February Reader Spotlight: Jennifer Jackson Berry

In continued anticipation of this week’s event, The Food of Love, today we bring you a little taste of Jennifer Jackson Berry. If you want more than this tease, you’ll have to join us at Zeke’s Coffee, Friday 2/19 at 5pm!

JJBWhy do you write about food?

I’m just following that old adage: write what you know. We all eat, we all know food, so using food as a metaphor, or as a part of the narrative, or as the main focus, makes the piece approachable for many readers.

What’s the sexiest meal you’ve ever had?

I find adventurous eating sexy. My husband & I drove across the country from Pittsburgh to the Grand Canyon, then back, for our honeymoon in 2011. I’m going to read a poem at the Food of Love reading titled “My Offal Honeymoon,” and it describes two of the sexiest meals I’ve ever had. We were arriving at different cities every day, searching out the local favorites, trying different foods, laughing at our trepidation, savoring the best bites, then falling into bed exhausted, but happy.

If someone invented a cocktail named after you, what would it include?

The JJB — something with rum & cherries, fizzy.

Jennifer Jackson Berry’s first full length collection of poetry The Feeder is forthcoming from YesYes Books in October 2016. Her ec-hapbook, When I Was a Girl, is available as a free download from Sundress Publications. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Booth, The Emerson Review, Harpur Palate, Moon City Review, Stirring, and Whiskey Island, among others. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Pittsburgh Poetry Review and lives in the Braddock Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
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February Reader Spotlight: Deesha Philyaw

We’re so excited for this week’s event, The Food of Love, so today we bring you a little taste of Deesha Philyaw, who will be reading at Zeke’s Coffee on Friday, 2/19 at 5pm. We hope to see you there to hear all about the sexy side of food!

DeeshaHeadshot.jpeg
Photo credit: tfoley

Why do you write about food?

Growing up in the South, food was at the center of everything–holidays, car trips, lazy Saturdays, or just stopping by because you were in the neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon. Food was hospitality and love. I learned to cook by watching my maternal grandmother, and my time in the kitchen with her is among my fondest memories. When I teach my daughters to cook, I make new memories and share culture. How and what we eat, who we cook for and eat with..there’s always a story. And sometimes the food itself is the story. I write about food to tell broader stories about family, love, change, pain, and loss.

What’s the sexiest meal you’ve ever had?

I don’t typically think of food as sexy, but I remember having dinner at a seafood restaurant with my high school sweetheart before going to prom. We decided to eat a bunch of raw oysters because we’d read somewhere that they were aphrodisiacs–because of course two teenagers need an aphrodisiac on prom night!

If someone invented a cocktail named after you, what would it include?

Fresh ginger, potato vodka, lemon juice, wildflower honey, and sparkling water.

Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Brevity; Stepmom, Essence, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies including The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat. She’s a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction, and a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.

 

Too Spicy for Average Mortals: December Reader Spotlight on Claire Burgess

We’re so excited for this week’s event, Six Impossible Things for Breakfast, so today we bring you a little taste of Claire Burgess, who will be reading at Classic Lines, Thursday 12/10, at 7pm. We hope to see you there for the weird and wonderful side of food!


 

IMG_2045Why do you write about food?

The funny thing is I don’t purposefully write about food, but it’s all over my stories. Food, eating, cooking. It’s because there is a visceral power in food. It can be pleasurable, comforting, gluttonous, or sexy. It nourishes and sustains us, keeps us alive. Preparing it can be an act of love or obligation. We take it into our bodies. Think about that. We take it into our bodies. There’s a boon of metaphorical possibility there. It’s also just plain useful: you can tell a lot about a character by what she feeds herself. Green smoothies or gas station nachos? Or, even better, both? (We all have our contradictions.) There’s a lot you can do with food.

What’s the strangest meal you’ve ever had? 

My husband and I were in Paris, and there was a TexMex restaurant near our hotel called El Rancho. Naturally, we had to try it. It was decorated in tasteful, Mexican-ish decor, and there was a sign over the door that said “Thank’s for your visit.” They served us the tiniest chips and salsa imaginable. The chips were bite-sized, and the salsa was in a bowl about the size of a soy sauce cup. I ordered a margarita, which came in a miniature Manhattan glass, and chicken fajitas, which had not only the standard peppers and onions, but also broccoli, green beans, olives, and sugar snap peas. Sugar snap peas. In a fajita. It was delicious, of course, cause France, and we actually went back a second time and ordered the exact same thing. Since then, I’ve tried to recreate it at home, but I can’t quite capture its original glory.

If someone invented a cocktail named after you, what would it include?

The Claire Burgess would use ingredients that you always have in your house, because this is the kind of drink you drink after you’ve already had a few and shouldn’t be tempted to drive anywhere for some missing frou-frou liqueur. It has a strong pour of whisky in it, and it definitely has hot sauce, and then whatever else can be scrounged from your pantry because you haven’t been to the store in over a week. It should be too spicy for average mortals. Every sip should warm you like an embrace and then kick you in the ass. Some people think it’s disgusting, but that’s how you know who your real friends are. They’re the messy ones with the belly laughs, the sharp tongues and giant hearts. The fire eaters, the smoke breathers, the dragons with a purr in their throats.


You can read some of Burgess’s fiction at Annalemma, and then hear her in person next week at Classic Lines bookstore for Six Impossible Things for Breakfast.

