Beer Muffins: Just Like My Grandmother Used to Make

By Shelley Johansson

A grandmother’s superb home cooking is at the heart of many people’s childhood memories. I can’t say that this is true for me, exactly. My maternal grandmother grew in up in a Mississippi orphan’s home during the Depression, and never had a mother to teach her how to cook. But married at 16 and a mother by 18, cooking was her duty and she by God got good at it. Nana, who was so beautiful she was offered a screen test as a young woman, loved family meals and expressing her love for us through good food. But to her, cooking was a means to an end, not something to be enjoyed. It was a chore that had to be done to get to the good part – the companionship of the meal.

As an indifferent cook myself, I can relate. In my family, my husband does almost all the cooking, simply because he’s more interested in both the process and the result. So we regularly enjoy varied gourmet delights like scallops with champagne sauce, whereas if cooking were my responsibility I’d develop a rotating menu of good but basic meals. But an arrangement like that just wasn’t on the table in that era. Heaven knows my Papaw would never have scrambled his own breakfast eggs if Nana or one of his three daughters could be summoned to do it.

Like many of her generation, Nana never wasted anything, especially not food. She was known to combine the last little bits of many different cereals into one box, so you’d pick up a box of Cheerios and get ten chewy Cheerios, three Rice Krispies, some of bran flakes and a handful of cereal dust of indeterminate origin. (The trick was to slide the mess back in the box and grab the Chex before she noticed). She would “crisp” stale crackers in the oven, make concentrated coffee to reconstitute and heat up later, and combine leftovers into a new and weirdly-textured dish that would inevitably result in still more leftovers.

Nana1
A photo from Nana’s “modeling card” in the 1980s, so although she’s taking muffins out of the oven, it’s completely staged!

She did seem to like baking more, but maybe that’s because the times I remember her baking she was doing it with us, her adored grandchildren. We made many trays of cookies together, but the most fun we ever had was making old-fashioned molasses pull taffy with all six under-10 kids helping. The kitchen was sticky for days. She seemed to think it was worth it.

As in so many families, when we all got together at the big house my Papaw had built in Louisville, the six grandkids would eat at the kids’ table. There simply wasn’t room at the huge round dining room table for us all. There was nowhere I felt safer or more loved than eating dinner in my Nana’s warm, comfortable kitchen, laughing with my cousins while the adults bustled around getting their meal ready.

My grandparents retired to Florida when I was a preteen, where they lived on the lagoon, with a boat parked at a dock in their backyard. Most of the family still lived in Louisville, so when we visited there were generally fewer of us at their house at once — so the kids and adults would eat together. The meal was often delicious seafood we caught under my Papaw’s guidance, and that Nana had learned to cook. Papaw cleaned the fish, but they both became experts at shucking oysters and opening scallops. We’d play cards after the meal – an aptly-named game called “Oh, Hell” – and the two losers would do the dishes. My grandfather almost always won. Nana, on the other hand, almost always lost.

Nana was incredibly creative, an artist without training. A gifted decorator, gardener and artisan, she would rush through her cooking chores to get back to whatever her creative passion was at the time – framing art, sculpting clay, creating wreaths, and seashell crafts are just a few that I remember. She was very much an extrovert and loved all kinds of get-togethers, especially dinner parties. In fact, she was so well-known for being able to throw a great party at a moment’s notice that this attribute was mentioned in her obituary. But the food was not what made these events memorable – it was her personality, her fine-tuned ability to make a party sparkle.

Nana2
Nana in a homemade costume, perhaps for a garden party

I still have a stack of index cards with recipes she copied from newspapers and magazines, carefully transcribed in her loopy, increasingly spidery handwriting. What’s less clear to me is how many of these recipes she actually tried. There was a brief period where she drove my mom crazy asking her to type dessert recipes she’d made up to enter into the Pillsbury Bake-Off. (They generally included at least two sticks of “oleo” and generous amounts of Cool Whip). But for the most part, she was a utilitarian cook, not an experimental one.

The one food I credit her with inventing, or at least perfecting, was beer muffins. My memory is that she started making these on a family trip to the Florida Everglades some 40 years ago, when I was about six and we were staying at a cabin that had non-potable water. So instead of using water to make Bisquick muffins, she used beer, and the result was delicious. Whether this is actually what happened is another question – memory can be a funny thing — and no one else in the family can recall how beer muffins entered her repertoire. Google gives me several recipes for beer muffins, which probably means she didn’t originate the idea. Maybe she got a recipe off the back of the box, who knows.

