As a dining critic and poet for more than two decades, Jen Karetnick realized she had “fistfuls of poems on many food subjects, including cheese, wine, coffee, fruit, pasta, fish, eggs, and more.” The result was her full-length book Brie Season, published by White Violet Press. We’ve excerpted three delicious poems below.
Karetnick says she was inspired by G.K. Chesterton’s comment, “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” Smoked, Swiss, soft, gooey—we agree. Let’s rhapsodize together on the delight brought by a perfect, ripened wedge.
A Note to GK Chesterton
If it’s true, as you say, that we have been
“mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese,”
perhaps it’s because few are the poets
who would choose as a muse
a bloomy rind triple crème
coated with penicillium candidum
when great white herons miss the bay
and, with breeze-fuzzed feathers,
land instead to amuse toddlers by stalking
reef geckos not quite camouflaged
among the grasses growing like lies
on the sand-held bricks of driveways
where basketball nets hang – the tattered
tails of kites – or wax about calf rennet
when older boys wheel like hawks
on baseball diamonds and our daughters
run, more long-legged every day,
under phone wires lined with a dozen
observant ibis, or care about cheddaring
and cave aging when none of these
things are true, and the children we never
bore are regrets, difficult to census
yet kept warm in the nests
of plume-hunted, colonial egrets.
Double Gloucester with Chives and Onions
Oh, you’re sharp. A real British wit. Even at the right
party, your tone is affectation – crumbling bits of puce-
hued irony, melded with tense, chewy bon mots that grind
between the teeth. How I like you: pared. But most take
chunks, willing to risk slavish salivary glands and a pain
not unlike melancholy so that you last between mastications
long after you should have been washed away by a wine
reeking of rain clouds, bruised guava and violets.
Fibonacci’s Angels at Surfing Goat Dairy
in ash, shaped into
convex volcanoes, crumble at
the glance of a blade
as dull as
hearts, caraway seeds
nicking the tang of cool and cream,
rudeness to the tooth
under the black
in macadamia nut oil
and smoked over shells,
eyes or hair,
before you add the gauzy wings
and Popsicle sticks,
born of goats
draped in grape
leaves, spiced with the zest
of Provence, touched by Buddha’s Hand,
Thai dragon chilies,
Previously published in Cobalt.
Jen Karetnick, aka “Mango Mama,” is the author of the cookbook, Mango (University Press of Miami, 2014), which won a 2015 Excellence in Culinary Writing Award from Les Dames d’Escoffier International, and co-author of From the Tip of My Tongue (Story Farm Press, 2015), with chef Cindy Hutson, which won the 2015 “Best Woman Cookbook USA” from the World Gourmand Awards. Karetnick also has two forthcoming books of poetry, American Sentencing (Winter Goose Publishing, May 2016) and The Treasures That Prevail (Whitepoint Press, September 2016).
The holiday season is a time to reconnect with family and friends. It’s also the season to dust off those old family recipes, many of which are best kept for once-a-year consumption.
I’m from the Midwest. Quite a few of the favorite dishes my family counted as “traditional” were conspicuously midcentury in their origin. Cranberry Jello salad laced liberally with crushed pineapple, celery and nuts. Green cornflake wreaths decorated with Red Hots. Canned green bean and condensed soup casserole, topped with french fried onions and cheese.
This year, I’m planning to mix up my holiday menu with recs courtesy of the fascinating foodies I’ve researched this year. It’s my job to discover and share the (often passed-over) ideas and stories of women and girls from all fields, including the culinary arts. Here are quotes, recipes and the stories behind them sourced from Quotabelle’s collection—perfect for spicing up December baking sessions and holiday parties.
“This book is for those of us who want to fold our dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of the day.” Peg Bracken
When copywriter and humorist Peg Bracken went to publish her irreverent I Hate to Cook Book, it was rejected by 6 male editors who flatly refused to believe the market implied by the title existed. When a female editor undertook to print Peg’s book in 1960, it was an instant bestseller.
This essential midcentury kitchen companion was born out of an ongoing collaboration among working women. They “pooled their ignorance” to come up with dishes that were easy to prepare, tasty to eat and hilarious to read. The recipe for “stayabed stew” ordered the chef to go back to bed for 5 hours while it slow-cooked itself. Peg’s instructions for the ever-popular “hootenholler whisky cake” advised the baker to start with “a small snort” of the titular ingredient “for medicinal purposes.” And it reminded readers to “buck up” the delicious leftovers now and again with the aid of an ice pick and an eye dropper.
“A good recipe travels as far, and fast, as a good joke.”
Need quick bites for holiday party? Try one of Peg’s no-fail, 3-ingredient hors d’oerves, like “Betty’s cocktail cookies”:
½ c flour, ¼ c butter and 1 jar processed bacon-cheese spread. Simply mix, roll, refrigerate, slice into discs and pop in the oven for 10 minutes at 400º F. No need to grease that baking sheet.
“What does the Cuban homemaker have and what can be done with it?” Nitza Villapol
Nitza Villapol was the host of the longest running cooking show on television. The first episode of Cocina al Minuto aired in Cuba on December 23, 1948. The popular program survived the 1959 revolution and continued for nearly 3 decades following, with the loyal Fidelista serving up countless helpings of her signature black beans and picadillo.
During her TV tenure, Nitza personified Cuban cooking—and patriotism. The people’s chef tried to wean fellow citizens off their traditional meat-and-starch diets and cheerfully adapted her recipes to fit the current rations. When ingredients were scarce during food shortages, she’d encourage cubano “ingenuity.” If the rice ran out, she’d add macaroni to her beans. If potatoes were the only thing on offer, she’d exhaustively demonstrate the many things you can make from potatoes (salad, mash, stew…even jam and mayonnaise).
