he fantasy of the domestic goddess is as old as cave paintings, but its contemporary manifestations are located in the cookbook aisle. Bounteous, generous guardians of the hearth, these beaming women beckon us into the kitchen with the implicit promise that we, too, might be worshipped just for making dinner.
The term, popularized by Nigella Lawson’s 2000 bestseller How to Be a Domestic Goddess, describes a constellation of interconnected demigoddesses and wannabes. Being a domestic goddess is not the same as being a woman cookbook author, and it is definitely not the same as being a woman chef. One can be the head of an empire devoted to perfecting domesticity in all its forms and still not—sorry, Martha—be a domestic goddess. A certain sloppiness or silliness is required; a non-professional, self-taught, this-is-just-what-works-for-me vibe. Glamour, also, is required—sorry, Rachael Ray—so a side gig as a model or movie star is ideal, but supra-civilian-level beauty will also do.
Every era gets the domestic goddesses it deserves, and the strongest contenders for up-and-coming D.G.s of the food-Instagram era are the Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow and the model/funny Twitter person Chrissy Teigen. Both have new cookbooks for 2016: Paltrow’s latest is called It’s All Easy, and Teigen’s first is Cravings.
It’s All Easy is Gwyneth Paltrow’s third cookbook, but it’s her first with GOOP Food Editor Thea Baumann, who replaces chef, author, and renowned cookbook-doctor Julia Turshen as Paltrow’s co-writer. It’s also the first release from the GOOP Press imprint at Grand Central—which is itself an offshoot of the eponymous weekly newsletter Paltrow has been publishing since 2008. (It’s worth noting that G.P.—as Baumann refers to her—pioneered the weekly newsletter + book-publishing-imprint strategy for celebrity media brand-building.) Though GOOP is routinely strafed online for its earnest, privileged tone-deafness and promotion of specious "wellness" cures and fads, you have to give G.P. credit: She has masterminded the production of nearly ten years’ worth of content, all built on a foundation of Vegenaise-smeared avocado toast. More recent comers have tried to follow in her footsteps and stumbled—no one mourns the loss of Preserve, Blake Lively’s lifestyle site.
It’s All Easy’s thesis, and the source of the taunt in its title, is that its recipes are for "the super-busy home cook." Reader, I am that. I cook dinner for my family almost every night. Not because I really want to, but because I am way over my neighborhood’s paltry takeout options, and also because I avoid gluten—not occasionally and recreationally like G.P., but because I have celiac disease. I also have a one-year-old, which has zapped a lot of the joy I once got out of cooking. Preparing food for someone who throws most of the meal on the floor while also trying to keep yourself fed makes time spent in the kitchen much less like the dreamy, quasi-hobbyistic activity that cookbooks pretend it is and much more a matter of brute survival. At the end of the day, I’m looking for something that will be ready in half an hour—half an hour in this reality, not cookbook-fantasyland—that uses pantry staples, produces leftovers that can be cut into pieces and served as a toddler’s finger-food lunch, and that tastes good. Tasting good is the part of this equation that gets sacrificed the most often, with taking half an hour coming in second; one is almost always traded for the other.
In my previous life as a full human who loved to cook and did so only when she wanted to, I was a sucker for the work of the Domestic Goddesses. Beginning in my early twenties, when I worked for the U.S. publisher of Nigella’s books, I loved the idea of cooking for an imaginary partner and kids, coming out of the kitchen in a cute apron bearing a platter of something delicious, serving it seductively with my fingers. As I continued to think and write about food into my thirties, I fell into the cult of Laurie Colwin, whose essays are full of warm evocations of family-culinary life. Without ever meaning to, I memorized her descriptions of revisiting the allure of plain, steamed vegetables when she could appreciate them through the lens of her baby’s developing palate, and of letting bread dough rise many times over as she wrote and took care of her daughter. When I was unmarried and childless, I cooked those recipes while happily imagining a phantom family sitting around my dinner table.
