Top | The Culinate Interview

Molly Wizenberg

(article, Ellen Kanner)

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p(blue). If the blogosphere has a Cinderella, it’s Molly Wizenberg, the blogger behind Orangette. Wizenberg was among the first wave of food bloggers, launching Orangette in 2004. Initially, she kept the focus on food, about which she cares passionately and photographs exquisitely. But as faithful Orangette followers know, in 2005 she heard from a reader named Brandon. They met, fell in love, he moved to Wizenberg’s home in Seattle, and they married. Last year, they opened the Seattle pizzeria Delancey, where Brandon makes the New York-style pizza he loves and couldn’t get on the West Coast. Wizenberg has blogged about all of it.  

p(blue). Now a regular contributor to Bon Appétit magazine, Wizenberg continues to maintain the award-winning Orangette. She’s also the author of A Homemade Life, a memoir liberally seasoned with recipes, which just came out in paperback. In January, she began the podcast series Spilled Milk, in which she and Culinate columnist Matthew Amster-Burton talk about food passions and crack each other up.  

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Molly Wizenberg"]What have you learned from Orangette?
I learned I really like to write a lot. As a kid and a teenager, people used to ask if I wanted to be a writer for a living. I always said no. I was terrified to put myself under the pressure of a deadline. I thought it would take away any joy I had found in it or the muses would run away. The blog changed all of that for me. It not only gave me a place to practice but it also showed me I could write even under pressure, even when I kinda didn’t want to, and I could even enjoy it.  

When I first started the blog, I didn’t know what my feelings were about food, why I was so interested in it. In the first few months, I was doing all kinds of different stuff. Then in September 2004, I wrote a piece that felt really different to me. I was baking a lot of sourdough bread from a starter a girlfriend had given me. I went on a riff about how I could have been a wife in the Great Depression. What’s interesting to me isn’t just the sourdough bread. I don’t want to analyze every last crumb or nuance of why this bread is what it is. I’m interested in what this bread makes me think about or feel.

How does writing about food differ from making it at Delancey?
The goals are so different. In the restaurant, there’s pressure coming from the clock and the need to get things out quickly. It’s so much more outwardly focused.

Part of me thought I would really love it — it’s everything I like about sharing food with people, just on a bigger scale. But the incredible amount of work and pressure going into what appears to be a seamless experience took the joy out of it for me. Food was a combat zone. I had a couple of nights when I had 12 tickets up at once and wanted to go running into the street. I was crying at my station in my kitchen, cooking and crying. 

For Brandon, cooking is about performance. I think that for him, the real fun of cooking is challenging himself in a very public way. He likes to impress people, he likes to be on stage.  Cooking for him is wowing people or giving them an experience they didn’t expect.

What I love about cooking is much more inward. It allows me a quiet space in which to focus and work with my hands in a slow and steady way. I hadn’t realized how precious that was to me. There’s something to be said for pushing your limits, but I’m not myself when I’m there. I’m always eager to get home and get back to the more intimate type of cooking.

How do you know Matthew Amster-Burton?
I met him about seven years ago, when we both wound up at the same party. I was a graduate student. I was dating a different man then, and I was insecure about the guy I was with; he wasn’t into food. Matthew was writing for the Seattle Times about food, and he seemed so much older and established. He was so cool and here I was, feeling hindered. I felt like Matthew was part of this amazing world and I wasn’t in it.

So how did you go from hindered grad student with a non-foodie beau to Spilled Milk?
I like the solitary work of writing, but I’ve never wanted writing to be the only thing I’ve done. I have wanted for a while to collaborate with someone. Matthew and his wife and his daughter, they’ve become really good friends. Then lo and behold, Matthew came along with this podcast idea. He wrote and asked if was interested and I thought, My God, I’m not that funny.  

But you are — it’s a part of you that doesn’t come across so much in your writing.
The first couple of episodes, I was really, really nervous. But it’s been wonderful to go through the process of doing this work with another person. We make each other laugh a lot; we have complementary senses of humor. We crack each other up. I’ve learned what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. He’s made me funnier in a lot of ways. He’s an ideal partner.


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What goes into an actual podcast?
We meet once a week and record once a week. Matthew does all the technical stuff, I do most of the food stuff. We brainstorm ideas about what we want to talk about.

What’s the difference between the spoken word and the written for you?
For me, there’s a big difference. I’m generally a lot more comfortable with the written one. I’m pretty slow and careful when I write. I choose every word of every sentence, and I think that’s just sort of who I am. Doing an interview like this is faster and more fun, but I feel like I can’t be as articulate or express myself in spoken words.   

What about expressing yourself through your amazing food images?
Really, I don’t spend a lot of time on it. I’m not very interested in using lights or styling the food too much — I want to present it as we eat it. That’s the most interesting thing to me — the context in which real people sit down at real tables and eat real food. I use a table right next to our window, our kitchen table. I don’t use any other light except for that.

I’ve been shooting extensively with film for the past two years. I used digital before, but film forces me to limit the amount of shots I’m going to take. I can’t fire off a whole roll; it’s very expensive these days. So I take maybe eight shots from which I’ll get maybe two or three. I really love film and let the weirdness of film do its thing. It reacts with light in a particular way. It has a certain sort of glowy quality. I want to let that speak for itself and not gussy it up too much.

You make cooking seem so intimate and rewarding. But what about people who say they don’t have time to cook?
I get that, I really do. When the restaurant started, I was eating the crappiest food ever, because I didn’t want to cook. In a perfect world, we all have time to cook. But the world is not perfect.
So when the world is not perfect and you don’t have time to cook, what do you want to eat?
I either want pizza, or I want pad Thai — something spicy I can eat with chopsticks — or peanut butter on toast. And the peanut butter has to be Adams. Creamy, please.

I know where you get your pizza. How do you source your other food?
For dry goods and milk and things like that, we have a very good grocery store. Fruits, vegetables, and eggs, we get at the farmers' market. It’s important for me for support local sellers and farmers.

You’ve got the blog, the book, the husband, the restaurant, the podcast, the Bon Appétit gig . . . what’s next for you? '"Dancing
\(Laughter.\) That will not be happening.

What do you want, then?
I want to write another book.  

A food book?
As much as I love food, for me food is almost a signpost of something else. I’m interested in the way food makes us feel and what it feels like to sit down at the table. We need to remember that eating food is really pleasurable, and cooking food can be pleasurable, too.

p(bio). Ellen Kanner keeps a website and a blog and contributes regularly to the Huffington Post.

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