“We may not have anything left to eat, but we still have our dignity. If it’s necessary, we will do our cooking with firewood. We will do anything except surrender!”
Nitza’s cookbooks were considered so precious that they were often smuggled off the island and passed down through generations.
Her holiday tips? Marinate your turkey for at least 10 hours in garlic, lemon, orange, cumin and oregano. Stuff the bird with arroz congris (Cuban black beans and rice). For a seasonal postre, add calabaza (butternut squash puree) to your flan.
“I consider stir-frying a form of culinary magic in which ingredients are transformed.” Grace Young
Julia Child may have been her childhood idol, but today Grace Young has left behind the pastry and cream sauces to become the “poet laureate of the wok.” It’s an alias that pays homage to “timely and timeless” traditions of Chinese cooking she first learned at home. Behind the food in Grace’s three award-winning cookbooks is a “yin-yang” philosophy that calls for contrast and balance in flavors and nutrition.
Follow this stir-fry master’s tips, and you, too, can make culinary magic from hot pepper beef to chili mango chicken to seared sugar snaps. Marinate your meat. Make sure your veg is fresh and dry. Never overcrowd the pan. And, be a good listener—because when a wok sings, it’s ready.
“If there isn’t sizzle, something’s wrong.”
Some holiday wisdom from Grace—ditch the butter and cream, and wok your way to healthier sides that don’t hog valuable real estate in your oven. Try stir-fried Brussels sprouts with shallots, sherry and pine nuts or stir-fried balsamic ginger carrots. For Chinese New Years, go for a mushroom-based main…quick-growing fungi are associated with good fortune.
“People who love to eat are always the best people.” Julia Child
Today, her iconic TV kitchen is a bonafide Smithsonian exhibit, but Julia Child was no natural when it came to the culinary arts. She grew up thinking she would go into science. The first recipe she cooked up was for shark repellant (as a US Navy researcher during WWII). She failed her first exam at Paris’s École Cordon Bleu. But, this dubious resumé made Julia the perfect person to take the “bugaboo” out of Continental cuisine for the rest of us.
Her first major publication—the 1961 magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking—led to a PBS gig where she debuted her classic live show The French Chef with a savory pot of boeuf bourguignon. For the next decade, fans tuned in to see her pragmatic instruction and infectious enthusiasm brought to everything from paté to soufflé.
Ready to commit to a Julia-style holiday dinner? Go for a well-trussed goose! Stuff it with brandy-soaked prunes, chestnuts and ground pork.
Make sure whatever dessert you choose—be it crokenbush (a pyramid of filled crème puffs held together with caramel and topped with spun sugar) or bûche de noël (a frosted yule log made from rolled sponge and Italian meringue)—takes no less than half a day and 4 stages to complete. But, as Julia would say:
“The pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite—toujours bon appétit!”
Quotabelle is now on Indiegogo, if you’d like to help them give life to more women’s words.
On this Sunday after Thanksgiving for our American readers (hi readers from Brazil and South Korea! You can join in, too), we’re reflecting on the holidays. Specifically, on what’s fallen away from your holidays. Most families have some kind of tradition, whether it’s Midnight Mass or a very particular kind of green bean casserole.
But they don’t always endure. What traditions have gone by the wayside in your family? Maybe you’ve opted out of turkey and in to enchiladas for Thanksgiving. Maybe after Pops died, the family didn’t get together for dinner any more. Tell us about the traditions that fell away.
Come up with something great? Share it in the comments below—it just might become our next post.
Pink meat pulls and stretches, contoured over protruding, blunt-tipped ribs; forming a fleshy marbled mass just above the bony sternum. The first rib is hooked through with a nail, leaving the entire slab of meat to hang heavy from the wood-paneled kitchen wall. Below it, dressed fowl with puffed chests and eyes outlined in crimson are stacked—no, nestled—their necks uniformly limp, dangling from the elevated bronze serving tray. In the foreground, five pears at varying stages of ripeness are splayed, almost an afterthought, like the oranges stacked in the background, toppling from the mouth of a copper pot. Fruit here is secondary; a rushed addition to the table.
Brightly colored food trucks line the exterior of Farragut Square, where men and women in tidy suits wait for falafel and tacos and too-sweet smoothies. It’s a series rapid exchanges. Cash and cards for white paper bags and Styrofoam boxes slick with grease. Garbage cans overflow with half-eaten meals and spotted napkins. A man in Capitals jersey picks through the array. The jersey has a cat scratch-style cut—a three-clawed slash, slash, slash—across the left shoulder. He finally chooses an apple, whole but bruised, and delicately wraps it in the folds of a plastic bag for later.
Iridescent pods are suspended from leafy branches, each member-orb covered in a delicate translucent film that contains the rich, red juice. Red currants, as these are, have a bite that goes from tart to sweet. Close by on the wooden butcher’s block is a bundle of artichokes painted with strokes that fade from violet to green to white. Their stalks cut at an angle. Their buds tight.
The voices of children, five or six maybe, transmit over my car radio. They’re telling me facts I’ve heard before, but these voices make me want to listen. “One in five children in the US struggle with hunger.” One voice, a boy’s soft voice, says: “My teacher tells me I can grow up to be anything I want. I want to be someone who doesn’t go to bed hungry.” I think of my favorite photo of my baby brother; he’s chubby-faced with a piece of chocolate cake (his first) smeared across his mouth and cheeks, and he is wholly gleeful. He’s never—we’ve never—gone to sleep hungry in our lives. I wipe my eyes in the rearview and promise this year to actually collect some cans or some small thing.