Now I am a Busy Mom, and I (temporarily) (I hope) hate to cook. What used to be relaxing—the unhurried minutes spent assembling ingredients and comparing recipes before getting to work—is now a sprint, because everything is a sprint. I had hoped that Gwyneth, who is also a Busy Mom tasked with getting dinner on the table at the end of a long day (let’s just go along with it, okay?) might have some ideas that would help me revive some of the Domestic Goddess fantasy I treasured before entering the reality of being a Domestic Drudge. I had fun leafing through It’s All Easy, which is full of photos of G.P. in Eileen Fisher-y tunics and minimal makeup, looking pensively out of rain-streaked windows at European skylines and laughing jubilantly in quaint vegetable markets. I could will myself into this worldview, I thought.
I tested four recipes from It’s All Easy, mostly from the section called "In A Pinch." "Cooking is one of the greatest pleasures in life, but sometimes, after a long day, it can feel like a chore," this chapter begins. G.P. was speaking my language! I set out first to cook a Shrimp Stir-Fry that G.P. suggests as an alternative to ordering Chinese food, because it’s "just as fast" and you will "avoid the sodium bloat." She also says to serve it with rice or Sesame Noodles (another recipe) because it "makes a lot of sauce." Every part of this headnote is, obviously, lunacy: The idea that anyone is sitting around debating whether to order Chinese food or use the pound of shrimp that just happens to be sitting in her fridge is the thought of someone who has not had to do her own food shopping for quite some time; sodium bloat is not a thing (is it???); tacking an optional second recipe on to a recipe that is supposed to be quick and easy is a no; and if someone promises me a "lot" of sauce, I am expecting enough to do more than merely dampen the surface of the rice, which is not what happened.
I was impressed, though, that the recipe was so simple that I could keep the whole thing in my head while executing it, which is always a plus. And while I’d been suspicious of the instruction to cook the shrimp first, then keep it in the skillet/wok with the next addition—there’s nothing worse than turning twenty bucks’ worth of tender shrimp to rubber with an extra minute of heat—the rest of the cooking happened so fast that the shrimp remained tender. As an added bonus, the whole thing tasted totally okay. My husband was a big fan of the fact that we were eating shrimp. The sauce, what little there was of it, was a decently well-balanced blend of sweet, salty, and spicy flavors, with just enough cornstarch to make it clingy without being … goopy. While I suspect that I would prefer a version of the recipe that called for white sugar (rather than brown rice syrup) and like four more tablespoons of oil, I could see myself incorporating it into my repertoire.
The next G.P. meal was somewhat less successful. I was seduced by a beautiful photo of congee with a sexy orange-yolked egg under a sprinkling of herbs and furikake seasoning. G.P. explains that congee is typically a breakfast dish but that she makes it as a "lazy dinner." There is nothing lazy about a dinner that takes 30-40 minutes to simmer, during which you must stir it every five minutes to prevent sticking—while also making the eggs and the homemade furikake seasoning. I guess the non-homemade kind has some verboten ingredient? G.P.’s take contains coconut sugar, which is like sugar with less sweetness and more weird dirt aftertaste. The whole endeavor took me about an hour. I found it difficult to crumble the sheets of nori using my fingers, as directed, so there were these biggish flakes on the surface of the congee, the same size and shape as fish food, and it smelled like the hot bar of a co-op grocery store.
I took my first bite. "Hmm." My husband, whose reaction to most food is to inhale it and then offer an uncritical, gracious thanks to me for cooking it, was also like, "Hmm."
"Well, it’s not so bad,"I hazarded. "I could see making this again."
"I couldn’t … see you making this again," he said. When pressed for a more detailed critique, he pointed out that it was ugly (it was) and that he feels that chicken soup should contain "pieces of chicken in it." It was also weirdly bland considering how much garlic and ginger I’d painstakingly chopped. Photographer Ditte Isager is very talented, though; she made a bowl of brown glop look appetizing.
