This is the third installment of my learning how to make some old favorites from my mom while she visited us. “Loubyeh bi Zeit” is an all-veggie dish with just three ingredients: Green Beans, onions, and… More
I really love what feels like a new trend in Los Angeles of having so many live talks and conversations happening all the time. It’s not just the usual book signings in bookstores anymore, though those are always great. There are now several groups organizing events across the city (usually related to a new book release) from ALOUD to Live Talks LA to the Los Angeles Times Ideas Exchange to Maria Shriver’s Architects of Change Live. One of my “to live deliberately” goals is to attend as many interesting in talks as possible (cost-and-schedule-permitting), and I hope to share more and more of them on this blog. (Like last week’s post about Jennifer Egan’s conversation with Marisa Silver at the Los Angeles Public Library’s main branch downtown).
I attended a talk featuring Top Chef judge Gail Simmons in conversation with LA Times columnist Patt Morrison in Beverly Hills on Sunday evening. Simmons has a new cookbook out, “Bringing It Home,” with recipes she developed based on the notes she gathered over the last few years while she travelled and tasted the world.
The theme of the night was, of course, food, but they touched on so many interesting facets that surround this basic human need.
Food and Memory
“We love food that has stories.” Morrison said early on in the discussion, and Simmions agreed.
“Food is very personal,” she said. “Food memory is a very powerful thing.” Most of her recipes are based on stories of family–especially her mother–and travel, often the two combined. She shared one story of a recipe based on Lee’s Diner on Main Street in Gloucester where she goes every year with her husband’s family.
And a few days after the talk, she shared this lovely banana and cardamom upside-down cake recipe on morning TV. The recipe was inspired by her mom, and how she always had banana bread in the house– but Simmons added her own touches (sour cream, cardamom) based on her experience with recipes and ingredients. I can’t wait to try it!
Food and Fear
After a general intro about the cookbook, one of the first things Morrison asked about was all the “pickiness” surrounding food today (of which I’ve been guilty of myself at some points, I have to admit), such as the gluten-free trend.
Simmons nodded knowingly.”Food phobia,” she said. “Food is yes very powerful, but also very scary. There are a lot of cultural issues that weigh into food…” especially related to body image. That drives a lot of the problems people have with food. At the same time, Simmons made clear that there are real cases when people do really need to be careful with what they eat. “There are also very serious autoimmune disease that are on the rise,” she said, listing celiac disease as an example, and the increase of children with severe peanut allergies as another. These, she said, are a real problems we should be concerned with.
“It’s sometimes hard to differentiate between the two,” she added, saying that in general there needs to be a balance.
“In my life, I was always taught that food is a great pleasure and a great privilege, and it’s a great luxury to be having the food we’re eating now.”
When Morrison asked her later in the evening what her “guilty pleasures” were, Simmons said,
“I try not to feel guilty about food…
Sure, there are some foods that she can’t resist the call to have (salt and vinegar chips, for example), so she may need to temper herself around them, but to her the idea of guilt shouldn’t exist.
Food and Politics
Simmons invited her friend and fellow Top Chef judge, Chef Curtis Stone, to join her on stage midway through the talk. One topic that was clearly important to both of them was food distribution, or the lack thereof.
“I think at large that the culinary world is very interested in helping,” Stone said, describing how most chefs are involved in their cities’ efforts to feed those who do not have enough to eat. But he stressed that “Food distribution is a political issue.”
Simmons agreed emphatically. “We are in a moment when access is the issue, and it’s not an issue of not having enough food in the country to feed people. It’s an issue of distribution. It’s on the political level, congress, lawmakers… I don’t think food banks are the solutions– they’re a band-aid that we definitely need.”
Food and Cooking
A topic that kept coming up through the night is how the link between food and cooking broke in our country for a while as people got busier and were no longer able to spend hours following a complicated recipe and making a perfect dish (though that’s fun sometimes, it is unsustainable on a daily basis). Morrison said that even looking at some photos in cookbooks can be intimidating to many and lead them to processed, quick foods.
“For me, it should be less about being perfect, and more about being holistic and fun,” Simmons said. “It should be something that gives you pleasure, and not something that gives you anxiety.”
There’s been a revival recently in people turning back to kitchens, with shows like Top Chef being a part of that. There’s also been an expansion in what we’re eating. “Our tastes in America swing all over the place, and that’s the beauty of living in a country with so many cultural influences and varied histories.” Simmons said, noting that diversity in taste and palates is an important feature in her cookbook.