But it is unambiguously true that these muffins became a staple of our family get-togethers for decades. They were fast, cheap, delicious, and easy to make in bulk, all great qualities when you’re trying to feed a crowd. Like most quickbreads, they had to be enjoyed fresh. Day-old beer muffins weren’t worth much, although Papaw would sometimes eat toasted leftovers for breakfast.

The beer muffin era ended when my grandparents returned to Louisville in the mid-2000s, realizing it was time to be near family. After that, the extended family didn’t gather at their new, much smaller house – instead, we’d go to my aunt’s – and when we did get together Nana was no longer in charge of the meal. She continued to cook for herself and Papaw, a chore that went from unpleasant to downright oppressive after he was diagnosed with oral cancer. His surgery and treatment made eating difficult, and she had little guidance from the doctors on how and what to cook for him. I don’t know if she ever made beer muffins in these years, but for some reason none of the rest of us did, either.

After Papaw died she moved into a retirement home. She gleefully noted that she would never have to cook again. And she didn’t, although I know she missed throwing dinner parties. She passed away the day after her 92nd birthday, almost two years ago now. I rarely go a day without thinking of her with love and gratitude.

They say smell is the sense most associated with memory, but I say taste trumps it. So recently, I decided to evoke my grandmother by making beer muffins, the one food I truly associate with her. The recipe is simple and easy to adjust – about two cups of Bisquick, three tablespoons of sugar, and enough beer to make a thin batter, baked in well-greased muffin tins at 425 degrees. As the muffins were baking, I opened the oven door to make sure they were getting nice and brown. Enveloped in the sweet, familiar smell for the first time in at least 10 years, I burst into tears before eating three in one sitting, with plenty of butter. For me, beer muffins are childhood at Nana’s house, served up on a fragrant plate.

***

Shelley Johansson is the director of communications for the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.Her work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Johnstown Magazine, and DIY Musician. She earned an MS in Communications from the University of Tennessee, and teaches public speaking at Penn Highlands Community College.

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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.

Six Impossible Things for Breakfast

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The chocolate frogs of the wizarding world. The ambrosia drunk in the cloud-palaces of Mount Olympus. Giant peaches and enormous beanstalks and more!

From Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage to Alice’s “eat me” currant cake, food casts many a magic spell. Food is larger than life, and its impact on our lives often feels strange, even legendary. Is it any wonder we spin stories endowing food with weird and wonderful powers?

As winter descends into a glittering world around us, join Acquired Taste in a celebration of the weird, mythic, and magical side of food.

Our next event, Six Impossible Things for Breakfast, (named in honor of a bastion of weird food scenes, Alice Through the Looking Glass), will be held on Thursday, Dec. 10th, at 7pm, and will feature readings from Jennifer Bannan, Claire Burgess, and Daniel M. Shapiro. We’ll be hosted by Classic Lines bookstore in Squirrel Hill, and Marissa is planning to bake up plenty of strange cookies for the occasion.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be spotlighting each of our upcoming readers here on the blog, to whet your appetite for the strange and lovely feast to come!

For more information on the event, visit our Facebook page, or contact organizer Marissa Landrigan (acqtaste@gmail.com)

Hungry In More Ways Than One

Get ready for your windows to fog up: today, we bring you a very suggestive craft piece by YA and romance novelist Dana Faletti, on the role great food memories can play in genre writing.

Italy is ripe with inspiration. From its charming people to its lush landscapes to its superior cuisine, there is endless spark to ignite the creative mind. In my travels to the foothills of Southern Italy, I have found that there is an untold story around every bend in its cobblestone streets. My grandmother’s story was one of those.

It wasn’t until after she passed away, that I discovered the scandalous account of her early life in 1940’s Calabria. She only ever divulged it to two other women, my aunt and my mother. On the day after her funeral, I sat at her kitchen table, sipping black coffee while these two wise women shared a priceless gift with me. The tips of my ears burned, and my eyes bulged with disbelief as I listened intently to the tale of my father’s birth and subsequent immigration to the United States. Afterwards, I knew I had to write it all down.