Oh well. On to dessert! While some of the other dishes in It’s All Easy contain wheat, dairy and eggs, the desserts are all vegan, gluten-free, and contain no refined sugar. G.P.’s daughter’s favorite dessert is key lime pie, and while G.P. likes the original recipe—and she ought to, it is a classic work of genius—she has come up with this improvement: Substitute a chilled paste made of almond meal, brown rice syrup, and coconut oil for the graham cracker crust, and whipped coconut cream for the condensed milk, eggs, and sugar in the filling.
This raw … pastry? Or whatever you’d call it? came together quickly. No special techniques were required. The hardest part was resisting the temptation I felt, after whipping the coconut cream with coconut sugar, lime juice, and lime zest, to add rum and crushed ice and drink it with a tiny umbrella. But I persevered.
The idea that anyone is sitting around debating whether to order Chinese food or use the pound of shrimp that just happens to be sitting in her fridge is the thought of someone who has not had to do her own food shopping for quite some time
My main issue with the finished dessert—other than the structural instability of the nut-glop crust—is that, like many vegan desserts, it is a more calorie-dense gut bomb than the original version. True, it has less sugar, but eating coconut cream is basically like eating a stick of butter, and eating it atop a crust of almond meal mixed with coconut oil is like eating a stick of butter on top of a stick of butter. Vegans, stop kidding yourselves.
This intermittent dedication to the tenets of "clean eating" is the real downfall of It’s All Easy. Overall, the recipes are fairly easy, as far as technique and process are concerned—once you have your pantry stocked with coconut sugar and almond butter and have learned how to make zucchini noodles with a spiralizer. But most of them are pared down to remove some element that, by G.P.’s whimsical standards, is not "clean"—except when un-"clean" items are allowed to sneak in, which is just confusing. The desserts are all vegan, but photogenic oozy-yolked eggs adorn many of the savory recipes, because … you can have one "bad" thing at a time? Or something? I don’t want to invoke disordered eating lightly, but it’s hard for me to ignore the discomfort I feel when I encounter irrational rules around food. And when irrational rules around food are being sold as healthy or virtuous, I hear alarm bells. One thing’s for sure: while there may be ease in It’s All Easy, there is little inspiration to be found there, because there is no fun.
he week after my sojourn in G.P.-land, I rebounded into the world of rival domestic goddess Chrissy Teigen, who lives on the absolute other side of the fun spectrum. Teigen first rose to prominence as a swimsuit model, which, if you are unfamiliar with her Instagram, might make you think her an unlikely proponent of fatty, salty, greasy, cranked-to-eleven food—but actually, that unexpected combination is her whole Thing. She is a model who loves to eat. To her credit, sort of, she also knows this is annoying and improbable, and she hastens many times to say that sometimes she can only have one bite of her rich, indulgent cooking. Her cookbook also has a lot of photos of its author, but instead of looking pensively out at the rooftops in a caftan a la G.P., she is cuddling in bed with her husband John Legend in silk pajamas, sharing a saucepan of mac and cheese.
If It’s All Easy was reduced to a bite, it would be an austere, pristine vegetable anointed with a precise amount of vinaigrette. Cravings would be a dripping, oozing, deep-fried piece of meat dipped in spicy mayo. The titles of Teigen’s recipes are full of adjectives, piled on like toppings on a juicy burger, and every recipe has at least one ingredient that would get it banished from G.P. -world. In her headnotes, Teigen is effusive: Everything here is the best thing ever. She can’t stop eating it. She has to have the bowl pried out of her hands. You have to make this NOW. It’s convincing the first few times, but eventually the unremitting intensity becomes overwhelming, like eating bacon at every meal. Still, I was excited to see whether these recipes lived up to their over-the-top billing.
I picked two recipes that Teigen suggested as companion pieces: Sweet and Salty Coconut Rice and Pineapple-Grilled Short Ribs. The rice recipe appealed to me because it seemed like an easy way to put a new spin on something I eat a lot of, and also "sweet and salty" is a winning combination. And I loved Teigen's (or her co-writer Adeena Sussman's) description of kalbi-style short ribs looking like "some kind of amazing avant garde fashion belt." The recipe has you rub the ribs with half a cup of dark brown sugar, then marinate them in still more sugar, soy, mirin, aromatics, and minced pineapple. The rice has coconut milk and, true to its name, a quarter cup of white sugar in it. As I sugared the ribs, I couldn’t help but imagine G.P. looking on with smug disdain.
