Changing course

Far away from the glare of New York's test kitchens, two women go back to basics.

Every morning, on their drive to work, Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, the founders of studio/test kitchen-cum-publishing house Canal House Cooking, scan the roadside farm stands. It is the middle of summer and an array of produce lies in wait. From among the abundance they choose a watermelon and, once at their destination, a tap with the blunt side of a knife is all it takes for the melon to burst open into perfect halves.

Named after their charming brick headquarters on a canal next to the Delaware River, Canal House Cooking was born of a deep friendship and collaboration from the headier days of food magazine publishing in New York. Hirsheimer, a food/travel photographer and one of the founding editors of Saveur magazine, and Hamilton, a recipe writer and stylist, quit the magazine world for a simpler life and more control over their work.

“Many people in print think we’re husband and wife!” says Hirsheimer with a laugh, referring to her unconventional first name. “We feel like we’re married… a marriage of skills, styles and ideas. It’s a very happy marriage in that sense.” Adds Hamilton: “I trust her decisions implicitly and she trusts mine.”

Canal House Cooking celebrates simple, seasonally driven cooking. Shot beautifully in a realistic setting with minimal props, the food has integrity without being intimidating. With the white noise of food trends cancelled by the thick woods that separate them from the rest of New Jersey — and, 110 kilometres away, New York — they are content to create meals that they want to eat, no matter how basic or classic. “Being here and without any interference or outside influence has allowed us to develop our own taste,” says Hirsheimer.

Now onto self-publishing their ninth cookbook, the pair has a style that resonates with legions of fans. Many visit their website every day to be inspired by ‘Canal House Cooks Lunch’, a record of what the ladies are eating and drinking that moves elegantly through the seasons and demonstrates their good humour and grace. It is the antithesis of mainstream food culture — a window into a calm and sophisticated style of New American cooking.

“With the first few books, we sat here wrapping each one and mailing it with a thank-you note to the people who supported us,” recalls Hamilton. “We’re amazed at how it has grown and the freedom both self-publishing and reaching people digitally has given us.”

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Photos: Christopher Hirsheimer © Vogue Living, November/December 2014

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