Welcome to My Life at Home, where we slow down for just a minute to share a glimpse into the lives of food lovers we’d love to get to know better. Kick off your shoes and get comfy!
In this digital age where books are read on e-readers and news consumed via alerts, it’s a real luxury to sit and get lost in an actual bound hardcover, or leisurely make your way through the pages of the Sunday paper. That’s why we knew we found a kindred spirit in CB Owens, a true bibliophile after our own heart.
CB is a food and travel editor, with experience across magazine titles like Food & Wine, Lucky Peach, and Travel + Leisure, among others. He also happens to be a good friend of Food52, having edited six of our cookbooks. Oh, and did we mention he’s a foreign language sponge, speaking five languages (outside of his native English) at conversation-level or above. “I was a linguistics major for a while before I switched to French literature,” he explains. “And then just for fun on my own I’ve studied bits and pieces of dozens and dozens of languages.” Dozens and dozens of languages! What can we say: He loves to love words.
One thing we’ve noticed about the soft-spoken Southerner—aside from his eagle-eye exactitude when it comes to our copy, of course—is that he is a modern-day Renaissance man. When he’s not parsing sentences this way and that, you can find him working on his master’s degree at NYU in food studies, launching his very own calligraphy/hand lettering/print studio (Waverly House Press, coming soon!), casually brushing up on all of those languages, or studying to become a licensed New York City tour guide. (“The test is crazy! You basically just have to know everything that happened in all five boroughs between 1624 and now.”)
We caught up with CB in his book lovers’ paradise of a home in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he also happened to teach us the world’s fastest elegant dish to throw together when last-minute guests are already on their way.
HANA ASBRINK: Tell us where you’re from, and how long you’ve called this place home.
CB OWENS: I am a 10th-generation Southerner, but I got the heck out of Dodge and moved to the Village for school the minute I turned 18, in 2003. I bought this apartment about four years ago, and my co-op is actually right across the street from my freshman dorm. So these few square blocks have felt like home to me since I was a teenager.
HA: Describe your decorating style. What are you influenced by?
CBO: I’m an editor by trade, and I’ll go after a manuscript like Edward Scissorhands, no sweat. But when it comes to my home décor, I just can’t seem to pare it down. I guess you’d say I’m a maximalist. My style is most influenced by printed matter, as you can see—I like to say this is the books’ apartment, and they just let me live here.
HA: What’s your organizing style? Thoughts on clutter?
CBO: I grew up in the kind of house with an alphabetized spice rack. I didn’t even know what clutter was, because nothing was ever once out of place. But in my own home, I definitely walk that fine line between collector and Hoarding: Buried Alive. Some print aficionados arrange their lot by size or subject or author—way too fussy for me. I embrace the chaos!
HA: Tell us about your very impressive book and magazine collection.
CBO: I started collecting as soon as I learned to read, so ever since the late ’80s. (Shout-out to Dog Goes to Nursery School, my very first book!) On my shelves you’ll find wacky little zines that cost a buck mixed in with rare first-edition cookbooks that set me back a whole paycheck. I dig all of it.
HA: I love your wall of books! Are these custom bookcases?
CBO: Custom, ha! These are cheapo particle-board bookcases from IKEA with extension shelves on top, which I picked up on Craigslist for a song. They’re barely holding together at this point, but I see no reason to upgrade them. They’ve moved with me many times, and I suppose I’m sentimental.
HA: What are the three books you’re grabbing if you’re headed to a desert island?
CBO: Only three?! Are you nuts? This question feels cruel and unusual. But if you’re twisting my arm, it would probably be Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and Finnish for Beginners. (I dunno, I’d just like to learn it, and I’ll have plenty of time on the island.)
HA: What are your hobbies? How do you manage to pay homage to all these interests in such an orderly, thoughtful way?
CBO: My greatest love is making stuff out of paper and ink. Calligraphy, zines, origami, linocut prints, gouache illustrations—you name it. My art supplies used to be scattered ev-er-y-where until I got my WorkBox 3.0 storage unit. The blood, sweat, and tears of assembly were worth it. Now I always know exactly where to find vellum envelopes or fluorescent paint markers or whatever else I suddenly have the urge to create with.
I was also quite a serious musician as a youngster, did the whole competition circuit and won my share of trophies (embarrassing ’90s confession: my first AIM screenname was Pianoboy57). I no longer compete or perform, but I still love to play for myself every day, and I keep a corner of the apartment carved out for my keyboard and stacks of sheet music.
HA: Something you hate-to-love or love-to-hate about your home?
