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?
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.
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.
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.