requests based, in part, on what our readers were inspired to try.

Each week in Food, we hear from those whose yellowed clippings are on the verge of ruin. Or from diners who remember the taste of a dish but don’t know what it takes to pull it off. Or from cooks who can’t remember when a recipe ran but can describe it in such detail that we understand just how much it means to them. We hear from the occasional disgruntled reader as well; out of those conversations sometimes comes a story idea or a pledge to right the wrong.

So we asked them, all of you, to tell us which recipes should fill the Post cookbook. Suggestions came with kind, fiercely loyal endorsements, such as “I like the Wash Post food section because the recipes are perfect for home cooks who want to make dishes their families will actually eat!” and “I have made it so frequently for guests, family and friends that the original article hardly ever gets refiled in my recipe folder, it just sits on top.” They arrived via e-mail, copier scans and handwritten 3-by-5 recipe cards.

In an age where a snarky thread of comments can attach itself to a story quicker than it takes to frost a cupcake, it was nice to sift through stacks of positive feedback.

In the end, I fear, too many recommendations were left behind, due to constraints of space and the requirements of chapter headings. But with the first cookbook under our belt and the promise of e-books to come, I’m hoping more requests will be honored, and single subjects given their due. Here’s looking at you, Cookies.

“The Washington Post Cookbook,” published by Time Capsule Press, costs $29.95 and is available at www.washingtonpost.com/cookbook as well as area stores where books are sold.

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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