Christopher Kimball still recalls the first time he had cilantro. It was 1963, and he was on vacation with his family in Mexico.
"I can still to this day remember that bite—it was lamb and cilantro, and it was very pungent and floral and gamey and wild," Kimball says from Denver, where he was touring with the food-themed variety show he brings to Portland on Tuesday.
You could trace Kimball's new magazine venture, Milk Street, to that day, when a kid from New England encountered an herb that's now available at every grocery store in America. Fifty years later, the former America's Test Kitchen founder has pivoted to ingredient-focused cooking that eschews the careful technique and long cook times of traditional American and European recipes.
Milk Street focuses on worldly recipes that are also easy—and if that sounds like a contradiction, that's just because you've marinated too long in a Eurocentric worldview.
"We want the stuff that people cook on Tuesday night, as opposed to the more ornate and exoticised version of ethnic food," Kimball says. "Most people around the world don't think about cooking the way Mastering the Art of French Cooking did… Most people don't figure out what they're going to eat at 5 at night."
In some ways, this is a departure from Kimball, who's been in the culinary publishing business for nearly 40 years. Kimball launched Cook's Magazine in 1980, when he was just 29 years old. He later sold it to a publishing consortium, bought it back, took on the recently departed Si Newhouse Jr. as a partner, and adapted it into Cook's Illustrated.
If you know Kimball's name and bowtie, it's probably because he launched the America's Test Kitchen television show in 2001 ("In this day and age it's really had to be a single-platform publisher," he says). The show featured Kimball and other chefs working out kinks in familiar recipes to make "the perfect chocolate chip cookies" and mainstreaming techniques like spatchcocking chicken. That led to a spin-off magazine and several books. If you've participated in an office potluck, you've probably eaten one of his recipes.
Kimball had an acrimonious split with America's Test Kitchen in 2015. The company subsequently sued him for stealing their intellectual property, with Kimball counter-suing for defamation.
In October 2016, Kimball launched Milk Street with the premise that if you "start with the right mix of ingredients… the cooking almost takes care of itself." The idea isn't necessarily to present "authentic" dishes but to take the ideas and ingredients other cultures use for easy weekday meals and adapt them to the American kitchen.
To do that, Milk Street's articles often start with a visit to a skilled home cook or small-time restaurateur who explains what they do and why as the writer looks on, recording rough estimates of the proportions of each ingredient and the order in which they're used.
I've made one of the recipes, a Vietnamese meatball and watercress canh. It's a simple soup with pork meatballs in chicken broth, and stands in sharp contrast to a major undertaking like pho. What the canh lacked in complexity, it made up for in the short prep time.
It's a lesson Kimball says he's been constantly reminded of since he shifted his mindset—such as when he encountered clams steamed with lemongrass in Vietnam, or when he visited with Portland-based Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker in Thailand.
"When I was in Thailand, it's mostly prep. The cooking isn't really the issue, it's the prep. And they're starting with such bold ingredients that you can't really go wrong because you're starting out with a ton of flavor," he says. "Once you've had Pok Pok, it's hard to go back to chicken pot pie. Americans love big flavors and they always have. Look at the fast food people, they figured that out long ago."
The problem with traditional American cooking, in Kimball's view, basically boils down to the fact that it takes too long and uses too much meat. That's something we inherited from the Europeans who settled here.
"Every place in the world came up with a cuisine that made sense for that place. The fact that roasted meat was the centerpiece of the Western European plate is because it was cheap, and you had lot of fuel," he says. "French cooking doesn't really use spices because Europe didn't really have spices—and it's kind of weird if you think about it. I grew up with a cuisine that didn't use spices, and that's why it was all about technique… there was a lot of time and heat and technique required to develop flavor, subtly."
Why has this shift taken so long, and why is it changing now?
"Everybody in the last 10 years has a much wider experience with a variety of foods than they did before, and it's greatly accelerated," he says. "When I grew up in the '60s, going to a Mexican restaurant was big deal—there was the band and the Saltillo tiles and the whole thing, it was some exotic experience… Let's get over that exotic thing, they're not really exotic, they're just people putting dinner on the table."
But making food from another culture can, of course, create some tension. Cultural appropriation is now a hot-button issue in the food world, a phenomenon that became clear in Portland when two young American women went on a surfing trip to Mexico and then launched a brunch pop-up called Kooks, where they served breakfast burritos made from flour tortillas they learned to make by observing Mexican women's tortilla-making techniques.
Online activists charged the burrito makers with stealing the secrets of the women making the common northern Mexican staple. The cart closed after receiving a torrent of anger and several death threats, setting off a spiral of think pieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Partisan blogs waged a pitched fight: Bitch magazine discussed Kooks as a reason "why some people of color create safe spaces where it's okay to perform Brownness without an exploitative or judgmental white gaze." A Daily Caller writer decried the fact that "I'm old enough to remember when living in a racial and cultural melting pot was a good thing."
It's a fight Kimball watched closely. Appropriation is, he says, "the third rail of the culinary world right now." While he says that "stealing is stealing," he also says that "you can't copyright a recipe."
"Cooking is a performance art. If you get 12 people together and make the same recipe, every one of them will turn out differently. You can't take a recipe out of a culture successfully," he says. "It's not like it's a piece of music or poem or a book—it's an instruction."
But, Kimball says, it's important to provide context and credit.
"It's how you do it," he says. "First of all, you have to give credit, and we always do. We always make it very clear where it came from, who inspired it and make sure they're front and center. And then you have to have a lot of respect for the context of the recipe… A recipe doesn't exist as some fixed thing, it's always evolving. So as long as you give credit where credit is due and you're respectful of that culture and the context, I think it's fine. Especially if it's a recipe where there are hundreds of variations that already exist."
That puts Milk Street in an interesting place—the whole project rejects Western culinary supremacy and delves into the wealth of cuisines from around the world.
"At this point in society we don't have to stick with what made sense 100 years ago. American cooking is still basically Fannie Farmer," he says. "Obviously it has advanced, but it's still the same precepts. People still talk about making stock and sautéing meats and pan sauces. Now that we have the option of using the other ingredients and techniques, we don't have to do that anymore, let's do what makes sense."
GO: Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Live appears at the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 503-234-9694, aladdin-theater.com. 7 pm. $45-$95.