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Helen Rosner

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Book Review: Christina Tosi Climbs to the Top of Cool Girl Mountain With ‘Milk Bar Life’

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Let's talk about Taylor Swift for a minute. Specifically, let's talk about who she is right now. In the last year, she's transformed herself from a sweet, curly-haired Nashville girl to a New York woman with a Tribeca penthouse. She chopped off all her hair, she acquired a few cats, she started going to the gym a lot. Taylor Swift has grown up — she is growing up, it's ongoing — via a highly public process, scrutinized and analyzed with the sort of depth and intensity that publications normally reserve for non-incumbent Presidential elections.

But the major adjustment in Swift's public character — more the hallmark of her new identity than anything else — has been her shift in interest from boys to girls. This isn't a sex thing. (Or is it? #kaylor) Rather, it's about Swift dropping her old identity as a lovelorn serial dater, and rebranding herself as the human embodiment of the left side of a "Best Friends Forever" broken-heart charm. Her kitchen is stocked for cookie baking, her closet is full of old-timey nightgowns for impromptu sleepovers, her arsenal of complexion-smoothing Instagram filters is at the ready for tiara selfies — all of it positioned to embrace her missing half: Lena Dunham, Emma Stone, Selena Gomez, Karlie Kloss. Or it could be me. It could be you. You could be best friends with Taylor Swift, the coolest girl around.

It's actually the very coolness of Swift's open invitation to be part of her friend group that's the truly amazing thing here. Taylor Swift is the queen of the cool girls, now — and this is weird, because cool is something Swift's never been. She's never been aloof, never been effortless, never had that nonchalant allure. For all her occasionally catty lyrics, Swift was never someone who was going to doubletalk and backstab her way to the top of cool-girl mountain. The self she sells is inclusive, sincere, celebratory of femininity and sisterhood. She's a little too gawky in her beauty, a little too strident in her enthusiasm, a little too self-aware in her songwriting.

But Swift is also singularly ambitious and tremendously canny. She may have wanted to be the queen bee (or maybe she just wanted to dismantle the institution itself — if Taylor can't wear the crown, no one can), but at some point she decided that it was actually easier to change the entire American culture of cool than it was to change her brand. She doubled-down on Taylor Swift, Feminist BFF, and into the light of this soft, sweet sun came a thousand think-pieces on the new golden era of female friendship. It worked: Taylor Swift is cool now, because cool is now Taylor Swift.

The real deal with Taylor Swift is that for a long time now, it hasn't really been about the songs. The music is catchy, but it's not what brings in the fans. The thing that fills the stadiums and moves the merchandise and ticks the YouTube view count ever upward is Swift herself — the person, the persona, the brand.

Celebrity is like that: You get in the door by making something great, but you stay inside by being great yourself. This is the case with cookbooks as much as it is country-pop albums

Celebrity is like that: You get in the door by making something great, but you stay inside by being great yourself. This is the case with cookbooks as much as it is country-pop albums. With her first book, Momofuku Milk Bar, author and chef Christina Tosi wasn't the draw; instead, it was the bakery itself. Published in 2011, three years after Milk Bar's first location opened in an awkward nook behind Momofuku Ssam Bar, the book had a ready-made audience of an entire nation of Crack Pie obsessives, hungry for the secrets behind their favorite bakery's twisted-nostalgia oeuvre of cookies, cakes, and pastries. The book was terrific, too; it was an engaging, illuminating guide to Milk Bar, the story of its inception, daily life in the shop, the inspirations behind its most famous creations. It painted a complete picture, a thrilling one.

So where do you go once that's done? In cookbooks, as in music, a sophomore effort is always a little bit fraught. Momofuku Milk Bar covered everything it needed to cover — except its author. Tosi was certainly present in that first book, but she wasn't the star of the show. That's a turn she saved for her second outing, hitting bookstores next week: Milk Bar Life is a weird, funny, lush, utterly readable cookbook that serves as a roadmap not to the bakery empire she runs, but to Tosi herself.

The title is everything here. They've dropped the "Momofuku," for starters — this is Tosi's show, not David Chang's, and on his part it's both a generous move and a savvy one. She's a tremendously charming person — a fact reflected in her stratospheric elevation in profile in the year leading up to this book's release, aided by a reality tv gig, a real estate campaign, and a car endorsement — who's ably proven that she can anchor a growing national brand without needing Chang in the foreground.

