In 2006, magazine editors Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton gave up the magazine world and daily commute into New York City for a simpler existence, living on opposite sides of the Delaware River and cooking together each weekday in their New Jersey studio alongside a historic canal. The Canal House was born, and with it came the duo’s celebrated seasonal cookbook series, Canal House Cooking, celebrating home cooking by home cooks for home cooks.
I talked to Hirsheimer and Hamilton about the inspiration behind their venture, the joys of summer cooking and what makes home cooking so special. Keep reading to hear what they had to say.
What’s the story behind Canal House? What inspired you to create it?
Today we have a studio, workshop, dining room, office, kitchen, lair, lab, and atelier devoted to good ideas and good work relating to the world of food. We write, photograph, design, and paint, but in our hearts we both think of ourselves as cooks first. Neither of us set out to make careers in the food world. Actually there wasn’t much of a “foodie” world when we both started. But our deep interests led us down paths that unfolded in front of us.
We had worked with each other as food editors in the magazine world. We traveled the globe in search of essential and authentic recipes, sliding into banquettes in famous restaurants, meeting big deal chefs, and even cooking in far-flung home kitchens. It was great and exciting. But our work took us both away from our families, our homes, and our gardens, away from what really matters, after all.
We live in little towns across the river from each other, one in New Jersey, the other in Pennsylvania. So we decided to join forces. We share similar backgrounds, having grown up in big families where food came first. In a time that seems like a million years ago now, our aproned grandmothers nurtured us with wholesome, comforting food—buttermilk pancakes drenched in salty butter and maple syrup. Our mothers were glamorous. They loved parties and cocktails and restaurants and brunch with Bloody Marys—food was exciting. Last night’s Chinese “takeout” would show up at breakfast reheated with two poached eggs on top. Both of us have deep food memories and large legacies to uphold.
Describe a typical day at the Canal House studio.
We found our loft studio in an old redbrick warehouse downriver from where we live. A beautiful lazy canal runs alongside the building. One hundred years ago, mules plodding along the tow path hauled provision-ladened barges up and down the state. In warm weather, we throw open the French doors and the voices of the people walking or fishing below float up to us. We plant herbs in our window boxes and grow tomatoes in pots on our wrought-iron balcony. In the winter we build fires in the Franklin wood stove to keep cozy when its snowy and gray outside.
The Canal House has a simple galley kitchen. Two small “apartment-size” stoves sit snugly side by side against a white tiled wall. An old wooden carpenter’s worktable with a little sink at one end is our long counter and pots hang from a rack suspended above it. We have a dishwasher, but we find ourselves preferring to hand wash the dishes so we can look out of the tall window next to the sink and see the ducks swimming in the canal or watch the raindrops splashing into the water.
The town around us is a small American river town. A noon whistle still blows and church bells chime—no kidding! There is a drug store around the corner. Across the street is an old hardware store, and the best bar in the world is right down the alley.
And every day we cook. Starting the morning with coffee or cups of sweet milky tea, we tell each other what we made for dinner the night before. In the middle of the day we stop our work, set the table simply with paper napkins, and have lunch. We cook seasonally because that’s what makes sense. We want stews and braises and rich thick soups in February when it’s snowing and blowing. In mid-summer, we buy boxes of tomatoes to dress as minimally as we do in the heat. And in the height of the season, we preserve all that we can, so as to save a taste of summer.
What inspires the recipes in the cookbooks from the Canal House collection?
It came naturally to write down what we cook. The recipes in this book are what we make for ourselves all summer long. If you cook your way through a few, you’ll see that who we are comes right through in these pages: that we are crazy for melons in late summer, that we love to cook big paellas outdoors over a fire for a crowd of friends, that we make jarfuls of teriyaki sauce for slathering on roasted chicken, and tubs of homemade ice cream for our families.
You’ve worked with acclaimed publications and chefs before, but now your focus is on everyday home cooking. What do you think is special or unique about home cooks?
The everyday practice of simple cooking and the enjoyment of eating are two of the greatest pleasures in life.
We both plant home gardens every year. Even at Canal House, where we have only a narrow balcony just outside the windows, we fill pots and boxes with herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and even strawberries. We love our gardens. We tend them and fuss over them, and they give us back so much. Each day we cook what we harvest—a handful of young green beans, a bouquet of chard—responding to whatever our vegetable patches have to offer. We realize that our gardens are far more than the vegetables they give us. This year we are into Italian seeds so we’ll be planting:
- Pumpkin, Rouge vif d’etampfs (aka Cinderella),
- Zucchini Lungo Fiorentino (Long Florentine) or Zucchini Romanesco
- Tomato Cuor di Bue – Oxheart
- Peppers Friariello Napoleatano
- Romano Beans
- Onions Borettana Onion Rossa, Longa Di Firenze
- Chioggia Beets
- Parsley gigante di Napolo
What fruits and vegetables are you looking forward to cooking with this summer? Any favorite preparations?
The way we cook in the summer couldn’t be simpler. In fact, we call ourselves salt-and-pepper cooks. We forsake the convenience of the supermarket and live in the season—slicing big ripe tomatoes, preserving tomatoes, grilling leeks, roasting chickens and slathering them with herb butter, foraging for chanterelles, turning corn into succotash, baking berry cobblers, and making apricot jam. Cooking is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the season around you. Now get out there and cook. Read more about what Christopher and Melissa are cooking this summer.
What will you be putting up this year? What are your favorite ingredients to preserve?
We always put up lots of tomatoes: tomato passata, tomato jam, oven-dried tomatoes, and on and on. We love making jams and jellies, such as currant jelly, blackberry verbena jelly, strawberry jam, whole strawberry conserves, marmalades, and peach and apricot jam. We like making bread and butter pickles, cornichons and quick refrigerator pickles.
For someone who’s new to preserving, what would you recommend they start with? Any tips?
Jam is great and easy, and you can start eating it right away—a fast return on your efforts. Make small batches of jam. You won’t be overwhelmed by the whole process. Also when you keep it small you won’t overcook the fruit when you have to boil down and reduce a large volume of liquid.
What are your favorite wines and spirits to pair with summer produce?
There is a libation for every season, and for our summer sipping at Canal House, we like to have a bounty of chilled rosé. We wait with bated breath for the “Rosés Have Arrived” display to go up in the window at our local wine shop, and then we stock up. This summer we’ve gone Italian so we must call it rosato, but by any name it is summer drinking perfection.
About the author: Olivia Terenzio grew up in Mississippi, where she cultivated a love of sweet potatoes, crawfish and cloth napkins at a young age. A passion for sharing food with friends and family led her into the kitchen and later to culinary school, where she learned how to roast a chicken and decorate a cake like a pro. As a Williams-Sonoma blog editor, she’s now lucky enough to be talking, writing and thinking about food all day.