The table heaves under the weight of the spread: the bowl of golden apples, spiraled citrus peels, bites of bread torn from the loaf, a whole roasted chicken, briney olives, and, of course, the peacock pie. Part savory, part pastry, all pageantry—it’s a minced meat pie decorated with the head and neck (skewered through with a stick) and some of the shorter tail feathers. The pastry serves as a post-mortem torso; a darkly humorous delicacy.
On the steps of the National Gallery of Art, a woman clutches a cardboard sign, scrawled over with black Sharpie marker. “Need Money 4Food. Baby on the Way.” The hood of her jacket is pulled tight around her face, the drawstrings forming a loopy bow right beneath her chin. One hand rests on her swollen belly. “Anything—any little bit—helps,” the woman murmurs over and over. She and her unborn child starving in the land of plenty.
Ashlie Stevens is a freelance food and arts writer from Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has been featured in the Atlantic’s CityLab, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, and Hyperallergic. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Nonfiction Writing at the University of Kentucky. You can follow her on Twitter at @AshlieD_Stevens.
Who the heck are we anyway? Why are we doing this project? I knew my answers (and maybe I’ll share them with you someday), but I didn’t know what Marissa Landrigan, the brain behind this whole business, would say to those questions. So I asked her over Gchat, because we’re modern ladies. What follows is an ever-so-slightly edited version of our conversation.
Marissa: Pretty good! I don’t teach on Thursdays, so they are among my favorite days. [RKC edit: Yes, students—teachers love days off as much as you do.]
Robyn: So, I know we talked about this a little bit after the last (fabulous!) reading packed with pawpaws, but how did you decide to start up Acquired Taste?
Marissa: When I was working on my book, a memoir about eating, sustainable food production, and ethics, I had a hard time figuring out where my writing fit into the larger field; some parts felt too topical, or journalistic, for traditional literary publications, and some parts felt too creative or personal for glossy food publications.
In my searches, though, I found a lot of other writers who were doing similar things, blending memoir with larger cultural analysis — like Bich Minh Nguyen‘s Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, or Diana Abu-Jaber‘s The Language of Baklava. Once I started looking for it, I found literary food writing in lots of places, from lots of writers and I wanted to see it gathered in one place, and given the attention I thought it deserved.
Robyn: Why a reading series?
Marissa: Honestly, I think I picked a reading series because I thought starting small and local would be easier (I now scoff at my younger self for thinking running a reading series is easy). But it seemed manageable to book a local venue, find three or four readers, and make a flyer.
The first event really didn’t have much more planning than that. But it was really fun, and we had a great turn-out, and a number of people in the audience that first night told me they did the same kind of writing, so it picked up its own momentum.
Robyn: You always have such a varied lineup. Lots of genres, local and national writers—I was struck by that the first time I went to a reading.
Marissa: One of my favorite things has been the blend of genres. Before the reading series, I was mostly familiar with nonfiction food writing (since that’s the genre I work in) but our first event had Dave Housley of Barrelhouse reading from his hilarious short story collection Commercial Fiction, and I realized how much eating and drinking were subjects in the fiction I loved. And I don’t think I’ve met a single poet since who, when I mention the reading series, tells me they have loads of poetry about food.
I mean, of course they do! Food and drink are so sensual, so evocative, so full of figurative potential.
Robyn: Absolutely. We devour lots of things, metaphorically and literally. (Which reminds me of my writerly pet peeve: devouring books. Why do we all devour them? Can we, like, do some other verb with them? Not very creative, us readers and writers.)
Marissa: So true! It’s probably because eating is the most intimate physical thing most of us can come up with. Making love to books would probably just be weird.
Robyn: Yeah, the attraction just isn’t there…
But to swing back to a reasonable line of discussion…that makes me think of writing cliches, specifically food writing cliches. You’ve mentioned the “cooking with grandma” trope to me before. What other stories do you come across pretty frequently? And/or maybe you can think of some great examples of stories that subvert them?
Marissa: Lots of holiday meals — everyone gathered around the Thanksgiving table, that kind of thing. I love exploring traditions, but I’m just as (if not more) curious about the mundane, every day meals we value.
Basically anything where food is just sexy or orgasmic — a date where the meal is dripping with innuendo. Food is incredibly sexy, I get it, but it’s too obvious or on the nose.
Robyn: Yes! I love her poetry. And not just because she’s a very cool person.
Marissa: And Jennifer Jackson Berry (who will read at the February AcqTaste event) has these amazing poems where she uses food as a sexual metaphor AND makes fun of using food as a sexual metaphor in “Fat Girl Confuses Food and Sex, Again.”
Robyn: That sounds like such a fun take on it. Can’t wait for that reading.
That’s something I really appreciate about this series—how it brings people together, almost like a meal.
You’re basically saying, “Here, try this new author!” like you’d offer a spoonful of a new food. Somehow, talking about food in a big group is more intimate than just talking about writing or stories or other topics at readings. Food is so universal and so endless in its variety for discussion, art, appreciation…
Marissa: Once you get people talking about food, it’s hard to stop. It sounds obvious, but we all have food stories. Eating and drinking is something we all have in common, whatever restrictions, difficulties, painful memories, etc. we may have associated with meals.
And food is so inherently communal. I remember this moment from our January 2015 reading — it was immediately post-holidays, and Pittsburgh was under three feet of snow or something, and there we were, all cozy and warm in East End Book Exchange, laughing and talking about food. It was so touching. I felt so close to everyone, like we had really shared something.
