What first caught my eye about Jewish food writer Alison Roman was not any one recipe. Rather, it was a photo of her that was published in The New York Times in 2019: Roman was in her tiny Brooklyn kitchen, kneeling in front of her overstuffed and undersized refrigerator. She was wearing jeans and t-shirt — and her feet were bare and dirty. I simply loved the messiness, joy and imperfection of it all.
The photo accompanied a selection of Thanksgiving recipes written by the young and rising star, who was first introduced to the Times’ readership just over a year prior as an heir to Pierre Franey and his quick-to-prepare foods. Roman’s Thanksgiving menu included a dry-brined turkey, hand-torn sourdough bread stuffing with celery and leeks, leafy herb salad spiked with lemon zest, lemon juice and flaky sea salt. The recipes were a reflection of the author: approachable and decidedly not fussy.
That anti-perfect attitude is a hallmark of Roman’s style, and it’s certainly a theme of her latest cookbook, “Sweet Enough,” which comes out at the end of this month. It is her third (“Dining In” and “Nothing Fancy” preceded it) and, according to Variety, pre-publication it has already “shot to the top of bestseller lists.”
This new cookbook is devoted to desserts, although there are a handful of savory recipes, too. Many of the recipes, like her Summer Pudding with Summer Fruit, her bowl of Salted Chocolate Pudding, and her raspberries and sour cream, do not have to be baked, nor do they require fancy know-how or special equipment. She even encourages readers to eat these treats straight from the bowl or the pot in which they were cooked.
Roman became an important part of the food conversation in this country in an impressively short amount of time. By the time she was hired full-time at the Times, at 32, she had had a meteoric rise at Bon Appetit magazine, where she moved from freelance recipe tester to senior food editor in four years. By then, she had already published her first cookbook and had a cookie recipe that went viral on Instagram.
Her fall from grace in May 2020 was even faster
In an interview for the online publication The New Consumer, she criticized two prominent women of color, Japanese organizing guru Marie Kondo and Asian-American model, cookbook author and prominent Twitter user Chrissy Teigen, for licensing their names and essentially “selling out.” In the ensuing weeks, the backlash online was swift and fierce, accusing her of everything from inappropriateness to racism. Amid the moment’s perfect storm — the pandemic and the rapid rise of the Movement for Black Lives — her column at the Times was suspended.
Six weeks later, on June 21, she founded a Substack newsletter, simply titled, “A Newsletter.” She now cranks that out weekly to 229,000 subscribers, and her YouTube channel, “Home Videos,” has some 213,000 subscribers. Looking back, Roman describes that post-interview time period as “challenging,” but, as she told the New York Jewish Week, “it led me to writing more and writing more for myself. And I think that’s a good thing.”
These days, Roman, 37, who describes herself as “half Jewish,” is about to embark on her book tour. Ahead of the release of “Sweet Enough,” she spoke to the New York Jewish Week about her favorite Jewish dishes, her food philosophy, and what she loves about Passover, which begins this year at sundown on Weds., April 5.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.
New York Jewish Week: How did the idea for this book come to you?
Roman: I felt there was a need for a dessert book from the perspective of someone who was not a die-hard lover of baked goods or dessert — somewhere between indifferent and enthusiastic. I felt like there were probably others like me.
I embrace the fact that the desserts were not designed to be perfect and they don’t have to be. People accept the flaws of, say, a roast chicken, but if their cake is crooked it ruins their day.
I’m trying to normalize the fact that not everything will be perfect, and it’s OK.
You are from California. How has being in New York changed the way you cook?
Living in New York, I have an emphasis on accessibility. I don’t always have access to the best produce; when things are out of season it becomes more difficult. It makes my work stronger because you have to be resourceful. And since we don’t necessarily have cars in New York, I have to consider: How far do I have to schlep the groceries? Can I do this [dish] with fewer items?
You’ve said on the Jewish Food Society’s podcast that you made many Jewish friends in New York. You attended your first bar mitzvah here. Are you leaning more into Jewish recipes or foods since you are living in New York?
Not necessarily. I just did a new Passover menu, which will come out on March 30 in Passover Home Movies and in an accompanying newsletter. I think that the older I get the more I lean into hosting and doing Shabbat because it feels important to me.
Any Jewish foods that are favorites of yours?
Matzah ball soup is my favorite food of all time. Otherwise, most popular Jewish deli foods are something I gravitate towards, even before I realized they were “Jewish.” Latkes, and things like that. I like Jewish deli culture. And I liked that these foods, that my father and I love and enjoy, are connected to my father’s heritage, which is my heritage. It made me feel closer to it.
What is your favorite Passover dish?
I love my brisket. I don’t love brisket always but I think the one I make is fantastic. I like a really simple Passover menu. Braised meat. Crispy salad with lots of herbs and apples. Crispy potato — this year I made cheeseless gratin with olive oil, potatoes, salt and pepper. You are not grating potatoes or frying anything. It is not eggy like a kugel.
Part of why I like Passover is because, much like Thanksgiving, it’s a time of year when you know what you’re supposed to eat. You don’t have to give it a ton of thought.
Have the past three years, following your comments about Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen, changed you as a writer and a food person?
Yes and no. We are all different than we were three years ago. Whether it was time passing or the pandemic or whatever, I think everyone is a bit different. That time was challenging but it led me to writing more and writing more for myself. And I think that’s a good thing.
How would you frame your food philosophy?
“Unfussy” pretty much sums it up. I don’t believe in overthinking too much. The way I cook is very instinctual and very natural. I don’t try to manipulate anything into something it is not. I feel very intuitive. It feels not performative. It feels very genuine to me.
Where did your aesthetic for rustic, carefree, approachable food come from?
I consider myself independent, and most things I do are born from myself and my own intuition. I think, like any person, you will be impacted and influenced by the world around you but ultimately you need to be authentically yourself.