Having chef and memoirist Edward Lee on Special Sauce was the happiest of accidents. Sitting on top of a pile of books on Special Sauce associate producer Marissa Chen's desk was Lee's evocative and moving memoir, Buttermilk Graffiti. I read a chapter, was knocked out by it, and emailed his publicist asking if Lee–chef/owner at three restaurants in Louisville, Kentucky, and culinary director at another in Washington, DC, and Maryland–was going to be in NYC any time soon. By some miracle, he was, and you can hear the results of all this serendipity on this week's episode of Special Sauce (and next's).
Growing up in the then-polyglot neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn, Lee was exposed to all kinds of food, and he and his friends ate anything and everything: "We're going to get a beef patty, and then we're going to eat some Pakistani food, and then get a slice of pizza." But, he says, the household he was raised in didn't exactly encourage his interest in cooking from a young age. "It was interesting back then, coming from a traditional, patriarchal Korean family. I was not going to be the one to cook. I had an older sister, and it's the girl that the recipes get passed down to, not the boy in the family. I'm supposed to go off and do whatever boys do. I literally had to fight my way into the kitchen. I was very persistent, even as a little kid.... I basically said, 'Listen, I'm not leaving.' [My grandmother] would let me hang out in the kitchen. She wouldn't tell me what she was doing, but she would just let me hang out in the kitchen, and she would just be like, 'Well, if you're going to be here, be here, but I'm not going to tell you anything about this.'"
When he told his parents he was going to become a chef, they were not pleased: "For my parents, they said to me, they said, 'You're being a servant. You're choosing a life of servitude.' Of course, my rebuttal was, 'Hey, you become an accountant, you're still serving someone.' They didn't want to hear that. I was kind of a smart aleck. They didn't like those answers. There were no celebrity chefs back then. There was no ownership of your destiny, ownership of your career."
Before Lee truly embarked on that career, however, he fell in love with graffiti, an outlet that, to him, represented art at its most democratic and most ephemeral. For many of the young people he grew up around, it was a "futile attempt at leaving some permanence on the world, knowing that this thing was going to get covered up in a week or two, or month. There was something both tragic and beautiful about it.... Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but I make the comparison now that food is so much the same way. Food is so much about.... It's just a moment."
Lee eventually found his way to Louisville, where he encountered his first bowl of collard greens at a local soul food restaurant and was drawn in by the multiethnic nature of Southern food culture. You'll hear more about how his exposure to Southern culture transformed his approach to food, plus the important life lessons he learned during his stint as a short-order cook in college, when you tune in.
The transcript for this episode of Special Sauce can be found over at Serious Eats.
In part 2 of the Special Sauce interview with artist and author Maira Kalman, we were joined by <a href="http://www.barbarascottgoodman.net/Cookbooks.html">Barbara Scott-Goodman</a>, who co-authored <em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Cake-Maira-Kalman/dp/1101981547/?tag=serieats-20">Cake</a></em>, and, of course, we talked cake. What else would we talk about?
The first question I asked was how the book came to be. Scott-Goodman said that she had always wanted to write a book about cake, but not one that dipped into the realm of baking bibles or took itself too seriously. She wanted a book "about moments of cake." And so she approached Kalman (they have known each other for years) and simply said "I want to do a book about cake." And that was that.
Of course, the way the collaboration worked was slightly unorthodox. "That process took a little while to figure out," Scott-Goodman said. "I work as a cookbook writer and think in terms of, 'First we'll do this and that' and when I said something about the yellow pound cake Maira said 'Well, then that would be the picture of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein.'"
But an unorthodox process was totally appropriate, in light of what they produced. "'Is it a cake book? Is it a memoir?'" Kalman said. "It's both of these things beautifully tied together."
One of my favorite moments of the interview (admittedly one I engineered) was when Kalman read one of my favorite passages from the book:
<blockquote>The Cakes of People I Do Not Know
All over the world, all the time, people are eating cake.
They always have and they always will.
A group of children have stopped playing to have cake.
A man taking a nap on a comfortable sofa will wake up to a lovely cake.
Together, or alone, celebrating or sitting quietly and thinking, someone is savoring a moment of cake.</blockquote>
The words on a page don't do this cake poem justice. To really feel the power contained in them you'll just have to listen to the podcast.
I don't know how many serious eaters have heard of the brilliant, food-loving, and thought-provoking artist and writer Maira Kalman, but I've been a huge fan of hers for a long time now. So when I heard that she had recently co-written (with Barbara Scott-Goodman) and illustrated a cookbook, Cake, I knew I had to have her on Special Sauce.
As an artist, Kalman seeks to represent joyful, meaningful moments: "All comfort is temporary. We know that to be a fact. But when you understand that, then you can really allow yourself to look at those moments during the day, and they become very important, and they're very shining moments.... And I think those are the happiest moments that people have, when you're alone and a fleeting something happens, and you feel a sense of joy. So, I'm looking for those."
