For years, Sam Sifton’s job required him to reserve a table under an assumed name at a New York City restaurant, eat dinner and write about it. Five or six nights a week. In one of his reviews, he described a tapioca, oyster and caviar appetizer as “not food so much as a poem about creaminess, a meditation on brine, a sculpture about the delicious.”
Yes, it was a dream job, especially since the New York Times was picking up the tab. But for Sifton — whose idea of heaven is cooking and serving a large dinner in his own Greenport kitchen for family, friends and the occasional stranger who washes up around dinnertime — the magic of a meal is in the making.
“There is something terrific about providing a judgment-free zone for someone to come over and eat,” he said.
If dining out is a rarefied entertainment, in Sifton’s world, dinner at home is a practice, and the subject of his third book, “See You on Sunday: A Cookbook for Family and Friends.” His soul-satisfying career as the regular and mindful stirrer of a very large pot has largely unfolded in Greenport, where he and his family have lived part-time for nearly 20 years.
On a Sunday in February, the stranger who washed up was a journalist and Sifton, armed with an iron skillet, proceeded to fry a chicken while his family hovered within sniffing range. With his fingers, he sprinkled a large pinch of salt like confetti from above the hot platter of poultry, explaining that scattering the salt from a height keeps it light and even, and doing so before the chicken cools means the grains stick to the crunchy surface so you can taste them. He may have learned this trick from his father, who was, he says, the fried chicken expert in the family.
Sifton’s journey as a cook began with dinners at home. His mother, Elisabeth Sifton, was a distinguished American book editor and publisher, but also somehow managed to have a meal on the table every night.
“She worked hard to do that, but those meals were pretty rushed, so it was really enjoyable to gather a little more intentionally on the weekends,” he said. “And we did that quite often.”
His mother was often the gifted cook stirring the pot, but cooking was sometimes a group activity, with Sifton and his siblings pitching in. “For all that I can paint a picture of my childhood and these idyllic family meals, mine was not the house at which all the neighborhood kids gathered. Those were other houses. I always admired the homes where anyone was welcome at any time, and there was always a little extra available and it was never a crisis or a problem if there were two extra people for dinner,” he said. “I guess in a sense, my house has become that house.”
“Sunday supper is a state of mind,” Sifton said. “The timing doesn’t matter as much as the regularity, the sense that it may be happening. There ought to be a general sense of anticipation. You do this enough, and people start to count on it and look forward to it.”
Sifton’s cooking in Greenport is inspired by the hyper-local, high-quality food he finds here. Fruits and vegetables from North Fork farm stands, poultry, pork, beef (and snails!) from area farms and the diverse and abundant seafood from our waters make for 12 months of what he calls, “the most delicious farm- and boat-to-table eating imaginable on the East Coast. I’d put it up against any region in the country for quality, and I’m super proud of it.”
Latham’s, Sep’s and Sang Lee, plus any number of farm stands and shellfish purveyors he passes as he triangulates between home, the dump and fishing grounds supply his regular dinners.
Clues pointing to a North Fork provenance are unmistakable in the pages of “See You on Sunday.” What is the proper number of clams for eight people? 100. What’s the best practice for a fish-fry for 10? Out back, on a gas grill, in a roasting pan with a quart of hot oil and a vat of tartar sauce ready to deploy. And wearing shoes. Only in their dreams will readers living at 59th and Broadway try this on their balcony.
“Our access to fresh local seafood and fresh local produce makes for one of the most exciting larders that I can imagine, like we are living in rural France and right outside the door you can go get this stuff,” Sifton said. But he also finds year-round cooking inspiration at the IGA. “I think there is something really magical about being able to feed a large group of people out of the offerings of the local supermarket in February. The flourishing in the Town of Southold of the immigrant community, largely from Latin America, has led to the introduction of a number of shelf-stable ingredients that make for incredible foods,” he said. “It is a gift to be able to get Mexican crema, and the ingredients to make Ecuadorian food and Guatemalan food in our local markets.” Note to self: Store-bought crema is a valuable shortcut for Sifton’s fish taco recipe.
The selection of recipes in “See You on Sunday” is broad, eclectic and very American. Country Captain, a curry powder-charged chicken dish that has been a staple of Southern home cooking since community cookbooks were invented, is at once deeply unfashionable and delicious. In the same category comes Sifton’s take on Mississippi Roast, a slow-cooked chuck roast that moved from church cookbook to Pinterest darling faster than you can say ranch dressing. Mapo Ragù, a gorgeous mosaic of Korean, Chinese and Italian flavors, is spicy ground pork with greens and silken tofu, cooked in a wok and served over rice or pasta. Like all recipes in this book, they fall into the elusive “crowd pleaser” category; cheap, easy and always hitting the spot.
The dinners Sifton cooked at his Greenport home provided motivation for his book in more ways than one. He wrote it at Floyd Memorial Library on his days off from the Times. “I would leave home and go hide in a corner of the library and just beaver away until I hit some arbitrary number of recipes, or words, and I got to go home and cook again.” His acknowledgments include a shoutout to Poppy Johnson and her staff at the library.
Sifton says preparing a regular, recurring, intentional group dinner is a way to connect a community. “People don’t like to talk about it, but people are lonely. Even antisocial people, maybe especially antisocial people, want to connect. I’m probably one of those people who would wear a T-shirt that says, ‘I like fishing and three people,’ but I’m also the person who invites loads of people over to my house. Do I sit down amidst them for an hour before dinner and talk about the news of the day? No. I’m alone in the kitchen, or with a couple of people, knocking out the food that I want to serve, and I derive a great deal of pleasure from serving that food, rather than from the actual companionship, although I love the companionship, too,” he said. “I enjoy doing it, but I think people enjoy receiving it as well.”