M.F.K. Fisher. Ruth Reichl. Michael Pollan. Every generation produces a writer or two who unfailingly embraces the ethos of food and is driven to capture it in their own ineffable way. Meet Gabrielle Langholtz. In an era when there are enough food bloggers to break the Internet and the printed book has been declared dead (yet again), Ms. Langholtz will have published three tomes in as many years, taking readers on a literary tour of more nooks and crannies in the American food story than a generously buttered original Thomas’s English muffin.
“I’m not a great cook, but I like how food is a lens to everything,” says Langholtz, sitting on a park bench just a few blocks north of Union Square Market where, arguably, it all began. “History, geology, ecology, identity, our culture past and future. I find that stuff fascinating. I don’t read Cooks Illustrated and I’m not all about getting that perfect sear on your steak. The stories behind the food, that’s my jam.”
Langholtz, who started out after college as an intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was mired in a corporate communications job for a business magazine when she was sent to a conference in Paris. In between her daily tasks, she wandered through a farmers market by the Hotel Georges Cinq and decided that’s where her future lay. This being the age before Monster and Linkedin, she returned home and made a phone call to a tiny organization called the New York Greenmarket. The rest as they say…
Langholtz took over as special projects manager for the Greenmarket, handling everything from their newsletter and media relations to driving their van and running their foodstand program across the 50 markets in the city. “It was a super small, scrappy staff and everyone went to Oberlin, but I knew how to use Microsoft Excel, so I got the job,” she recalls.
In the midst of a what became a nine year run, she was contacted by the publisher of the burgeoning Edible magazine community, looking for someone to start an edition in Brooklyn. When Langholtz was done recommending every food writer she knew, they offered her the job. “My first thought was ‘what do I do? What’s a 700-word story? What’s a subhead? When does this all go to a copy editor?'” A quick study and some very good ink from the New York Times and New York magazine put Edible Brooklyn firmly on the food scribing map. In due time, Langholtz was also handed the reins to Edible Manhattan.
Still running Greenmarket, as well as what now amounted to three simultaneous jobs, enter the farmer, cue change. Langholtz met Craig Haney, the livestock husband (yes, that was his title) for The Stone Barn Center for Food and Agriculture – home to Chef Dan Barber’s destination restaurant, an hour north of New York City. Not long after, Langholtz and Haney’s daughter entered the scene.
“Bess had an organic farmer for a dad and a writer for a mom. Her first food was salmon caviar. At the age of 12 months I got a terrible fever and couldn’t move, so Craig put her in a snowsuit and strapped her onto the back of his tractor. Farmers can’t take a day off of work. You could say the die was cast from a very early age.”
In the meantime, run down from three jobs and tasked with raising a farm girl, a new twist tempted when Langholtz was introduced to Phaidon book editor Emily Takoudes, who was in search of someone to take on a big unnamed project about American food. “We had a phone interview. I told her all the reasons the book would not work and what’s more, I was the wrong person for the job. Three months later when she hired me, I signed the contract as fast as I could before she realized what a big mistake she had made,” said Langholtz.
That big mistake, two years later, hit the bookstores as AMERICA: THE COOBOOK, a 750-recipe project spanning all 50 states. “It celebrates true regionalism of our country, the iconic dishes,” explains Langholtz. “It dispels the misimpression that America is only the land of fast food. We are all about spectacular food, wild game, and food from immigrants of centuries. And it gets a bit more delicious every day.”
With New York City and her 9 to 5 behind her, a deeper dive into country living ensued when Haney took on a new livestock farming job in Bucks County, PA. “Everything they raise is donated to Philadelphia soup kitchens,” says Langholtz. “And we get to live on 25 acres amidst winding roads, flowering trees, stone walls, free range chickens and the Delaware River.”
Another book from Phaidon followed, UNITED TASTES, which is a collection of recipes curated for kids from all 50 states. “Bess worked on it with me,” Langholtz notes. “You should see the edits, She shredded it!” Which begs the obvious question: Is Bess a city girl or a country girl?
“She’s been on a tractor since she was born,” says Langholtz. “She collects eggs, knows how to test a fence and when the cows need water. The first time she tasted honey harvested out of a hive was a religious experience. That’s part of her life. But she’s just a regular fourth grader who loves to read and hates New York City.” Langholtz paused. “She came out of me and doesn’t like New York City? I can’t really believe it. I guess she’s kind of a farm girl. She loves it out there with her dad.”
Meanwhile, Langholtz soldiers on in her multiple roles as country mom and city writer. Her latest magnus opus, due out this fall, is called A PLACE AT THE TABLE, a loving compendium of 40 immigrant chefs that she produced for the Vilcek Foundation. “It was hard to choose only 40. There is this unfair stereotype that immigrant chefs are somehow lowbrow, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our greatest chefs are immigrants, with Michelin stars and huge ideas, from Mexico and Sweden and the Philipines and Nigeria.”
Langholtz’s eyes light up as she goes on. Then she checks her cell phone. New York is emptying out to the late-day spring sunshine. Bess’s sitter is texting. Langholtz grabs her coffee and with a hasty goodbye, makes a beeline to Penn Station. She’s got a train to catch to Trenton and then another 45 minute drive out to the farm. She’ll have dinner on the table for her family by eight.
Three things she can’t live without in the morning: Coffee, kisses from Bess and a poached egg.
Adult beverage of choice: I like spirits. A nice peaty scotch does it.
iTunes or Spotify: I’m a complete podcast addict. “Still Processing” from the New York Times is my latest favorite.
Person you’d most like to hang with at a bar: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I adore her story “The Headstrong Historian” from The New Yorker. She’s from Lagos. Perhaps she’d take me to a Nigerian restaurant.
If you were not a writer: Radio producer! I did a week of shows at WNYC and it was so much fun.
The No. 1 thing your husband does for you daily: He is such a great dad. Just super awesome. (Long pause.) Parenting is hard. He is the best dad.