Robyn: Did you anticipate that kind of response when you started the series?
Marissa: I had seen that kind of coming-together a lot while I was researching the book. Anywhere I went (to visit farms or markets, to go hunting, etc.) when I told people I was writing a book about food, especially about vegetarianism, people couldn’t resist sharing their own stories. When they had been a vegetarian, the first time the remembered figuring out that their food was a dead animal, how much they love catching and frying fish…anything.
But I don’t think I anticipated the enormous variety of food stories I’d get to hear in the reading series.
Nor do I think I fully understood how connected food would be to so many other things: grief and loss, marriage, parenthood, religion, sexual identity, politics…The way food webs out to touch so many other subjects blows my mind.
Robyn: Yes! It can be a vehicle for almost anything, any story.
What do you find hardest in writing about food?
*toughest (heh). There are so many puns to be made around food.
Marissa: Bringing food to life on the page with description is surprisingly difficult; the subject is rich with sensory detail, for sure, but it’s hard to pull it off without resorting to cliche (juices dripping from your fingers, flavors bursting, etc.).
Description is also hard because people experience food so differently. For instance, I think eggplant is utterly disgusting, so when I write about it, it’s slimy, bitter, and tastes like the ground it should stay in. But some people (probably?) love eggplant!
So I’ve got to describe it in a way that sounds as disgusting as it tastes to me when a lot of people don’t think it’s disgusting at all.
Robyn: I suppose really great writing makes you actually consider something you love as disgusting.
(I too am not a big fan of eggplant, for the record.) Writers out there—new challenge: make us love eggplant.
Marissa: I really like playing with that line, too — it’s fun to talk about how delicious chicken is, and then go into a really in-depth discussion of chicken houses and factory slaughter lines and chicken byproduct meal and pink slime. Working up the reader’s appetite, and then blindside them with something gross is fun. And kind of mean.
Robyn: I’m all about the gross out.
[RKC edit: You almost got a picture of maggots eating a opossum carcass here. I showed some restraint; you’re welcome.]
Marissa: If someone could write about eggplant (or mushrooms, which I also really don’t like) in a way that makes my mouth water, I would totally try it again. Good writing is powerful.
Robyn: Are mushrooms a texture thing? I feel like that’s most people’s beef with shrooms. They’re an oddly complicated bite.
Marissa: Totally textural for me. I’m super sensitive about food texture. I also don’t love hummus the way most people do because I can’t deal with the texture. Peaches and pears bother me too.
Robyn: Favorite texture?
Marissa: I’m a big fan of soups, stews, and sauces, so I guess that would make my favorite texture creamy: a thick beef stew broth, a smooth potato leek soup, a rich Alfredo.
I love crunch, too, in the right context: crispy bacon, really fresh green beans or sugar snap peas, homemade vanilla and cranberry granola.
I’m such a picky eater, and was so much worse as a kid. My mom thinks it’s hilarious that I’m a food writer now because of how much I refused to eat as a child. I was a terrible cook when I was younger, too.
Robyn: Maybe that pickiness is what gave you your attention to detail!
Marissa: I did have to spend a lot of time explaining why there was just no way I was going to finish all the zucchini on my plate.
Robyn: How did you end up getting better at cooking? That seems to be a major young adult hurdle for lots of people.
Marissa: Starting to eat meat again, after seven years as a vegetarian, is what finally forced me to become a better cook. As a vegetarian, and a picky one, I was so lazy: I bought tons of boxes of fake meat products, boxes of rice, couscous, and macaroni and cheese, and just ate a ton of processed, pre-made food.
Robyn: The boxed stuff can take away some of that uncertainty. Meat can be really hard to cook properly. When I worked at meat markets in high school and college, people were always asking me questions. Handling, cutting, temperatures…
Marissa: Exactly! Meat has so many questions you HAVE to answer correctly when you’re cooking. When I decided to start eating meat again, I realized I had no idea what I was doing — I had never cooked it for myself, as an adult. And yes, because of food safety concerns, I really had to get it right. So I finally started using cookbooks and researching recipes and reading food blogs, even watching cooking shows (Alton Brown is my #1 Celebrity Chef Crush) to figure it out.
Robyn: #AB4life. He’s got some great videos about cooking steak. Gordon Ramsay, too.
And with meat: screwing up can be expensive.
Marissa: Definitely. And I was buying all my meat and produce from local sources, often organic, grass-fed, etc. so I was spending more on it, and really didn’t want to screw it up.
And once I started spending that much time and effort on cooking, I realized I actually really liked doing it. For me, cooking is incredibly fun — like a challenge, a puzzle to figure out as you go — and super relaxing. Focused and meditative.
Are you a stick to the recipe kind of person? Or are you more my style, where lemon juice can be swapped for lime depending on my mood? And cayenne goes on basically everything savory.
Marissa: Riffing on a recipe is the best, isn’t it?
Robyn: I love it. It’s the closest I get to being a jazz musician.
But never with baking. That shit’s chemistry, and I don’t fuck around with that.
Marissa: My favorite part of learning to cook has been getting good enough at it that I can do that. Because, like a good jazz musician, you have to understand the basics in order to improvise with them. Before I understood the basics, I would make these crazy mistakes — once, I tried to swap out sweet potatoes for potatoes in a quiche recipe, which, of course, dramatically changed the flavor — but now that I know what different ingredients are doing in a recipe, I know how to play around with them.
Robyn: Any potato’s a good potato in my book.
