The Lennon-McCartney of Cookbook Authors?

That’s what Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton—creators of the Canal House Cooking volumes—have been called. Here’s why.

Christopher Hirsheimer, left, and Melissa Hamilton (in their Lambertville studio) have created a devoted following for their self-published Canal House Cooking cookbooks.
Photo by Dan Engongoro.

Just about a year ago two women—Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer—issued the first volume of Canal House Cooking, a series of seasonal cookbooks “by home cooks for home cooks” that they self-publish thrice yearly. That may sound like a recipe for disaster or for a very narrow niche—one reviewer praised the concept as “mildly Victorian”—but the books, which now number five volumes, have received acclaim not only from the national food media, but also from such disparate entities as Oprah and retailer Williams-Sonoma.

Canal House Cooking recipes, wrote Gwyneth Paltrow, “feel approachable and doable, like you’re following a favorite girlfriend’s home-assembled book.” Author Jesse Kornbluth, editor of headbutler.com, wrote on the Huffington Post that Hamilton and Hirsheimer’s collaboration is “on the order of Lennon-McCartney.” Which is why the initial print run of 5,000 soon begat a second printing, and the latest volume is starting out at 10,000. Yet the pair are their own sales team.

No one can argue that these two women weren’t at the top of the food magazine and cookbook publishing worlds when they decided in 2007 to establish their own studio along the canal in Lambertville. Hirsheimer was one of the founders and an executive editor of Saveur magazine, where Hamilton ran the test kitchen and served as food editor. Together the pair had more than 30 years experience working with magazines such as Metropolitan Home, Food and Wine, Cook’s Illustrated, and Martha Stewart Living and on cookbooks by Julia Child, Alice Waters, Mario Batali, Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, and other notables.

Still, Hirsheimer says, they chose not to go the route of the major cookbook publishing houses. “Even those who were our friends there told us, ‘You can’t do this,’” she says, meaning not only self-publishing, but removing themselves to small-town New Jersey. “Until now, ‘self-publishing’ has been a dirty word,” she admits. “The thing is, if we had taken our idea to them we would not have had creative control. So to break through, we did it on our own.” They have one associate, Julie Sproesser, who assists with recipe testing and editorial content and handles sales and fulfillment.

As for situating themselves in the “boondocks,” Hamilton and Hirsheimer have had the last laugh there, too. Hamilton says they deliberately set up their light-filled, second-floor atelier/kitchen/workshop/dining room to be “a draw, an alternative place for brainstorming, shooting, and consulting, where you can turn off your cell phone if you choose. Plus, with computer technology, no one knows or cares where you’re physically located.”

The strategy is working. The pair continues to consult and collaborate on books and projects for their high-profile friends. These include Alice Waters’s latest book and Colman Andrew’s The Country Cooking of Ireland, which captured the 2010 James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year. (The Canal House team is currently working on his follow-up oeuvre, which focuses on Italy.) “When Williams-Sonoma called to say they wanted to sell our books, the creative team also said they wanted to come visit us,” Hirsheimer says. “Sure, we’re in a pretty location, but it’s also modest. Because the creative team is like us, they were excited by being out here. They could see we’re real; we have an authentic vibe.”

That authentic vibe is what is most often quoted as the books’ special appeal by reviewers as well as devoted readers. Customers are buying them (at stores, Amazon, or thecanalhouse.com) either as individual volumes ($19.95) or, more often, as a yearly subscription of three volumes for summer; fall and holiday; and winter and spring ($49.95). Each full-color, soft-cover volume contains about 60 recipes accessible to both novice and experienced home cooks, with stunning photographs by Hirsheimer, charming drawings by Hamilton, and engaging anecdotes by both. Most chapter headings vary by season (“Too Many Tomatoes,” “Hog Heaven,” “Holiday Baking”), but some are standard, such as “Eat Your Vegetables” and, perhaps the most popular of all, “It’s Always Five O’Clock Somewhere,” which features the authors’ takes on classic cocktails. Paltrow, a devoted home cook, made and “adored” Volume No. 1’s Summer Tomato Pasta and found the Plum Crostata “easy to make and truly delicious.”

“We were trying to create for ourselves,” Hirsheimer says. “We face putting meals on the tables for our families every day, after working long hours. We know what is available at the supermarket, so our recipes are practical and accessible. We are the people in the books. We just had to hope that other like-minded people would enjoy them.”