I especially loved what she had to say about the joy of making your own meal:
“The best part is it comes together in an hour or less, and you can make something that people can enjoy. And that’s magical.”
She had specific tips to help people make it more convenient to cook. Being organizing is essential: thinking about the week ahead, planning recipes, discovering simple and interesting things, cooking in large batches, buying the right ingredients for the week, (and being conscious about not wasting food by matching meals to your own or your family’s schedule). She added that if cooking can be a family activity, that helps a lot as well. It becomes something for everyone to do together in the evenings, and brings people together, rather than being a chore for one person.
Stone chimed in, “If you fall back in love with food, that’s the important part.”
I really liked Stone’s closing thought about cookbooks themselves being a gift that keeps on giving. First you enjoy receiving them, then enjoy reading them through, and then you keep enjoying them as you try new recipes and make ones you love over and over again. That’s definitely something I’m going to keep in mind when giving gifts, especially with the holiday season ahead.
Pulitzer-prize wining author Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2011) was in Los Angeles last week to talk about her new historical novel Manhattan Beach with Marisa Silver, part of the ALOUD conversation series from the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.
In a packed auditorium at the Central Library downtown, she shared details about her creative process and what went into creating this book.
It required years of research, which she said she did in a “desultory way” while doing other things from 2005-2012. This included:
- Field trips to shipyards, especially the Brooklyn Navy Yard where she collaborated with the archivist and the Brooklyn Historical society.
- Reading fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. “I included cheesy mysteries, which was wonderful to have an excuse to read those,” Egan said.
- Watching movies from the same time period
She sat down to start writing the book in 2012 without a real sense of who would be in it or what it would be about. When she starts writing any piece of work, she usually has a time, a place, and an abstract question.
With Manhattan Beach, she had very vague ideas about what would be in the book. She knew she wanted it to be set in New York during World War II, that she wanted to explore what it was like to feel the power of America amassing, that she wanted to have a female protagonist working in shipyards, a male authority in the mob world, and maybe one more main character. “There were questions, there were big things I didn’t know,” she said.
Once she began writing her first scene, the architecture began to reveal itself.
“I spent a year and a half on that first draft, and it was 1400 handwritten pages,” she said, which she then typed and read. “In a way, it couldn’t be a more inefficient process,” Egan told the crowd to laughs. “We have technical solutions for this nowadays. But the reason I do it is that is my best shot at good material. If I just sit down and think, I don’t have good ideas.”
This is her process every time. Once she has completed this first stage, she gets analytical and does charts and maps for her story.
She said that sometimes very little is salvageable from that first draft. “I thought it was terrible, and it was, but when I look back, there actually was a fair amount that was salvageable… I guess there was more there than I thought.”
Silver asked her if the novel came out easily when she started writing.
“There’s plenty of throat-clearing,” Egan said. “I’ll have a full day where I’m just trying to fill my pages so I can stop. And of course nothing could be more obvious. And then some days I’m right there and I’m moving…
I try to write 5-7 pages a day. Sometimes I’ll get on a roll, and I write 10, but that’s always a mistake the next day, because I’m depleted. So having a little more I want to do on a particular day is not so bad.”
Egan said that one of the main things that wasn’t working in the first draft was the voice of the book.
“Voice, which is something I think about a lot, I think is actually the most important part of a book, sort of the way it speaks. And I always liken it… to me, it’s really like the stock of a soup. If you have a really great stock, you could put a boot in it, and it will actually still taste good, because you have a great stock. And if you have a thin stock, you can put in the most marvelous ingredients, and it will still taste dull. So for me, the voice is that stock. And it can take a while, just as a stock does, to kind of mature and figure out what the right elements are.”
There was a period after reading the first draft where she thought very seriously about abandoning the book. She said she wasn’t sure that she could do it. But she stuck to it because there was nothing else that she wanted to do, nothing else was pressing on her, and all the research that she did felt vital. “The research was not only essential, but it kind of sustained me.”
I was so struck by the amount of time it took this project to come to fruition–over a decade–and how gnarly the writing process is even for a writer who has won the Pulitzer Prize.
You can listen to the full inspiring conversation on the ALOUD podcast (find it in your smartphone app), or here.