Twenty years later, I have Beautiful Secret, a women’s fiction/romance set in Southern Italy, to be published by Pandamoon Publishing in 2016. The story is told from the points of view of both Maria, a young woman in 1940’s Calabria and her grand-daughter, Tatiana, in present day. Maria (a character based on my Nana) finds herself unmarried and pregnant, and is sent away to a convent in the mountains to give birth. She must find a way to not only keep her son but to get him back to the home and family that is his birthright. Years later, Tatiana travels to Southern Italy to fulfill her grandmother’s dying wish. She expects to walk through her beloved grandmother’s memories but ends up discovering secrets her Nana never told and becoming entangled in a forbidden love affair.

People who have read my manuscript ask me if the story is all true, and my answer is a strong no. It’s fiction with some of the best moments and people from my life threaded through it. For example, instead of simply holding onto the fond memory of my first night in Calabria, I wove it into my story and made it eternal.

That night, when I was twenty-year- young, my parents and I landed at Titto Minniti airport in Reggio, Calabria. At least fifty people were waiting to greet us in the tiny terminal, some with stained and toothless smiles, others with happy tears staining their cheeks. After kissing and being fawned over by these strangers who were my family, my heart was heavily touched. Overwhelmed by the mere power of their welcome, I wondered what would happen next. To allay my obvious confusion, my two English-speaking cousins, who soon became my sidekicks and partners in crime, explained that there was a tradition. Anytime family arrived in Calabria for a visit, they would first go to Great Uncle Nicola’s house to eat dinner.

How would I eat anything after such a surge of emotion?

When we arrived at Uncle Nicola’s home, I was greeted by yet another multitude of kissing cousins and a waft of deliciousness that assured me I would be able to eat. It was the smell of freshness and fry.

The green richness of freshly pressed olive oil and the pungent bite of tomatoes and basil tickled my appetite as I was led through a small row house and out onto the veranda, where several long wooden tables were set for dinner. Mismatched chairs and twinkle lights dotted the stone patio, and lush green vines dipped over tabletops that were canopied by a long-tended grape arbor. Italian folk songs played endlessly as platters of goodness began to emerge from the house.

Antipasti of homemade dried sausage, chewy and piquant. Roasted crimson peppers, studded with garlic and basil, sprinkled with salt and drizzled with oil. Eggplant Parmigiana – Calabrian style – flecked with bright peas and bits of hard-boiled egg, steaming with fresh marinara and Mozzarella cheese. Veal cutlets, pasta, fresh dressed greens.

“Basta,” we said. Enough. We were only half-joking.

But the food kept coming.

House-made Provolone cheese. Slices of summer melon in yellow, green and pink. Peaches whose juices were so sweet, I almost cried as they escaped in drips down my cheeks.

My family only wanted to envelop us in the warmth of their welcome, to delight us with their cooking. It was considered offensive to not eat what was put in front of you, but we were so stuffed.

Still, since the meal was not over, we persevered, every bite both delicious and painful.

Next the pastries appeared, presented like a gallery of master artists’ best pieces. Sfoigliattele, bursting with citrus and the perfect hint of cinnamon. Short, buttery cookies that left a film of luscious grease on my lips. Miniature waffle cones filled with all flavors of gelato – bittersweet hazelnut chocolate, perfect pistachio, vanilla cream. Coffee so dark and rich, it was like drinking sugared velvet.

Once everyone was stuffed beyond belief, the music became louder. The young cousins pushed all of the chairs to the sides of the patio, and my eighty-something-year-old great aunts and uncles hopped to the makeshift dancefloor. They danced the Tarantella in all of its variations, the rest of my cousins and myself eventually joining them under the shadowy grapevines and twinkle lights. It was an unforgettable scene of familial joy, and it inspired a pivotal scene in my book, a scene where forbidden love begins to bloom.

It’s hard not to fall in love in Italy. With the people, the land, the food. Italy, itself, is a passionate place with people who are known for their volatile emotions and cuisine that spices up the senses. How could I set my story in Italy and not add a steamy romance? After all, Italians are known for their passion for both good food and romance. Vivid food descriptions can add to the sensuality of a romantic scene, making the reader hungry – in more ways than one.

Dana Faletti is the author of Beautiful Secret, to be released by Pandamoon Publishing in 2016. This women’s fiction romance is set in the scorched hills of Calabria, and tells the tale of a woman who rediscovers her soul through a journey to her Nana’s homeland in Italy. Dana also wrote The Whisper Trilogy, a young adult paranormal romance that is currently available on Amazon. Dana can frequently be found in her hometown of Pine Richland, writing her food and family inspired blog posts at a crowded Starbucks.

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.