Lunch box heroes

Posted: August 01, 2014

WHAT DOES YOUR weekday work lunch look like?

A stale granola bar? A pallid ham-and-cheese from that weirdly lit bodega downstairs? A freezer-burned Lean Cuisine, begging to be tossed across the office like an Olympic discus? A stack of Pringles from the old tube your cubicle mate keeps in his bottom drawer, next to the pushpins and rubber bands?

Your average American employee, especially those who sit at a desk in front of a computer, isn't exactly renowned for creativity when it comes to midday meal planning. Overwhelmed by work, many tend to grab whatever's closest, fastest and/or cheapest. Others (speaking from personal experience here) might choose to skip eating altogether to reserve the caloric real estate for happy hour.

This harried, hustle-hustle mentality has become closely associated with the 9-to-5 experience in this country - less a shortcoming in need of correction than an unavoidable by-product of modern workplace pressures.

It's what makes the lunches Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton prepare and share at the Canal House stand out, and occasionally inspire.

Riverside drive

Located on an almost movie-set-peaceful stretch of the Delaware River in Lambertville, N.J., Canal House is technically an office, but it doesn't look like yours.

The second-floor Coryell Street space, in the same courtyard as Hamilton's Grill Room (owned by Hamilton's dad, Jim), is as bright as a conservatory at high noon, sheets of natural light doubling as wallpaper.

A long communal table hosts stacks of cookbooks, camera equipment and Mac laptops. There's a healthy grapefruit tree hanging in one corner, an antique wood-burning stove along another wall.

Henry, Hirsheimer's friendly Cavalier King Charles spaniel, saunters about, bumming ear scratches and begging for ice cubes.

Perhaps the most telling decorative touch? Two James Beard Award medals Hirsheimer and Hamilton won for their 2013 cookbook, Canal House Cooks Every Day, that dangle casually near the front door.

Former co-workers at Saveur magazine, where Hirsheimer was a founding editor and Hamilton was director of the test kitchen, the women founded Canal House in 2006 to serve as the headquarters for their multiple pursuits. Here, they photograph food, develop recipes, write and edit and tweak and consult.

Their primary passion, however, is their books, based on their own elegant but uncomplicated approach. They've released eight to date.

Eating vicariously

The Canal House, of course, is equipped with a kitchen of its own, too. It's nothing fancy - no hip granite countertops, thousand-dollar appliances or stainless steel fixtures. Not even a microwave. Just a well-kept, home-cook-friendly setup they use to prepare the spontaneous meals they share with readers on their blog, Canal House Cooks Lunch ( lunch.thecanalhouse.com).

Hirsheimer and Hamilton have been running the blog, which features pretty snapshots of their meals along with quick captions, since 2011, but still remember the no-time-to-eat rat race days.

"We were sitting at a desk, telling the rest of the country what to eat, where to eat, what to buy," Hirsheimer said of her time at the magazine. "It would be 4 o'clock and we'd have a deli sandwich on the desk that we'd forgotten to eat, and a half-drunk warm Diet Coke."

Sound familiar?

"It's our chance to take a little break, not talk about font size or recipes or the photo shoot we have to do," said Hamilton, who, like Hirsheimer, is inspired both by the time of year and what looks best in her home garden and at local shops and markets. "We always eat so much better when we make our own food."

Making connections

Though the recipients of their lunchtime email blasts - they're up to between 5,000 and 6,000 subscribers - can't actually join them at their Canal House table, they still make a connection. The women receive constant feedback from people who look forward to receiving their brief, home-cooked updates as a temporary escape from workday drudgery, epicurean or otherwise.

"It's almost like having somebody back home," Hirsheimer said.

People who either don't have access to scratch-cooked meals or are counting down the minutes till they get one, "retreat emotionally to where we are" - the ideal workplace, where meals are an opportunity to disconnect and decompress, not something crammed into a 15-minute window punctuated by the boss getting on your case.

The end game of the blog and the emails is not to gloat about how much better they're eating than the average person. It's to encourage readers to remember that a quality meal doesn't have to be a complicated, time-consuming endeavor.

"We don't want people to forget how to cook," said Hirsheimer.

A heaping helping of calm

In the past, they've themed weeks around things they find in the Canal House freezer, to provide ideas on how to use mismatched leftovers. They've also roasted a "great big fat chicken" on a Monday, providing different ways to use the meat for the remainder of the week.

For the coming month, Hirsheimer and Hamilton have decided to cook recipes from their latest, Canal House Pronto!, which contains 77 Italian-inspired recipes.

Literally referencing their own book as they cooked, the pair prepared grilled swordfish steaks this past Monday, accompanied by a sauce made with olive oil, tarragon, parsley and ripped-up bits of stale bread that acted as a hearty thickener.

Oh, and a little red wine vinegar that they, of course, had made themselves. A sunny overhead shot popped up on the blog later that day.

Every element of the meal came together quickly in near-silent concert, an indicator of just how comfortable the Canal House ladies are in the kitchen, especially with each other. It's this overall sense of culinary calm, coupled with a sincere excitement about seasonal food, that the duo hopes their lunch buddies take to go.

"There's no commerce involved," Hamilton said. "It's just a little balm for a hectic day."


Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|