Marissa: I even improvise with baked goods now! I’ve learned a lot of substitutes by following vegan and gluten-free baking recipes (or trying to bake without eggs or milk in the house). Proportions are still really important, but I use Greek yogurt in place of oil or butter a lot.
Robyn: Yeah, the proportions are my issue. I’m very much an “eyeball it” kind of cook, so I’m already heaping that tablespoon rather than leveling it.
What’s your worst kitchen disaster? Have you ever totally botched a meal?
Marissa: Oh, so many times.
That sweet potato quiche was a bad one — it was supposed to be potatoes, leeks, and white cheddar sauce, I think, and for some reason I decided to use sweet potatoes, leeks, and orange cheddar, and it was just…confused.
Robyn: Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose.
In leek-related news: I misheard one of Simran Sethi’s quotes about wheat in our Q&A with her and swapped it in for leeks. It made absolutely no sense in the context.
Marissa: Ha! Yeah, I don’t imagine leeks are quite as integral a part of the global food supply.
Robyn: But maybe they should be.
Marissa: I once tried to bake a French chocolate torte, which needed espresso. I didn’t have any so I just used water, and the end result was about half an inch thick and rock solid.
Robyn: Oh no!
I wonder what changed the texture so much? Espresso isn’t much more than water.
Marissa: Ah, here’s the key: I used HOT water, because I thought, “Hey, espresso would be hot,” (though I’m sure the recipe must have said cooled espresso) and it somehow combined with the flour to make a paste in the dough.
I was about 13 — old enough to have known better, but not so old as to be completely embarrassed by that one.
Robyn: You were making French desserts at 13? That sounds pretty advanced and fancy to me.
Though I have never made a torte, so maybe I am totally off-base here.
Marissa: It was a homework assignment for my French class. I got a zero — I at least knew enough to trash it.
Robyn: Awww haha.
I don’t ever remember cooking things for German class. And our version of home ec included frying donuts out of pre-packaged dough.
Not particularly ambitious curriculum, w/r/t food back home.
Marissa: When I think about it, it does seem a little suspect — this was public school. What if my family couldn’t afford chocolate and espresso and other fancies?
Robyn: Right. I know my house certainly didn’t has espresso machinery.
(Though it does now—such a great appliance.)
Also, food processors. How did I never have a food processor before?
Marissa: Food processors are the best! We have a big one (gazpacho size) and a little one (salsa size).
The one kitchen appliance I don’t have that I wish I did is a stand mixer. I would make homemade bread, and baked good so much more often.
Or so I like to imagine.
Robyn: Oh ambition!
So what are you most excited about with the anthology? We’ve been getting some really great submissions.
Marissa: I’m super excited about the variety of styles we’re seeing — personal essays, meditations on culture, hybrid forms, graphic work. When I think about seeing such a broad range of approaches to food gathered in one place, it makes me really happy.
There’s so much promise and potential in the genre, and I think the anthology will be a great preview of that possibility.
Oh my, that was very unintentionally alliterative.
Robyn: Your words just sing!
On my dream list for the anthology: I’d love to see somebody do an ode to Kraft singles American cheese. Or some other decidedly non-gourmet foodstuff.
Marissa: Oh man, I love those Kraft singles. I will eat them by themselves, as a snack.
Robyn: I nibble on them bit by bit like a little mouse.
Robyn: So delightfully American and unsophisticated.
Marissa: I would love to see a celebration of non-gourmet foodstuffs. And humor! Food can be hilarious.
Robyn: There you have it, readers. Get to it!
I suppose I should let you get on with your non-teaching day. Anything else you’d like to say, request, espouse, complain about?
Marissa: Just one more thing: I really want an incredibly diverse list of contributors. Culture, race, gender, body type can all dramatically change your relationship to food, and I want lots and lots of different experiences represented.
Robyn: Amen to that, co-editor.
There’s so much food in the world! And people!
Marissa: *Insert food pun here!*
Let’s definitely work on making a list of non-eating words for how much we want to read these submissions, for sure. ☺
Robyn: I’m so excited to snort them.
Marissa: Hahaha perfect.
Robyn: And with that, I think we’re good. Thanks for your time inside on such a nice day.
Marissa: Thank you! This was great.
We hope you enjoyed that peek into the minds behind Acquired Taste. There’s still time to submit to the anthology or pitch us a blog post. Send your ideas to acqtaste[at]gmail[dot]com.
Readers, writers—every Sunday, we’ll be bringing you weekly inspiration via blog post. A little nudge to get you started, something to ponder as you sip your morning coffee. This week, we’ve got something speculative to stew on as the chill of winter starts rolling in:
Say you lost a bet with a friend, and you have to get one food tattooed on you. Luckily it can be anywhere on your body, but it must be the size of your hand. What do you get and where? And for you fiction sorts: What bet did you lose?
Come up with something great? Share it in the comments below—it just might become our next post!
“Save foods through savoring them,” Sethi explained to me this week. “I’m not being glib.” She argues that by eating what we love, we are preserving the very foods we ingest.
The book launched to much praise on November 10, but for Sethi, the launch has been a mix of emotions. Her father died a little more than a month ago, which has tinged the excitement of both her book launch and her meals with “an undertow of sadness.”
“it’s been bittersweet,” she says. “I’m quite sad that my dad never got to see the book and see the kind of reception the book is getting. … He was a scientist, so the reason I was so excited about this book was that is has such a strong science spine which—I hope, if I did it right—is wrapped up in love and relationships and memoir and travel. I was rigorous in my science, and he would’ve so very much appreciate that, because we immigrated to the United States through science, through his research.”
