Q&A with the Women of The Canal House

This is an excerpt from our summer 2014 story on the creators of the award-winning cookbook, Canal House Cooks Every Day.

By Sarah Lagrotteria 
Photos courtesy of Canal House

Q: How did Canal House originally come about?

Christopher Hirsheimer: It was an organic process. The two of us had worked with each other for a long time and eventually we took a studio and were photographing other people’s books. Since we both cook and have written recipes and been in the food world for so long we decided that maybe it was time we do our own thing. We started writing everything down and it just came to be.

Melissa Hamilton: We got the studio here [in Lambertville, New Jersey]. The Delaware River separates New Jersey and Pennsylvania where we are and I was living on the New Jersey side. Christopher has been this area for 30 years, so it was a good common place to be. But it didn’t matter where we were; it was more about the studio and the light that goes on in here. It’s a little funky but wonderful. We have [a] tall ceiling and a whole bank of windows. Christopher photographs with only natural light, so that was important. It does happen to be in a very beautiful area with the canal down below so we called it Canal House. We keep it quite pared down so it has a lot of flexibility for a cooking, shooting and designing studio.

CH: People live up and down the river and are always going back and forth on pretty iron bridges to these old-fashioned, beautiful river towns. We hear the noon whistle and the trains coming and going. It’s not too Disneyland. It’s what we very much like. It’s authentic and our studio is pretty authentic. We worry sometimes that people will come out here and find a space not so beautifully renovated. We’re rustic.

We had had these long commutes, both of us working in New York and we finally came to our senses when the timing was right. We said, let’s do Plan B and see if we can bring people to us instead of us going to them. It’s like [the movie,] Field of Dreams. If you build it they will come. It’s really, really true. It’s so hard to get New Yorkers out here, but once they come out, they get it. We were very lucky to be able to make this space work for us and Canal House. To do what we do where we do it.

Q: What’s your food philosophy?

CH: We say we are not the church of anything. We don’t want anything to get in the way of our message of home cooking. If you can buy local, wonderful. If you can get organic, terrific. But if all you see is a supermarket, it’s better that you go and buy and cook yourself. It will be more rewarding, more delicious and more satisfying in the end than take-out or eating in a restaurant over and over.

MH: We cook lunch every day. One of us will get a text from the other saying don’t worry, I’ve got lunch. Or we don’t have an idea and one of us realizes we are starving to death and the other one will get up and make something. It’s such an incredible gift when someone cooks for you, so that is one of the things that is enormously satisfying about lunch like that. We love each other’s food and we love each other’s taste and style. Christopher will definitely do it differently than me and vice versa but it is all in the same feeling or spirit or general philosophy. We’ve known each other so long that we know each other’s moves. But you are always learning from the other the person and we are always reacting to food and doing things new. 

CH: Melissa is gutsier than I am and I have learned to loosen up, so now we pretty much like the same things. We are always checking in with each other.

For example, we are making short ribs for dinner tonight. I went to the market to buy the meat. I’m in there and I’m [asking myself] on or off the bone? I call Melissa and we go back and forth and I go back and forth with the butcher. Now I have [the short ribs] and they look beautiful and I’m cooking them but we constantly check with each other, and that’s the fun of it. I wanted to use caraway, but we don’t have it. Melissa says she’ll get it but then I say it doesn’t matter, I’ll use cumin. That’s the beauty of knowing how to cook. You know it doesn’t really matter. If you don’t cook and you just follow a recipe in the book you think caraway is the most important thing and you don’t know you can switch it.
MH: We hope to convey that in our recipes. We want to really encourage people to cook and not get hung up on the wrong thing (like the caraway).

Q: Can you describe a typical work day?

CH: We arrive at the studio around 9am. If it’s summer or fall, one of us will stop at a local farm stand and see what’s there or buy something for lunch. Or it could be something left over from the night before. We come in and catch up, have a cup of tea or coffee and then we dive in. We’re either writing something or shooting something or cooking something. We don’t even know where the time goes. One of us will get up and cook lunch. We shoot it and write it but that happens very quickly. We’ll eat it and then we continue with what we are up to.
MH: We have the same calendar and I write everything in it and every couple of months Christopher will say, “What did we do for the last two months?” and I can say we got that project done, or we were in New York, etc. We are always working and doing and making and the day flies by. Just how we like it, too.
CH: Occasionally [after a long day], we go to The Boat House. We call it the best bar in the world.
MH: We’ll have a Sidecar and then the nice lady will come and ask, “How are you doing?” They’ll never ask if we want another. We look at each other and then we’ll say, “We’ll have a Mabel.” It’s one drink poured between two glasses. Town lore is that a woman named Mabel would leave her house in the afternoon and have a half drink at each bar in town. We liked that.

Q: Where do you find your ingredients? 
CH: We do shop locally. It just makes sense and we want to support everyone. But it takes a while for the spring produce to come in.
We wrote a whole book (Canal House Cooking Volume 6: the Grocery Store), in which we talk about what we do in February. There is nothing, no farmers market. You have to make friends with your grocery store. We made great friends with our grocery store. It happens to be a good one, but not a fancy one. It’s a Shop-Rite and is family-owned and they have a wonderful selection of things. We will find tucked in there a delicious unfiltered virgin olive oil or Kerry Gold butter. We think of it as our pantry. We did look it up when we wanted to write about it because we wanted to be sure all their practices were good. When you shop somewhere, that’s your vote. But we want people to understand that you can cook out of the grocery store. You have to. 

Q: What does your creative process look like? 

CH: The inspiration comes just from us. We are in the middle of doing a little Italian series. We just happen to have been in Italy a lot. It’s funny how things happen. A friend of ours [Colman Andrews, founding editor-in-chief of Saveur] wrote a huge Italian book (The Country Cooking of Italy) and we shot it and were inspired by that. 
Q: Christopher, when you pick up a camera what are you looking for? 
CH: Something I recognize, really. Something that speaks to me, that has feeling. 

Q: What do you love most about your work? What is most challenging? 

CH: That we get to do it and we get to do it together. We like to see our challenges in a positive light. They are the grit that gives you traction. We have all the same day-to-day problems that every business has. And luckily we have each other to lean on and pass the baton to, just when the “relay race” wears you out.

Q: What Canal House dish most says summer to you and what do you love about it? 

MH: We were talking about this earlier and we both came up with same one at the exact same time: tomatoes all dressed up for summer. We love ripe tomatoes so juicy that you don’t have to do anything to them. 

Q: Finally, what advice would you give to the home cook?
MH: One thing: Just keep cooking. Keep cooking. If you get stuck, follow us and we’ll help you. We have a little saying we like. It’s on the back of the big red book: “Eat well. Be happy."