CBO: Well, let’s just say there’s a reason I didn’t show you any photos of my bathroom. It looks like it hasn’t been renovated since the building first went up, in ’91…1891. But I’ve done what I can to spruce it up: vintage anatomical models, fancy candies, Czech street signs, etc.
HA: I know you’re so busy juggling school and work (and life!). What systems or rituals do you have in place to keep the trains running?
CBO: I basically keep my entire life organized within a single Google Drive spreadsheet called “The Big Salad” (because it has a little bit of everything in it, and I’m a diehard Seinfeld fan). It’s where I have my daily to-dos, my calendar, grocery list, ongoing projects, trackers for my editorial clients, accounting records, long-term goals, positive affirmations, everything. If I ever accidentally delete it, I’m finished.
HA: What do you like to do to gear up for the week ahead?
CBO: When I went freelance a few months ago, I didn’t realize that the distinction between weekday and weekend would totally vanish. The barista at Stumptown will say “TGIF, right?” And I’m like, Huh? I thought it was Tuesday. So the concept of “week ahead” doesn’t mean much anymore; when you work for yourself, the time is always now!
But to unwind and recharge, I watch ASMR videos on YouTube every night. My favorite ASMRtist (as they’re called, lol) is Gentle Whispering. And some of my favorite videos show her tapping on fancy greeting cards and cooking things. It’s kind of goofy, but I love it. And ASMR has completely cured my insomnia!
HA: Where will we find you on any given weeknight?
CBO: Once the thermometer cracks 60ºF, I’m out bouncing all over my neighborhood, especially up and down the Hudson River Greenway. I power-walk there almost every evening at sunset. And I live about 100 paces from Washington Square Park, so I’m often there reading or listening to my favorite jazz combo or sneaking into the dog run come summer, when most of the 50,000 NYU students disperse and I practically have the place to myself.
HA: How often do you entertain?
CBO: I entertain weekly, though it’s usually quite casual, just close pals coming by for trashy TV. Sometimes I cook for them, but just as often I find I don’t need to. I always keep good cheese and charcuterie in the fridge, plus local beer. Not exactly a banquet, but everyone leaves happy!
HA: Do you have a signature drink or dinner party fare?
CBO: For dinner parties, I invariably cook the dishes I grew up eating—nothing too fancy, but crowd-pleasers all the same. For my best friend’s birthday next week, I’m planning a menu of fried chicken, braised-forever collards with pepper vinegar, funeral mac and cheese, and pound cake with sugared blackberries (plus a secret ingredient which I’d never reveal okay fine I’ll tell you: fiori di Sicilia extract.
HA: What’s on your playlist right now?
CBO: Bach fugues, big brassy salsa, late-’90s top 40, and Kehlani. All the Kehlani!
HA: Favorite Food52 recipes?
CBO: Such an obvious answer, but it’s super popular for a reason: Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion & Butter is truly best-in-class. I can’t believe she discarded her onion at the end, though—I pick mine out of the sauce with my bare fingers and scarf it down, still steaming, right there at the stove. Cook’s treat!
HA: What do you always keep in your fridge?
CBO: Smoked salmon, Worcestershire sauce, and Christine Ferber jams (which tend to disappear within a week, midnight spoonful by midnight spoonful). Oh and always plain skyr: I eat it like regular yogurt, but it can also be doctored to stand in for milk, buttermilk, crème fraîche, sour cream, farmer’s cheese, whipped cream—whatever I need it to be. Really saves space on the dairy shelf!
HA: What are you cooking for yourself these days?
CBO: Right now I’m burning through a fat bundle of asparagus about every other day. I like to slap some spears down on store-bought puff pastry smeared with ricotta (or that trusty skyr). Then the dough gets egg-washed and baked in a hot oven for 20ish minutes. Right now, the star is asparagus, but soon it’ll be sweet versions with greenmarket strawberries or stone fruit, then squash and zucchini and friends, then tomatoes and herbs…and so it goes! It looks fancy enough for company but comes together in 25 minutes flat, fridge to mouth.
HA: Okay, we can’t finish without finding out what CB stands for!
CBO: CB stands for Christopher-Blake, which I hear nowadays only if I’ve tested my mom to her limits. CB was my grandfather’s name, too, but nobody called me that until I was a freshman in college. My very first professor suggested it during roll-call when I said I hated “Chris” but would be open to other nicknames. And I’ve been CB ever since! (Except at Starbucks, where I’m Seebee, Sibi, Stevie…)
What’s your guests-are-coming-in-a-jiffy-what-should-I-feed-them miracle dish? Share your version of CB’s elegant asparagus tart below!