The book is indeed a smart mix of research, personal narrative, sensuality, and awe. And her narration feels like an easy conversation. Sethi is just as likely to cop to smoking a cigarette as she is to luxuriate over a piece of chocolate or tell you the biochemical properties of yeast. BWC is thickly researched, but never weighed down by information. And after speaking with Sethi, that’s no surprise. She comes across as sincere, passionate, incredibly smart, and human, both to her subjects and her readers.
One crucial moment late in the book demonstrates this well:
It doesn’t matter if I like beer, and it doesn’t matter if you like beer. To understand it is to appreciate it—not just beer but every food and drink. This appreciation is essential. It’s the most important lesson I learned from every taste expert I met: Taste everything. Let the experiences help clarify your likes and dislikes, sure, but also let them inform the places in between. Let them teach you more about yourself.
For Sethi, food is spiritual, political, intimate—but not in that impossible ten-dollar tomato kind of way.
I spoke with Sethi about the birth of her book and the many things she learned while writing it. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
—Robyn K. Coggins
How did Bread, Wine, Chocolate come to be?
I got into it unexpectedly. I had been nominated for a fellowship in Rome, called the Rome Prize, and it’s a lovely thing to be nominated for. You have to make the case for being in Rome, for your research, you gotta be there.
I had been really trying to tease out—especially in food—the ways in which faith and politics were becoming commingled and what would become policy. And I lived in Kansas at the time where there was a lot of that. I wanted to look at genetically modified organisms, so I thought I’ll look at the moral imperatives for and against them.
The first scientist I met said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s something that’s going on in your country, but we’re really worried about this other thing: genetic erosion.” And I was like, genetic erosion? What?! He said, “You know the loss of agricultural biodiversity.” Again, what? I mean, I call myself someone who’s like food obsessed—maybe not a “foodie,” but a food-ish. It’s all about food, all the time. But what is he talking about?
I felt like it was the greatest story that wasn’t being told, and perhaps the most important one around food and agriculture.
Who do you hope gives it a read?
I fought with my publisher, who’d say “We could see this in the New Yorker!” and I was like, “No, the New York Daily News!” I did this for everyday people. I didn’t write this for effete people. I didn’t write a Mark Bittman book—no offense to Mark Bittman—but I didn’t write for that audience. I wrote for my aunt, for the people I used to live beside in Lawrence, Kansas. I wrote for soccer moms and people just trying to do the best they can and come home at the end of the day and raise a glass.
I think about a bunch of women getting together around this book saying, “Woo! Let’s take that wine tasting, ladies! Let’s have some fun!” That’s what I think is hard about some food writing—it makes me feel ashamed for what I’m doing. I want a book of encouragement to say, Now keep going.
What got you into food writing in the first place?
My background was, coming out of school, I really thought, women’s studies. I thought I was going to be like some sort of social justice advocate type. And my path kind of took a couple of turns. I did my social justice work through being a news anchor through MTV Asia and doing some documentaries at MTV News in the United States.
And at the end of that, I read an essay in a literary magazine called The Sun whereAnuradha Mittal was talking about food and feeding people and hunger. And I started to understand how politicized it was in a way that I just hadn’t considered. I’ve always been someone who’s food obsessed, like walks in the door and am like, “What’s for dinner?” obsessed. But it was that essay, that piece that solidified for me the relationship of food as all these other things. Food as history, legacy, culture, politics, economics.
And when I had the opportunity later on to get some attention with the work I was doing around environmentalism, for me, it was always about bringing it back to food; whether it was professionally or not, my touchstone was food and farming. Everyone wanted top ten tips—Oprah, the green days, that whole haze. But when I wrote, to me, the place where we transform the world and the ills of the world is through what is intimate and through what we have a deep relationship with.
And that’s food. I may not know the farmer in Ethiopia that harvested that coffee. But I know his product, one that wouldn’t exist without his hands. So food is the way to bring that close. I can’t bring the tar sands in Canada, or the Keystone Pipeline, or even the energy grid close, even if I flip on the light. I don’t have any intimacy with this light.
But these are things I ingest! God. I mean, I have cried, I have eaten my feelings in the form of chocolate. This means something to me. And so I wanted to anchor into that.
I was struck by a moment early in the book where you’re talking about how, in grocery stores, it looks like there’s so much variety, but actually there’s not really at all.
Yeah, exactly. And that’s one of the tougher sells. There are two kind of perceived obstacles with the book. When you’re looking at it, you’re like, The loss? What are you talking about? Have you been to a grocery store? Trader Joe’s doesn’t seem to be losing wine, lady! Or, the question of cost, you know, which I talk about quite a bit in the book.
But really, I just want to stay with this point that you just made—that was astonishing to me, because at no point in my life—I’m 45—have I seen more gigantic grocery stores chock full of aisles and aisles of choice! So, it seems very confusing, and it really forces us to look behind that veil and find out—staggeringly—there are 1,000 varieties of apples. How many do you see here in the store? Four, five, three? Thousands of varieties of bananas, what do we have? One. How about all that milk, yogurt—you know, how many more varieties of yogurt can we possibly need at this point? Oh my gosh! Ninety percent from the same kind of cow?
That stuff is just—it’s not visible, and I want to make that visible to people so they start to understand what’s going on.
Was there a particular food that surprised you the most, either in its diversity or in its lack of diversity?