Not counting marinating time, this dinner came together with remarkable speed. I invited my best friend and my mom to join us at the table as the Korean BBQ-scented smoke dissipated from my apartment. "Does this rice have sugar in it?" my best friend said after a few bites. She sounded incredulous but not disgusted, and then she took seconds. No one was all that into the grilled pineapple, and I was happy that I’d also served a green salad so that there was one non-sweet thing on the table. But everyone cleaned their plate, and no one wanted dessert. (There are no desserts in Cravings, because Teigen isn’t a baker and she’d rather have another helping of dinner, which is a completely understandable impulse, especially when dinner is meat candy.)
Reading Cravings, I believed that Teigen actually cooks these recipes, because for the most part they are indulgent, extra-gooey/salty/spicy versions of things everyone cooks all the time—pasta, roasted meats and vegetables, soups and casseroles and salads. They are made with humble components like ramen noodles, rotisserie chicken, bouillon cubes, and cans of cream of mushroom soup. They rarely run to more than a page, and none contain fussy techniques or multi-day prep.
The more idiosyncratic and Chrissy-specific touches are in a chapter called "Thai Mom," which includes her (Thai) mom’s recipes for things like soup with cooked, pork-stuffed cucumbers and a hangover-curing rice porridge that has ground pork in it and seems more promising than the pork-bereft G.P. version; Teigen writes that she served it to Eric Ripert once and he liked it and she cried. The other headnote I really liked was in the introduction to her kale salad, which is inspired by the one at Il Buco, where Teigen has enjoyed "many a booze-fueled lunch." "Once I threw up so hard into their toilet that I hit my forehead and had to wear fake bangs for a week," she writes. Anyone who mentions puking in the context of a recipe has my respect.
Though prior to my encounter with Cravings I would not have ranked "funny, internetty sensibility" and "beautiful photos of the author wrapping her perfect mouth around chicken wings poolside" high on my list of what I want in a cookbook, I did end up appreciating them, in a way. But, despite all its "you must eat this now"ishness, spending time with Cravings didn’t make feel motivated to race into the kitchen and start enacting a fantasy wherein I am a supermodel living in L.A. with her mom, some cute dogs and the guy who sings "All of Me." It may be that the food here is too all over the place—the cookbooks I keep on heavy rotation tend to have a coherent set of flavors or techniques they come back to over and over, and if Teigen has a signature technique, it’s to add more of whatever makes a dish tasty. It works, but isn’t exactly an innovation.
The exception is her technique for broiling salmon skin-side up in a sweet chili sauce, which she calls out in a note to her "Instahaters" who apparently think it’s unattractive. This little note is a distillation of everything that’s fun and good about Cravings: We see Teigen being a real person who, despite being famous, engages with her Internet following, and we learn a new way to cook boring old salmon fillets. It’s simple, but it’s what’s going to keep me from putting this book out on the stoop next to It’s All Easy.
So maybe I’m missing the point of both of these books, or asking too much of them: Goddesses are by definition purveyors of fantasy, not Cook’s Illustrated-style brass tacks tips. But I did return to the mortal realm with a few new ideas, plus some coconut-derived pantry items that I’ll have to find some inventive way of dealing with. At the end of the day, domesticity is hard, and anything that makes it seem new or fun counts as divine intervention.
Emily Gould is the author most recently of Friendship, a novel. She works at Emily Books, a bookstore and publishing imprint.
Editor: Matt Buchanan
Excerpts reprinted from It's All Easy with permission. Copyright © 2016 by Gwyneth Paltrow. Photos copyright © 2016 Ditte Isager. Published by Grand Central Life & Style, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.
Excerpts reprinted from Cravings: Recipes for All the Food You Want to Eat with permission. Copyright © 2016 by Chrissy Teigen. Photographs copyright © 2016 by Aubrie Pick. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.