Like-minded people include chef/writer John Willoughby, who in his review in Gourmet called Canal House Cooking Volume No. 1 “an unpretentious cookbook that will make you feel like you’ve found a couple of new friends.” On the Huffington Post, Elissa Altman wrote that the “magnificently packaged” publication is “filled with simple, remarkably delicious recipes.” Says Hamilton, “One of the nicest surprises has been the wonderful, passionate letters we get from people. We didn’t expect that. The small independent retailers we started with tell us that people keep coming back in looking for the next book. One even told us that we have created an addiction!”

Hamilton is the daughter of Jim Hamilton of Hamilton’s Grill Room in Lambertville, where she was the chef when it opened more than twenty years ago. She is the sister of Gabrielle Hamilton, the highly regarded chef/owner of Prune in Manhattan. Hamilton lives in Stockton with her architect husband, Michael Hagerty, and two daughters.

Hirsheimer resides just across the Delaware River in Erwinna, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Jim, an antiques dealer. The couple has two grown daughters. Hirsheimer grew up in San Francisco, one of five children in a family that traveled extensively throughout the Pacific Rim. She attended college in the San Francisco Bay area in the ’60s and ’70s, where she threw herself into the local food scene. “It was a very exciting time to be in that area. A place like Chez Panisse was very accessible: you could eat there for something like $3! You could say I ended up in the food world by default.”

Just as they shunned the traditional paradigm for publishing, the Canal House pair didn’t bank on the editors of the power magazines and websites to help market the books, either. “But remember,” Hirsheimer says, “we used to sit at their desks, and we know what would have captured our attention.”

One of their big breakthroughs came on food52.com, the website of food writer Amanda Hesser of the New York Times and her pal Merrill Stubbs. Hesser and Stubbs conducted what they called the Tournament of Cookbooks, a sort of round-robin competition among what they considered to be the most notable cookbooks of 2009. After votes by celebrity judges and the site’s readers, Canal House Cooking Volume No. 1 made it to the final round, beating out big-name books such as Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan and Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home. (It lost to Seven Fires by Francis Mallmann.)

“That put us right up there with the big boys!” marvels Hirsheimer. “Of course you have to have, one, a good product and, two, good timing. But you also need, three, some luck. We’ve been lucky. We had a vision, but you have no idea how it will fly.” Adds Hamilton, “You find yourself putting so much energy into a project that you want it to still please your own aesthetic. It was a conscious decision to go for quality over quantity. It’s satisfying to send something out into the world and have people who have no connection to you mirror back what you intended. This can be done.”

Veteran food writer and restaurant reviewer Pat Tanner lives in Princeton.

BRAISED BEEF WITH CURRANTS & CARAWAY (serves 4–6)

It may seem mad and extravagant to braise prime rib rather than a less expensive cut, but the meat is incomparably luxurious cooked this way. The flavors of this dish are reminiscent of sauerbraten—sweet and sour, fragrant and spicy. But there is an added richness from red wine instead of vinegar and prime meat instead of pot roast. And because the meat is so tender, you don’t have to marinate it for three days. We like to serve this with slices of the very darkest rye bread slathered with butter.

INGREDIENTS:
4 ounces slab bacon,
cut into very small cubes
1 cup currants
2 cups red wine
4 yellow onions, halved lengthwise
1 prime rib of beef (2 ribs),
4-pounds, first cut
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Salt and pepper
1–2 teaspoons arrowroot
2 tablespoons caraway seeds

INSTRUCTIONS:
Preheat the oven to 200°. Sauté the bacon in a large heavy pot with a lid over medium-high heat. When the bacon has released some of its fat, place the onions, cut side down, in the pot. Add the garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Scatter the caraway seeds and currants around the onions. Add the wine.

Season the roast all over with lots of salt and pepper. Place the meat, rib side down, on top of the onions. Cover, transfer to the oven, and cook until the meat is very tender, about 4 hours.

Remove the meat and onions from the pot, taking care to keep the onions intact. Remove any fat and cut the meat into pieces. Return the pot with the sauce to the top of the stove, and over medium heat, reduce the sauce by half. Dissolve the arrowroot in 2 tablespoons water in a small bowl, then using a wooden spoon, stir it into the sauce. Continue stirring as the sauce thickens. Don’t allow it to come to a boil.

To serve, either return the meat and onions to the pot, or arrange them on a platter. Spoon the sauce, along with all the currants and caraway seeds, over the meat and onions.

From Canal House Cooking Volume No.5

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