Truly, I would have to say dairy is quite shocking to me. But, perhaps the one that—I don’t know, troubles me the most—is what’s happening with bananas. I’ll just say, across the board, you’re only going to find that same, pretty, yellow banana we see here, right? It’s the Cavendish. It’s the follow-up banana to what was known as the Gros Michel. Gros Michel tastes a little sweeter, a little bit better, but it succumbed to a disease, and breeders and farmers were hard at work creating what we eat now, the Cavendish. The Cavendish is now also succumb to that, a different strain of that same tropical disease. And we’re gonna lose it.
So we’re just one step ahead, and that’s the thing that just is so invisible to people. I often cite the example of the Irish potato famine where it’s like—there’s political stuff in there too, don’t get me wrong—but it’s there, and then you just lose it. Just one disease—sshhhpp. Wipes it all out. Look at all these monocultures we’re growing here in the United States. Of wheat, of corn, of soy. What do you think happens if they get vulnerable? And, I mean, I can speak for myself here—I just didn’t think about that at all. I just thought, There’s 27 kinds of potato chips—we’re good! But they all come from the same potato—or in the case of milk, ice cream, and yogurt, the same cow.
So those are questions that we don’t have answers to. Nobody—including scientists—and that’s why we need this diversity. It’s our backup system. It’s our resilience. It’s the insurance that we need to make sure we can have our bread, our wine, our chocolate, our banana, our yogurt, our fill-in-the-blank, moving forward.
Wow. You sound extraordinarily passionate about this.
Thank you! I mean, I am, because there’s five years of skin in this game and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and payment of probably like a dollar an hour, but really it’s because so much of it has happened in our—and I’m making a leap here, I don’t know how old you are—in my lifetime. So much of this happened since 1992—I was in college! So the reason I’m so passionate about this is because we can change it back. We’re not past the point of being able to fix this problem. And unlike something as gigantic like climate change, the solutions are right here on our plate.
I talk about this early in the book—the global standard diet, which is essentially what the world eats now. It’s rice, it’s potatoes, it’s corn, it’s soybeans, and it’s palm oil. And the head researcher, Colin Khoury, said to me, you know I said, “What can we do?” and he says things like, “Eating anything outside of that is a revolutionary act.”
That means we all can do it. Literally, he says, “Eating olive oil is now a revolutionary act.” So the invitation isn’t, “You have to buy a chocolate bar that costs $15,” even though you really should because, if you can afford it, your life is just gonna grow by deliciousness exponentially. The invitation is, “Look at what you’re eating, look at where it comes from, and look at what’s happening.”
Because if you want to be eating this tomorrow and the day after and the day after, we have to make some changes here. And the changes aren’t, you know, so much like in my environmental career: Turn down the thermostat, put on a sweater. It’s not scarce. What I’m suggesting is, Save foods through savoring them. Which, to me, is kind of the best solution I’ve ever heard of, even if I hadn’t suggested it [laughs]. Oh I’m sorry, you want me to eat better chocolate?
But I’m not being trite. You’re a science writer, you just told me my science is tight. That science—200 scientists, 68 pages of citations, and hard science—I’m not being glib here. I mean it. I just chose foods that would be, maybe, a more palatable invitation for people. But, like I say in the beginning of the book, map it on to whatever you eat—whatever your bliss is, that’s threatened too.
What you’re advocating sounds like a nice bridge between class and how you can affect food. It kind of addresses those people who say that worrying about what you eat is a privilege. This sounds different to me.
It feels different to me. Because I actually will say that that assertion makes me tired. And it hurts me because I think—and I say this again, not to beat the drum here—I say in the book that the U.S. population spends less of a percentage of our income on food than we did during the Great Depression. We are the country that spends the least amount of money of any developed country in the world on food.
To me, it’s like, How much cheaper do you want it?! How do you think that cow got to you when your burger’s $1.99? You know how much a tank of gas costs. And you know meat isn’t free. Who got shortchanged here? And why are we content with this? Why is it okay that people make so little money that that’s all that’s available? That the least healthy, the most “convenient,” most heavily processed foods are the ones that we’re supposed to eat when we are of lower income?
That’s where I get tired, because it makes me really angry. This isn’t a book about a $13 bar of chocolate. This is a book about being empowered enough to say, “I deserve more. I deserve something better.” It requires us to really consider our own value, and what it means to, I think, live a really fulfilling life in which we aren’t just saving foods—I mean, I don’t want to get too whatever here—we’re saving ourselves. We’re saving our culture. We’re saving our spirit. We’re saving our palates. This is what I want. I don’t want a world full of mediocrity. That’s not what I’m fighting for.
To really change pace for a moment, I was so glad to see I wasn’t the only one who hated beer well into adulthood. I appreciated the part of your book where you admit to that.
If the first thing you drink is a Bud Light, it’s like, that was my idea of beer. It’s this thing that was like, insipid. And that’s again—is that what we want in this world? If that’s it, then how are we going to be okay? We’re going to have that kind of wine—industrialized box wine isn’t going away, you get your Two Buck Chuck—but is that all we can ask for?
I would say there are a few beers I love, but every beer, I respect. I wanted people to know that it wasn’t like I walked in loving everything. Learning about beer kind of blew me away. Someone asked me the question of what my favorite of the things were, and it’s chocolate, but in terms of being in awe of something coming together, it’s definitely beer. It’s incredible how democratic it is. How simple! You could say that of wine as well, but I really like the scholars who say, “We started agriculture for beer, not bread.” It makes perfect sense to me.
Anything that didn’t make it into the book?
