Top | The Culinate Interview

Lynne Rossetto Kasper

(article, Miriam Wolf)

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p(blue). Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s mellifluous voice has been crooning the secret life of food into our ears for 12 years now; she's the host and co-creator of American Public Media's wide-ranging food program, "The Splendid Table." Her latest book, The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper, mixes richly flavored, quickly prepared recipes with food history, anthropology, tips, and other food ephemera.

Do you have a memory of what ignited your passion for food?
So many! I was raised in an Italian family. And food was primary; food was part of who we were. And we didn’t eat like everyone else, and at times that was a source of great embarrassment. 

I desperately wanted to be able to have Wonder Bread and chicken pot pie and frozen vegetables. And I’d go to my friend’s houses and they had all these things that I was just not allowed to eat. I couldn’t have any white flour or white sugar. Which meant no soda, no cake. White bread took on an aura of being the holy grail for me. 

[%image lynne float=left width=300 caption="Lynne Rosetto Kasper"]

My mother’s side of the family is Tuscan and my father’s side of the family is Venetian, and for health reasons as well as for traditional reasons, every night we had four or five fresh vegetables and a big salad, plus some kind of meat or poultry or fish or whatever. I think that kind of background, it just gradually sinks in.

Your new book, How to Eat Supper, is a mixture of history, food culture, and anthropology, along with recipes. How did you pull together so many different elements?
It was really the first 12 years of the show. So our biggest problem was what to eliminate. We had more material than we could ever fit between those two covers. And of course, keeping balance. Sally \[Swift, Kasper’s co-writer and producer\] and I both love science, we love history, and we love the sideways looks at food, the sort of oddball takes. That book could have been all science; it could have been all history. But you couldn’t miss the “Museum of Burnt Food” or “Crying While Eating.”
 
What side of food journalism appeals to you these days? The cultural-historian side?
Absolutely. And also the political side. It’s always been strange to me that the news side and the business side of the newspaper are separated from the food section. Because they’re not! Very definitely not. And now there is so much concern now over where our food is coming from and how it’s raised.

We’re all beginning to wonder what’s behind how this is done. Where is the governance? Why does the system work this way? In fact, what is the system? I think this is a really good thing. We’ve been rather blithe in this country, don’t you think? We have more than we can ever use. We eat more than we need. We expect more on our plates. And we supposedly spend less for food as a percentage of income than any other country in the world. 

I get a little tired of people slapping our hands about that, because that’s just the way it is. It’s where we’ve evolved to. But we’re now evolving in some very interesting directions.

Do you feel hopeful that the rest of the country is moving toward a more political ethos around food?
I am just over the moon about the fact that this is now mainstream. But one of my main concerns is that it’s still the privilege of the privileged. And today, with what’s happening with the economy, the cost of fuel, the cost of grain, more and more I think we’re going to be seeing a separation between those who have options and choices and those who don’t. 

For me, with what little bit of extra money there is, I can justify spending it on food because I work in food. But it’s also a political act for me. I’m not saying that every single thing in my home and every forkful of food I put in my mouth is a pure as the driven snow, but I figure an extra five bucks — which I can afford at this point — is a small way that I say, “This is what I believe in. This is where I choose to put my money and my support.” But so many people don’t have that option.
 
Organics are beginning to appear in low-priced stores like Wal-Mart.
I get worried about that, too. If Wal-Mart starts shipping in from Australia . . . I’m not saying that this isn’t a good thing. There’s always the double-edged sword. But my real concern about large-scale industries getting into organics is that the essence of what the organic movement was about was sustainable ways for small- and medium-scale agriculture to flourish. And flourish sensibly. 

Since World War II in this country, we’ve had a federal agricultural policy that has started from the premise that bigger is better: it's more economical, makes more sense, feeds more people. We’ve never tried to work out how we feed a nation and do it at a reasonable cost by saying, "How do we have sustainable agriculture that is about crop rotation and modest-scale farms and new techniques that keep strengthening the soil and helping the environment?" We’ve never started with that premise. 