Claire Burgess is a writer of short fiction, educator of teenagers, and blogger for The Rumpus. Her stories have received special/notable mentions in thePushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, and have appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, PANK, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Vanderbilt University and is a founding editor of Nashville Review. Currently, she’s completing a manuscript of short stories under the working title Last Dog.

Buzzy, Mellow, and Warm: December Reader Spotlight on Jennifer Bannan

Next up in our December event spotlight, we’re pleased to feature fiction writer Jennifer Bannan, who will be reading at Six Impossible Things for Breakfast, and who may have invented a wonderful new cocktail below.


 

jenbannan headshot.JPGWhy do you write about food?

I’m interested in consuming as a concept. I’m fascinated by the way, for example, people in this culture are more often referred to as consumers than as citizens. Food is an easy, direct route to thinking about consuming. Or over-consuming, as in the case of the story I’ll be reading. And food is chock full of sensory power, which all writers want to include in their work.

What’s the strangest meal you’ve ever had? 

I grew up in Miami and my boyfriend’s family was Cuban. His mom wanted to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner because my boyfriend had joined my family for the holiday and he loved the food so much. I gave her as much information as my mom passed on, but it must have seemed lacking to her. She shoved a bunch of garlic cloves and lemon rind under the skin of the bird, and the stuffing was also one of the most garlicky, lemony things I’ve ever eaten. My boyfriend was mortified, even angry at her, and while I thought it was strange for sure, it was really very delicious.

If someone invented a cocktail named after you, what would it include?

The Jennifer Bannan would mix the buzzy effects of a strong cup of espresso with the mellowing effects of a nice Pinot Noir with the cozy warming effects of a Manhattan. I guess this shows that I’m more interested in the after-effects than the initial flavor.


You can read some of Bannan’s fiction at Kenyon Review online, and then hear her in person next week at Classic Lines bookstore for Six Impossible Things for Breakfast.

Jennifer Bannan is the author of short story collection Inventing Victor, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2003.  Her publications include work in ACM, Kenyon Review online, Passages North, the Autumn House 2011 fiction anthology, “Keeping the Wolves at Bay” and a story forthcoming in theChicago Quarterly Review.  She received her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh in 2014 and is at work on a novel, Welcome to Kindness.

Cheese Fish: December Reader Spotlight on Daniel Shapiro

Today we’re pleased to introduce Pittsburgh poet Daniel Shapiro, who will be kicking things off at our December reading, Six Impossible Things for Breakfast. We asked Shapiro to tell us a little bit about himself, Acquired Taste style.


Shapiro

Why do you write about food?

I haven’t written about food all that much, but I like to do it because it’s not a poetry topic that has been done to death. It’s not break-ups or trees. I typically seek out offbeat themes, odd juxtapositions of words, etc., and food lends itself to these pursuits.

What’s the strangest meal you’ve ever had?

The strangest meal I’ve ever had remains the cheese fish they used to serve at my middle school. Most likely, it was accompanied by the overcooked stalks of broccoli. It consisted of a square, fried piece of what was said to be fish, and the cheese–not unlike Velveeta–was apparently injected into it, a la creme filling into a Twinkie. My friends and I have turned cheese fish into a mythical monster, of sorts, and I hope to have a cheese fish poem available for the reading.

If someone invented a cocktail named The Daniel Shapiro, what would it include?

It would consist of the most expensive, most rare bourbon available and nothing else. It would be the Sasquatch of drinks, putting Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year to shame, causing riots, making people forget about the Tickle Me Elmo massacres of old.


You can read some of Shapiro’s poetry, and even get a taste of him reading it, at Hermeneutic Chaos. If you like the sound of his voice, or just want to hear more about the mythic cheese fish, join us next week at Classic Lines bookstore for Six Impossible Things for Breakfast.

Daniel Shapiro is the author of How the Potato Chip Was Invented (sunnyoutside press, 2013), a collection of celebrity-centered poems. He is a special education teacher who lives in Pittsburgh. He interviews other poets while subliminally promoting his own work at Little Myths.

Totally Textural: A Conversation with Marissa Landrigan

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.

Want to know more about the origins of Acquired Taste or our opinions on citrus zesters? Tweet to us: @MKLandrigan or @RoJoOhNo. Or sing our praises by following @AcqTastePgh and liking us on Facebook.


Robyn: Hiya, Marissa. How’s your sunny Thursday?

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?

Andrew Moore on the strange fruit.
Andrew Moore reading from his book on the strange fruit.

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.

Get creative: What else is this sauce doing? (Credit: Amancay Maahs https://flic.kr/p/e1Exv)
Get creative: What else is this sauce doing? (Credit: Amancay Maahs https://flic.kr/p/e1Exv)

But, Rachel Mennies has some gorgeous poetry about Passover in her collection The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, which is beautiful in its exploration of religion and the sensual nature of food traditions.

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.

We dare you. (Credit: Alice Henneman https://flic.kr/p/a4uPkp)
Make us love these things—we dare you. (Credit: Alice Henneman https://flic.kr/p/a4uPkp)

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.

Robyn: Totally.

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.

Gimme dat cheese. (Credit: Alice Popkorn https://flic.kr/p/91hWtH)
Gimme dat cheese. (Credit: Alice Popkorn https://flic.kr/p/91hWtH)

Marissa: Yes!

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.

Simran Sethi Says Eat What You Love

Bread, wine, chocolate—three things many of us refuse to live without. But, as Simran Sethi tells us in her new book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, we might have to. The situation is both exactly as dire as that sounds and not nearly so.

“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 where Anuradha 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.


Simran Sethi’s book is available now.