This book is Tosi's coming-out party, her debut as not just a person but a persona

But Milk Bar the bakery chain can chug along just fine by adding a new cookie to the lineup every few months. That won't sustain Milk Bar the cookbook series — and that's where the "Life" part of things comes in. Forget the Subaru video and the Corcoran ad: This book is Tosi's coming-out party, her debut as not just a person but a persona. She's the woman whose life is messy in a gorgeous way, whose sunny outlook is tempered by just the right amount of wry, whose hair stays shiny and smooth no matter how much flour artfully dusts her cheekbone. Like Swift, Tosi is beautiful and awkward, sexy and demure, skilled at using her creative talent as a veil for her steely ambition. And like Swift, Tosi is undeniably cool — a coolness confirmed both by her cultivation of an amazing, attractive group of friends, all fun and artsy and cool-weird, and by the performed generosity of using her public platform to imply that any one of us could be part of that.

About those friends: There are, of course, recipes in Milk Bar Life, but while they fill most of the pages, they're not the heart of the book. That heart belongs to Tosi's crew — the people with whom she spends her time — who populate most of the photos and plenty of the headnotes and sidebars. It's a largely female group — a few young girls and older women, mostly hip chicks in their late twenties — and they're pictured living awesome Milk Bar lives: They're crowded together in the sand in breezy sundresses, toasting marshmallows over a bonfire; they're bundled in scarves on a snowy rooftop pouring whiskey from a flask into enamelware mugs of steaming coffee. They're referenced lovingly by name in headnotes, affectionately credited for recipes as universal as toast dipped in a soft-boiled egg and as complex as a curried Tex-Mex chili topped with an Indian-Mexican avocado raita.

Pretty much all the food in Milk Bar Life exists in service of these relationships. The book is divided into haphazardly thematic chapters: Tosi's family recipes; recipes from the bakery (both sweets served in the front of the house and family meal served in back); the bizarre and wonderful things she makes when she gets home late from work and is starving; and, in an utterly brilliant move for a pastry cook putting out a savory cookbook, an entire chapter of main-course recipes culled from her chef friends who cook at restaurants around New York. And in true girlfriends-are-the-best-friends style, a full third of the book is given over to a pointedly nonchalant take on entertaining, with sections dedicated to beach cookouts, backyard grilling, an everything-on-a-skewer party, and — naturally — a slumber party.

Throughout, the recipes hew toward simplicity, if not necessarily always beginner-friendliness — the instructional voice prioritizes breeziness over clarity, and I had to rely on my own experience in the kitchen to get most of these recipes to come out right. Tosi's infectiously excited about the food she's sharing with us, though she's not always terribly patient with her readers: "This recipe is correct!" snips a sidebar on the (simple, marvelous) recipe for a tomato-sauce-braised brisket served with penne. "There is no salt and pepper, or any aromatic additives in the sauce, because they're not needed."

But what recipes! The palates, techniques, and skill sets might be all over the map — you'll find everything from pickled strawberry jam to honey-butter kale to an icebox cake made with grape jelly, Cool-Whip, and Ritz crackers — but they're unified by their sheer Tosi-ness, all cockeyed in that uniquely Milk Bar way that echoes the basements-and-glitter energy of the bakery itself. Yes, there's a recipe for chicken cooked sous vide, but the magic happens inside a Ziploc baggie full of ranch dressing.

Tosi's bakery chain has always been a safe space for people who know how to find the deep pleasure that lies within ostensibly terrible food

With its lineup of cereal milk ice cream, candy bar pie, and an unapologetic deployment of neon sprinkles, Tosi's bakery chain has always been a safe space for people (like me) who know how to find the deep pleasure that lies within ostensibly terrible food. That's amped up significantly in Milk Bar Life, where ingredients that other cookbooks might vilify are given pride of place. Tosi's unafraid to confess to her love of margarine on white toast sprinkled with Tang powder, or to emphasize the essentiality of Tostitos Scoops in the marginally more highbrow of the book's two recipes for nachos. It's awfully refreshing to see the sort of everything-from-a-can recipe that's usually relegated to punchline status conferred the respect of a beautifully designed cookbook page and a bright, alluring professional photo.

