Gail Simmons & Curtis Stone on Falling in Love With Food

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.

 

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Q&A With Senior Editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, Journalist & Filmmaker Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

janice-rhoshalle-littlejohn

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is currently working on the feature film Lovers in Their Right Mind, the documentary film …But Can She Play? Blowin’ the Roof off Women Horn Players and Jazz (about contemporary women horn players in jazz that arose from work she did as a USC graduate student inspired by an unsung female jazz trumpeter in the 1940s), and is a senior editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She’s the co-author of Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, is a former columnist for the Associated Press, and has been a journalist for over 30 years covering entertainment.

I met her this past summer when we were both on a panel about avoiding burnout in a mobile-connected world. I wanted to hear more about her thoughts on work-life balance, especially since she is a writer working on so many different projects. We met at Cafe Brazil in Culver City to chat over fresh passionfruit juice and herbal tea.

  • How did you identify your passions and follow your dreams?

Essentially, when I was in college, I was studying fashion merchandising in hopes of becoming the president of Nordstrom. That’s the trajectory I was on. That’s what I thought I wanted to do. About my second year in school, I realized that I hated my accounting and marketing classes, and I took a fashion writing class with the fashion editor of the LA Herald Examiner, back when we had 2 papers in this city. She was black, she was smart, she was funny, she dressed well… she was who I wanted to be.

I had always written, but I never thought of it is a field. She encouraged my writing and felt my work was viable. And she helped me get an internship at Women’s Wear Daily. That internship changed my life because they let their interns write.

I loved the work. I loved that I could tell people things and introduce them to things they didn’t know. I felt smart [laughs]. And it piqued my curiosity: I always want to know about things that are happening.

So that’s where my writing career began… When I got out of school, one of the first jobs I got was at a syndicated radio show that covered urban enternmaint news. That’s when I  started covering junkets and going to the Oscars…  I was in my 20s, and feeling very special, because there were few, if any, young black people, and no women. It was great. I got to tell people about the films and TV shows and books that were coming out. And I had won a couple of awards about reports that I had done about black voting and adoptions. I felt like I was accomplishing something and contributing to this world.

  • What does the term “work-life balance” mean to you?

I think it’s a funny term for me, because my work is my life. My brother often teases me and says, “Do you ever shut it down? Everything you look at is a story.” We’ll be having a conversation and I’ll be like, “That would make a really good story.”

I have a writing life. But I enjoy what I do. I love sitting down, fiddling with words, trying to find the best words and trying to find the right angle for a story. It’s who I am.

For me, balance is making sure I take myself out of the minutiae of the business part of that writing life, to make time for walking in the morning and getting a good night’s sleep, taking time off even if I’m not going anywhere, and being cognizant to spend time with my friends and family.

My writing life includes time for self-care: To do those things that I need to do to make the work better… I set those things in place, and I’m a very serious list person. I try to adhere to my lists and make time.

At this fall's AIDS Walk: Los Angeles with Team APLA Health where Janice serves as a board member.
At this fall’s AIDS Walk: Los Angeles with Team APLA Health where Janice serves as a board member.

Janice and I met just before election, and she discussed wanting to make time to volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which inspired me to ask her about how people being perpetually overworked affects communities and the country as a whole:

Do you feel that we’ve become as a nation overworked and overstressed, to a point that we don’t participate in our country, communities and politics like we should? Does that have a negative effect? 

I don’t know if I can answer that. I think we prioritize what’s important to us. And for some, government and activisim is only important once every few years.

I grew up in an environment of service. The church I attended growing up was all about service. I serve on several boards, because I feel that is a part of what I do. Because it’s a priority for me. It’s not a priority for everybody else. And maybe if we made it a priority and a part of our lives, things could be different.

It’s about what we prioritize…. Find what works for you. Everybody doesn’t have to do the same thing. But there is something we all can do.

What do you wish you do differently in how you manage your day and time?

Facebook is my greatest time suck, and Netflix is as well. But I do put a timer on now. I set my alarm. I give myself whatever I feel I reasonably can and stick to the time I should stop.

I think I am good at balancing because I work for myself. I learned that distractions are detrimental to my bottom line.

What do you feel you don’t have enough time for, or wish you could tackle better?

Cleaning. I mean my house isn’t dirty, but my office needs to be reorganized. I don’t even work in my office that much anymore because it’s like, “I’ll come back to this later.”

And the other thing I wish I had more time for, which is both a product of their schedule and mine, is to spend more time with my nieces and nephews.

I remember, my neice told me, “You know, we didn’t go to the beach this year.”

Awww…

That’s exactly what I thought! Because I was working on a rewrite. So I wish I had a schedule that was a bit more flexible to make it more conducive to hang out with them more.

After an hour-long yoga practice at Santa Monica Pier this summer.
After an hour-long yoga practice at Santa Monica Pier this summer.

Do you have advice for someone starting a new endeavor and grappling with issues of following their passions, doing meaningful work and making a difference, while managing their time to so they can find their “balance”?

1. Figure out who you want to be when you grow up.

I think one of the greatest thing I did in the past couple of years was to go to a goal-orienting work shop that the Journalism and Women Symposium put on. And I think beyond setting goals, it’s about getting a picture of what I want my life to look like. That includes my personal goals as much as my professional goals. I want to be the kind of person who is engaged with her community and friends and family. I want to be the kind of person who works passionately on her craft. It’s up to each person… Look at who you want to be in 5 years. Who do you want to be by the end of this year? What would you like your bio for the year to say about you, the things you have accomplished? The lives you have touched?

One of the exercises in setting goals is writing a bio. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, what do I want my bio to have said, and what from that have I accomplished?

The short answer is: Figure out who you want to be, and start working towards that and what is required for that.

2. Embrace the Shifts

The one thing that I will add is to understand that work-life balance shifts. My work-life balance is very different today than it was last year, or 5 years ago. And if we recognize that that shift may happen when we get married, when we have children, or even if it’s just year-to-year when we get a new job, we should embrace the change, and be flexible with ourselves and with it, and work within the shift.

 


Connect with Janice on Twitter and Instagram.

Edited for length and clarity.