"Room service breakfast in bed. Let's start with the basics. Usually, I've spent time traveling a lot, and I order breakfast in bed because I want to see how they serve it and what the dishes are and what's the tray in, what's the napkin, and I photograph it, and I do drawings, and I've done pieces for magazines. So, it's professional on my part. It's professional research. But I adore all the trappings of table settings and what goes around it. I would like to work in a hotel. I worked as a maid in an Irish castle for a few weeks, and that was heaven. I can see doing that. I'd like to get a job in a hotel, serving somebody else breakfast.
In this episode, you'll hear about what she'd serve for that hotel breakfast (in great detail), plus why she dislikes dinner parties and her special love for chairs that have been abandoned on the street.
Next week, we'll get into Kalman's new book, Cake, but this week's conversation will provide plenty of sustenance in the meantime.
The full transcript for this week's podcast episode can be found at Serious Eats.
In part two of my terrific interview with Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman, we move from the creation of her blog into book writing (her second book Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites was just published in October 2017), and how social media has (or hasn't) changed what she does.
The first thing I learned was that writing books was never part of Deb's grand master plan: "From 2003, I had been hearing from agents and editors. No, I did not think I needed to write a book. I thought it was like...'Why would I need a book? The web is all I'll ever need.' And that was really very much my mindset. It's so ridiculous to say this, and it's so insulting to somebody who really wants to write a cookbook, that I was so flippant about it, but I had to be talked into it."
Deb admitted that she was more "terrified" than anything else when her first book was published, particularly about how it might be received: "It was actually going to ruin...take the blog down with it when the book was panned. These were live and real things that were in my head, until the first day that it maybe hit the bestseller list, and then I was like, "Okay, one week of not thinking this way. Let me see if I can make it to next week."
I guess it isn't surprising that it did so well, in light of the fact that 85% of the recipes were new and couldn't be found on her blog: "I wanted it to be of value. I was really concerned about long-term readers feeling like this was not a book for them. It had to be of value to them. I wasn't going to ask you to buy stuff I'd been giving you for free, like you didn't know how money worked, you know?"
Deb's concern for her readers getting the most out of the work she does also plays into the way she uses social media: "You have to know what you're selling, I guess. For me, it's the stories, it's the recipes. So, I always felt social media has to meet people where they are. If you want to find out about my site on Facebook, let me show up on Facebook and be there. If you want to get your news on Twitter, I will be in all those places. I will meet you there. But I'm still going to tell you what I'm doing, where I'm doing it, if that makes sense."
Perhaps what's so surprising about Deb's success, in the end, is that she has kept Smitten Kitchen a one-woman show. "It's not the smartest thing I've ever done...It's not making me feel younger. I do my own everything. And part of it is that I...You could say I'm a control freak, but it's more that who else...How are you going to answer email for me? How are you going to write for me? How are you going to edit photos? It's all my vision."
To hear more about that vision and what makes the person behind Smitten Kitchen tick, you're just going to have to tune into the show.
The full transcript for this week's podcast can be found over at Serious Eats.
A week after sitting down with Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes, I got to reminisce with another seminal food blogger: Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen. Deb started Smitten Kitchen in 2006, the same year that Serious Eats launched. Twelve years later, Smitten Kitchen has millions of readers who come to the site for both her fine recipes and her realistic portrayal of her insanely busy city life, testing recipes and posting on her blog with two young children underfoot. Somehow she's managed to also write two best-selling cookbooks, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, and her recently published Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites.
When I posited that one of the reasons Smitten Kitchen resonated with so many people is Deb's ability to laugh at herself and readily admit to failure, she responded, "Yeah, I thought that was so strange, that we were supposed to pretend we were perfect. How hard would that be to maintain? I'd last maybe a day, like a week perhaps...That's not life."
What explains the success of Smitten Kitchen? Deb isn't sure, but she said, "I'm hoping that I'm speaking about things in real language. I hope that I'm not pretending to be something I'm not, pretending cooking is something that it's not. I just think, 'Okay, so this is super hard to try to cook this with like a kid underfoot.' Why would I lie about that? Because this is real and we're all dealing with this. I kind of do it [the blog] to share the burden a little bit, like, 'Why should I feel like I'm carrying all this myself when we're all dealing with this?'"
Perelman is ever hopeful, whether it comes to the latest recipe she's testing or the future of food blogs. "I really do like the fact that that you can have a long, crappy day, and make a recipe that's new and fun, and it can be the highlight of your day." As for food blogging, Deb said, "You know, it didn't begin and end with me, and...I know that blogs sound like a very dated thing, but I always feel like if you're trying to get yourself out there, put yourself out there. So what if you have ten people reading? When somebody wants a link to your clips, there it is."
For more pearls of wisdom from Deb Perelman, check out part 1 of her Special Sauce interview.
The full transcript for this week's episode can be found over at Serious Eats.