I mean, we still supply backing to the person who’s growing commodity crops. We don’t supply any kind of support to the farmer who’s got the truck farm who’s growing the tomatoes and the peaches and the fava beans and the green beans and who has alfalfa in the fields for a year as he rotates through. I mean, I’m asking here only for a revolution, you know. That’s all.

It would be great if the revolution could be from the top down — a government policy — rather than from the consumer.
Yeah! I think it has to come from the top down. The bottom up has been struggling for a long time, and I think it has had a certain amount of success. But it has to come from the top down. \[The United States has\] started out with a premise that bigger is better, and a lot of that comes from this concept of manifest destiny, which is one of the things that drove the whole development of this country and of the Western world — that our job was to civilize that wilderness. Our job was to bring Christianity to the savages. Our job was to take all of this wealth and make it ours. And that didn’t always lead to having regard for the earth, having regard for other peoples, etcetera. 

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h1.Featured recipes

These recipes are from Kasper's books The Italian Country Table and The Splendid Table.




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How do you translate food to radio?
I think visuals are wonderful. But the reality is, it’s that old corny phrase: the theater of the imagination. I do think constantly about how to take the listener along with me. What do you need to know? You need to know something of what it looks like. You need to know what it tastes like. You need to have something to start your imagination going, whether it’s an idea or a visual cue. But that kind of comes naturally when you think about how we talk to each other, when I tell you about the meal I had last night and you weren’t with me.  

There was a dish I had the first time I went to WD-50, a New York restaurant that’s one of the places that’s practicing the new food science. \[Chef Wylie Dufresne\] did this take-off on cassoulet. It came out in a little tiny cassoulet pot. But instead of beans, he had taken pine nuts and he had pressure-cooked them until they were really plump. I mean, they looked like white beans. And when you put them in your mouth, they turned to sweet cream because of what happened to them during this process. They were a bean in a way, but they were like essence of the sweetest, most delicious pine nut you’ve ever had in your life. 

If somebody had photographed this in a way that you couldn’t tell how large that pot was, you would be looking at a pot of white beans and all the ingredients that go in a cassoulet. Now you can see it, right? 

Defintely. And speaking of WD-50, how do you feel about the new molecular, more deconstructed cuisine?
I’m fascinated by it! Essentially the technology of how we cook, with the exception of electricity and the microwave and whatever, has not changed radically for five, six, seven hundred years. Probably longer than that. And yet we’re walking around with a cell phone or a machine in our pocket that is pulling messages from people around the world out of the air. We have technology that’s so far advanced, and it’s long overdue appearing in the kitchen. 

Food has always evolved, it’s always changed. And it’s also like everything else: In the hands of the gifted, it is a stunning revelation for the diner. In the hands of the hacks, it is stupid and unimaginative and inept.

After working with food for decades, do you ever get fatigued by it? And what do you do to wake yourself back up?
I take a break. I go out on those nights that I really don’t feel like cooking. I take time off. I’m always intrigued to eat. But we have what we sometimes call “good-sport time.” Much of my career has been built on my husband’s palate. And he’ll eat anything. But there are times when perhaps he gets, shall I say, a tad saturated. 

A long time ago, we were living in Brussels and we were going to take the boat train to London for the weekend, and my husband said, “Could we have one trip where you are not tracking down the restaurant, finding the shop, looking for the cheese?” It was an antiquing trip, so I said OK. 

And we got on the ferry. It was like 6 a.m. and we got a tray for breakfast, and I looked down, and it was just revolting. I opened my mouth, and he just grinned and held his finger up. So I switched gears immediately and I said, “OK! Good-sport time!” I just ate it and that was that. It was my breakfast, and I was hungry; I was not there to evaluate it. 

There are other things that are happening in the world besides food, and it’s kinda good to know about them, too. 

p(bio). Miriam Wolf writes about books and food for various publications, and is the managing editor of Bitch magazine. She lives in Portland, Oregon.


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