The guy from Soylent, you know, Rob Rhinehart? Before that whole wave of him being in the New Yorker and everybody talked to him, I’d reached out to him and said, “I’m talking about the deep origins of food, and I want to do the same with you. Tour the factory. Can I explore that?” This is kind of what we’re looking at. And he was actually super cool, and I wanted to really show that this is our alternative. For people who don’t feel the culture or the trappings of what food means. We can just drink Soylent. That can be it. We can pound those calories and not even worry too much about flavor or whatever because we’ll be fed nutritionally. I thought that would be a kind of interesting contrast to go to the forest, the farm, then to go to the factory as the alternative.
Right, we want something more than just filler.
I mention this at some point in the book where I talk about how we perceive flavor—how the same meal eaten as a candlelit dinner with your loved one versus the leftovers reheated the next day in a cubicle under fluorescent lights. Same food, right? But it tastes different. The flavor is different. That context matters. And that celebration or the energy put into it matters. I still don’t like to cook. I’m not a cook. I’m not a chef. I’m not a gardener. I’m an eater!
So what’s your favorite meal? Or your perfect meal?
If you’d asked me this question a month ago, I would have cited something very different. I would’ve talked about the perfection of the meal created by a chef when I had the good fortune of traveling to Havana, Cuba. Or when the head chef made us soup, a sweet soup, that he dotted with flowers. The perfection and its beauty and its flavor. And those things are all great. But now the perfect meal has become something else.
Now, it’s any meal, actually, that has been cooked by someone I love. That’s pretty perfect to me. Because they all know how much I hate to cook [laughs] so they’re all doing it for me. That’s really, really special to me.
I would say, it wasn’t the greatest tasting stuff ever, but my dad actually taught my mom to cook, and my mom is like superlative—she far exceeded the master. But when she moved to Germany, I can think of all the things my dad made, like giant hunks of onion that weren’t fully fried [laughs]. Potatoes that maaaybe were a little hard in some places, and it was just thrown together, but they were still Indian-ish. They were still my dad and full of my dad. And so now, in the very short shadow of having just lost him, I think about that all the time. I think about those potatoes, the little red potatoes that would sit in the fridge until he was ready to fry them up that he’d already boiled. You know? Those little things. And I think about the things that he didn’t make, but that we would eat together. So I think perfection for me now comes in the form of meals shared with people I love and the bonus is, of course, if they made it for me.
For me it’s also realizing that those things change. Can you find the spirit or the gratitude in a Big Mac? That’s really the bigger question here. I’m not telling you you have to buy this. What I am saying is, consider how it’s made and who made it and just be thankful. If you’re picking up a Hershey bar, be thankful for those children who made this bar. Because it was kids who harvested that cacao. Don’t feel guilty! If you’re gonna do that, own it! Own it. Smell it. Touch it. Taste it. Feel it. Roll it around on your tongue. But really don’t shy away from it. Don’t shy away from any experience. Feast on all of it.
We are so pleased to preview Ellen McGrath Smith‘s newest book of poetry, Nobody’s Jackknife, which will be available Sunday from West End Press. Here’s what she has to say about the collection:
One time, at a party years after I’d stopped drinking, I told someone, ‘The closest I get to a buzz now is when I’m practicing yoga.’ I’m sure this has something to do with endorphins, but it also planted the seeds for a poetry project exploring yoga and alcohol. The poems inhabit a range of forms from sestina to sonnet to ghazal to prose-poem hybrids, mirroring the many shapes the body assumes in a yoga asana practice. Bottoms up and namaste.
If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, you’re in luck: the launch party/power yoga extravaganza is Sunday. From 2:30–3:30, catch your breath at South Hills Power Yoga with local writer and yogi Jennifer Lee. From 4–5:30 at Union Project, the author will read and celebrate with a reception. More details about the event.
Gin & Tonic
Summer with its Bacchus-head of grape leaves.
Summer with its berry-bloodied grin.
The invisible highwire
from Venus to the moon
mid-June to salmon-sun September.
The power of green aspiration:
onion bulbs, beginner’s luck.
The lime-pitched traffic of birds in the morning
on the branches of your nerves,
the cat and the lemony canary,
cellophane laundry hanging out to dry—
moss on white wicker, spiked heels
on wet flagstones, lavender and sweat,
on the faces lit
by flameless torches.
First published in Kestrel magazine
As in it hits the spot, the spot in which you live, i.e., you live where you are present.
When you aren’t inside the brown glass beading sweet and bitter of the day condensed—where are you? Forgiven by the skin when caked in mud. A Pilgrim’s Progress free pass from the straight and narrow. Hops and hops and hops and hopes like hockey pucks on ice.
Wholesome: good for the eyelashes. Fiber for nursing women. Stout as Stein and squat as boxhedges separating greener grass from just the plain, which has to mean the world is just a bee in your bonnet, a valley of tears, and a dull dry powdery dross.
As in, I spot you; it takes one to know one. As in, if you would rather sit inside that mulchy barrel all night long than be with me: I understand. I wish to God that I could join you caked in mud and full of hops. I wish to God that I could join you.
Yeah, the deadline for the anthology isn’t until the end of the year. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get started sharing savory words. To that end, we’re looking for interesting people, photos, opinions, articles, and the like to post on this blog. Join us, won’t you?
Rave about a meal you’ve had, dissect a foodie story you read, sketch us a quick scene of a quirky dining spot. Got a book coming out? We’d love to interview you! Nervous about this whole food writing thing? Try it out here—we’re patient editors, we promise.
We’ll periodically update this space with Q&As, writing prompts to get the juices flowing, words and pictures we love, and other gastro goodies. Posts on the blog can also be considered for the anthology; just let us know that’s what you’re up to in your email.
Pitch us an idea or send us a ditty to acqtaste[at]gmail.com with “blog” somewhere in the subject line.