(Though the convenience-store cookery shtick can, at times, go too far: I found my personal limit with Tosi's beloved Spaghettios Sammy (click here for a video), a buttered-toast sandwich of maple breakfast sausage, Spaghettios, potato chips, and a microwaved soft-boiled egg. It's unclear how this is supposed to work: It's inedible while sober and unmakeable while stoned.)

But in the same way that it can feel a little discordant when Taylor Swift goes out of her way to extol her love of the homewares section at Target, or makes a point of wearing a $29 cardigan — her gestures at the shared humanity of a love of bargains often wind up highlighting the very yawning chasm of class difference that they're intended to mask — Tosi's fawning adoration of the packaged bounty of the suburban supermarket occasionally ends up revealing too much about the performance of her girly-tomboy, eat-like-a-frat-boy character. Is the woman telling us that a bundt cake made of individually-unwrapped Hershey's Kisses rolled up in four tubes' worth of Pillsbury Crescent Roll dough should serve four to six really the same one who suggests, in her burger recipe, that if you're cooking "for your lady friends" that you might want to serve smaller portions than if you're making the meal for men?

Tosi's taking a page from the Swift playbook: being in the group is more fun than being out of it, so she's hawking the invitation

Selling authenticity is a delicate balancing act. Taylor Swift can push her performance of sisterhood a little far sometimes — her recent Vogue cover, for example, celebrating the bond she shares with her best best friend Karlie Kloss, felt like a lot of commercial pressure to put on a friendship that's barely a year old. In Milk Bar Life, Tosi comes down mostly on the side of the real, but there are occasional off-notes — shoehorned-in catchphrases, or moments where the conversational writing style verges into stilted slang — that jerk the fantasy away. Still, it's clear that the pleasure Tosi takes in the creativity and exuberance of the people who surround her is genuine. She's taking a page from the Swift playbook: being in the group is more fun than being out of it, so she's hawking the invitation. She's bringing us into the shared history of a friend group, giving us a glossary (both figuratively and, on page 250, literally) to the secret languages and inside jokes that both shape and chronicle the characters that populate her Milk Bar life.

It turns out that Tosi and Swift have a real-life connection. Tosi's tight with Kloss, whose philanthropic baked-goods line Karlie's Kookies are produced by and sold at Milk Bar. I have no idea if Tosi and Swift have ever hung out, but I like to think they have, the Doritos-loving pastry chef fitting right in with the cadre of willowy, beautiful cultural powerhouses with whom Swift has surrounded herself. They pile onto the couch in Swift's airy Tribeca penthouse wearing matching nightgowns and eat Milk Bar Life recipes like Kewpie mayonnaise grilled cheeses washed down with some red wine they carbonated themselves in the Soda Stream. They're friends, in an awesome way that's supportive and warm and fun and sure, a little calculated, but also maybe a little subversive. And if you and I read Tosi's cookbook — and listen to Swift's latest album — maybe we can end up being friends with them, too.

Milk Bar Life BY Christina Tosi

Clarkson Potter, April 2015

SKILL LEVEL: Moderate. Recipes are written simply but benefit from prior knowledge of ingredients and techniques.

WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: Sugar fiends, well-to-do stoners, Momofuku completionists, Taylor Swift fans, women who refer to themselves as "girls," people who like nachos.

WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: Snobs, anti-snobs.

MORE RECIPES TO TRY: Chicken Puffs (23), Cheesy Onions (35), Sour Cream Cookies (38), The Greta (Sugar Square Cookies) (61), Salt-and-Pepper Cookies (70), Grilled Cheese a la Pauly Carmichael (101), Cookie-Dough Cookie (118), Pickle-Juice-Poached Fish (134), Burnt-Honey Mustard Dip (174), Kimcheez-Its With Blue Cheese Dip (204), Mac-'n-Cheese Pancakes (246).

BUY IT ON: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

BONUS VIDEO: The Spaghettios Sammy from Milk Bar Life

Header photo: Helen Rosner
Interstitial photos: Shutterstock
Milk Bar Life spreads courtesy of Clarkson Potter


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