Editor's Note: For recipe cards from "Cooking for One," view related images on the left.
Culinary chefs, newspaper editors and foodies flocked to food and travel writer Joe Yonan’s table at the Culinary Book Fair on Friday to shake his hand, give him their business card or praise his sample sandwiches of smoked salmon, Granny Smith apples and Gouda cheese. In a deep West Texas accent, the James Beard Foundation Award-winning food writer for the Washington Post explained how the tangy apples cut through the fat of the fish. His southern charm helped sell his latest book.
An anthology of the “Cooking For One” column he started three years ago for the food section at the Post, Yonan’s book, “Serve Yourself,” encourages singles to cook for themselves. The column was originally created by the UT alumnus because he felt that there were not enough cooking resources for those who live alone.
“One is the fastest growing household size in the country,” Yonan said.
That’s partly attributed to people living longer and getting married later. As the elderly outlive their spouses, they are having to readjust to cooking for themselves, Yonan said.
“And it used to be that you would go right from your parents’ house maybe to college, then straight to your spouse’s house. But now there’s this 10- to 15-year [gap] on average where people are single,” he said.
The column was also his way of fending off the notion that cooking for one isn’t as worthwhile as cooking for many.
“I was tired of hearing people say ‘Why would I go through all that trouble if it’s just me,’” he said. “My whole thing is there’s no such thing as just you — you are important enough to cook for yourself.”
While Yonan said media reviews on the book have been 100-percent positive, there are people who have misinterpreted “Serve Yourself” as a joke.
For Yonan, the process of prepping and cooking is therapeutic. The walk home from work, where Yonan brainstorms a dinner recipe around ingredients he already has in the pantry and fridge, helps him relax. The 20 to 40 minutes he spends cooking and listening to the radio is what he looks forward to at the end of the day.
“[Cooking] is fun and freeing, because you don’t have to answer to anybody else,” he said.
Inspired from his travels and his favorite ingredients, Yonan described his food as precarious and lively. Informed by what he likes, “Serve Yourself” includes chapters on eggs, pickled condiments, sweet potatoes and tacos.
Texas is also represented throughout the book. The cookbook includes a reinterpretation of a Texas salad his mother used to make with Frito chips, canned black beans and French dressing when he was a child. He updated the dish using fried corn tortilla strips, beans and a cilantro vinaigrette and renamed it Ex Texas Salad.
A Texas Ex, Yonan graduated from UT in 1989 with a degree in journalism. Yonan said he learned the most not in the classroom, but while working at The Daily Texan.
Yonan’s detour from news to food came later when he did not get a promotion from his nighttime position on the copy desk at the Boston Globe. Instead of disappointment, Yonan said he felt relieved because he wasn’t happy in news.
He thought about what really made him happy, and that was his food writing.
“I knew I didn’t want to become a chef,” he said. “I knew I just wanted to combine my biggest passions and that was writing, journalism and food.”
Since becoming a food writer takes more than a fine palette and appetite, Yonan enrolled in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in 1999 to get a better understanding of food. Culinary school, he said, was also his way of getting off the copy desk, a job he said he felt was hard to move away from.
In culinary school, Yonan excelled in classroom work and in creating dishes with ingredients from a mystery box, but he said speed was not his strong suit.
“I wasn’t that fast in the kitchen, which was fine since I knew I wasn’t using school to get a line cook job,” he said.
The only catastrophe in culinary school was on the first day during a class on knives skills: Yonan was cubing beets with a brand new knife when a piece of beet got stuck to the blade. When Yonan ran his pinky across the edge to slide the vegetable off, he sliced the end of his pinky off.
“I guess you get it all out of the way on the first day,” Yonan said. “Everything else would be smooth sailing after that.”